Bordeaux vintages: 1989 vs 1990
These two superb vintages came at just the right time to ride the surge of intense market interest in Bordeaux’s top wines. Jane Anson looks back at what made them such a standout pairing, and revisits wines from six of the most prominent properties
Jane Anson compares these two great and consecutive vintages, tasting wines from six highly rated properties
IT WAS GOOD to be Bordelais in the 1980s. Something shifted with the brilliance of the 1982 vintage – a quickening of interest from international consumers, a confidence from château owners to leave grapes longer on the vines and increasingly to drop fruit and cut yields, risking volume in search of ripeness, concentration and quality. The continued run of good vintages in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989 got money flowing into the châteaux on a regular basis for the first time in decades, and made itself felt through investments in château repairs, better cellars and the employment of wine consultants.
The first vintage of the new decade seemed to continue the good run, with 1990 again delivering the conditions needed to produce exceptional wine. But that year was where the good times stopped, pretty much until 1995. That four-year gap added further mystique to the 1980s vintages, but especially to the final flourish of 1989 and 1990, which today is viewed as one of the greatest vintage pairings of all time.
And if there’s one thing that Bordeaux loves more than proclaiming a vintage of the century, it’s being able to declare the one-two knockout of a vintage pair. From 1928 and 1929, right through to 2015 and 2016, pitting one vintage against another encourages interest, drives passion, provokes arguments, and no doubt does nothing to hurt sales.
The fascinating thing about 1989 and 1990 is that they don’t follow the usual pattern. Typically, when you are comparing two vintages in Bordeaux, they are opposing pairs: the solar 2009 against the cooler 2010, for example, or the hot and dry 2000 against the fresher, more elegant 2001. It begs questions like, which year favoured the Left Bank, which the Right Bank? How did Merlot stand up against Cabernet Sauvignon?
These two vintages, rather than being opposites, in fact had many similarities. Both 1989 and 1990 had hot and dry growing seasons that saw a good-sized crop of small berries with rich tannic structure and fairly low acidity. They are the kind of years that Bordeaux loves, and that can deliver wines of longevity, which just seem to power through the decades. Both were seen as exceptional from the start, even if 1990 was overshadowed for a few years by its older sibling.
At the same time, Bordeaux was undergoing one of its periodic shifts in the late 1980s. Consultants Jacques Boissenot and Pascal
Ribéreau-Gayon were taking over from Emile Peynaud, who had done so much to revolutionise winemaking from the 1960s through to the 1980s. The more generous budgets of these years meant that temperature control was widespread in the cellars – unlike in 1982 and 1983 – and the more careful grape sorting meant it was easier than ever to make the most of the good conditions.
Given all of these factors, it’s definitely worth digging out any old bottles that you have, or can track down, because the chances are you’re going to find some great surprises. But is one of these two vintages holding up better than the other? And where exactly should you be looking to increase your chances of enjoyment?
The Bordeaux oenology school opened its yearly summary with the words: ‘1989 will leave an unforgettable memory for most winemakers’. At the time, 1989 was the warmest vintage of the 20th century, with sunshine levels second only to 1961 and heat equal to 1947. April was pretty much the only difficult month in the entire growing season, and it gave way to a summer and autumn that were warmer, drier and sunnier than the previous 30-year average. Budding was 10 days earlier than average, flowering 15 days earlier, and by mid-August vineyards were showing the earliest colour change for 40 years. The harvest was the earliest since 1893. Negatives included the drought that affected young vines and any over-loaded vines. There were also touches of hail, and some blockages meant slow phenolic ripeness, so châteaux needed to be careful with picking dates, although the very high sugars were less of a threat than in the past because of the allimportant temperature control.
Some frost on 27 March particularly affected St-Emilion (made worse by an early bud break after a warm February), but was compensated by lots of secondary budding, meaning this was the second year running with a generous crop. 1990 had a less even flowering and a more drawn-out colour change than 1989, which meant a later harvest. But look deeper and there were a lot of superlatives. July and August were drier and hotter than in 1989, and grape ripening in the continued heat of September was helped hugely by two short bursts of rain on 14-15 September and again on 22-23 September. Alcohol levels were often higher in 1990 than 1989 as a result of the hot summer, and there were also some stuck fermentations, but generally the wines were showing powerful, mature tannins and rich fruits right from the start.
Then and now
I recently presented a horizontal of 1989 and 1990 wines at 67 Pall Mall – a private
‘The 1989s had more moments of brilliance, with both Cheval Blanc and Mouton Rothschild right up there’
members’club in London that has a cellar with more than 4,000 wines on the list and access to plenty of bottles with great provenance.
We tasted through a fascinating line-up of 10 wines, five from each year, of Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Figeac, L’Evangile, Léoville Barton and Mouton Rothshchild. And to round out the tasting with another pairing, I have added in the same two years of Léoville Poyferré that I opened in the same week.
One of the interesting things we found, looking back on them with almost 30 years under their belt, is that having two exceptional and similar years of similar age shows that Bordeaux is far more complicated than just vintage alone. Terroir, choice of grape, vineyard personality, viticultural choices; all of these things come into play and are easier to discern when comparing vintages where many of the conditions were similar.
These were also fascinating years for the individual estates. 1989 saw the introduction of a second wine at L’Evangile, and 1990 was its first vintage under 70% ownership by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) – full ownership came only in 1998 (see ‘Producer profile’, p84). 1989 was also the first vintage at Mouton made entirely under Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, following the death of her father Baron Philippe the year before.
Thierry Manoncourt was over at Figeac and Anthony Barton was getting into his stride at Léoville Barton, having taken over from his uncle Ronald in 1983, but he was still keeping things traditional with no green harvesting – unlike neighbouring Léoville Poyferré, where crop thinning and green harvesting had been in place since the mid-1980s.
Cheval Blanc was still with the FourcaudLaussac family, until the Albert Frère/Bernard Arnault purchase in 1998. They introduced second wine Le Petit Cheval in 1988 (selling off a third selection in bulk), then green harvesting in 1990. Coincidentally or not, the 1990 Cheval is a legendary bottle that today sells for about double the price of any of the other wines we tasted (a case would set you back £10,000 or more – if you can find one).
And what of the bottles we opened and tasted? For a start, so many of them proved exactly why people love old Bordeaux. They retained a freshness and a firm but yielding tannic structure, even at 30 years, and played with the classic signature notes of ageing clarets, revealing by turn menthol, eucalyptus, cedar, melted black fruits.
The 1990 seemed more steady perhaps, with stunning density and rich texture, while the 1989 had more moments of brilliance, with both the Cheval Blanc and the Mouton Rothschild right up there. Perhaps the 1990 is tasting marginally better on the Left Bank
‘Both 1989 and 1990 have enough fruit and structure that they should remain at this level for another decade at least’
today, and 1989 still delivering over on the Right Bank (where Figeac and L’Evangile deserve a special mention).
These are wines that are very much in their drinking window, although there is no great rush to drink them up if you have them in your cellar. Both vintages have enough fruit and structure that they should remain at this level for another decade at least, with perhaps the 1990 having the slight edge in terms of future development.
If I had to pick out one château from the six on display, it would have to be Cheval Blanc – a reminder that while Cabernet Franc is seen as a blending grape, in the shadow of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon across much of Bordeaux, in the right hands it can blossom into something utterly exceptional.
Jane Anson is a Decanter contributing editor, Bordeaux correspondent and author of the book Bordeaux Legends
Below: harvest at Ch‰teau Figeac
Above: Anthony Barton and canine companion at Château Léoville Barton