Vintage Report: The 1989 Vintage in Bordeaux

Iconic Year

1989 was acclaimed as a great year for Bordeaux, and the wines sold for what was then a record high. But how great are the wines? Was the potential of the vintage realised in the bottle?

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Hot, dry years in Bordeaux – and 1989 was certainly a hot year, the hottest since 1949 – are a paradox.  One might assume that the hotter the year, the faster the grapes ripen. But this is not so. Grapes are, like leaves, part of the vine; and in drought conditions, vines shut down: transpiration ceases, and the processes that cause the pigments and tannins in the vines to ripen are arrested. So it takes longer for grapes to attain maturity in years like 1989 than in years when the vines are not subject to hydric stress.

The 1989 vintage, however, was also the earliest harvest since 1893. The paradoxical result is that many of the 1989 Bordeaux possess rough, slightly green tannins, and lack the sense of opulence and sur maturité that one associates with years like 1990, which were warm, but not so dry that the vines were placed under stress. The most successful wines in 1989 (as in 2003, another scorching year) are typically those where the terroir mitigated the effects of the drought: the water-retentive clay soils of Saint-Estèphe, for instance, gave that commune an advantage over the more gravely commune of Margaux.

Remember, too, that 1989 came at a transitional time for Bordeaux: the insights of modern oenology had yet to percolate as widely as they have today. Selection was much less rigorous. Many properties, such as Château Mouton-Rothschild, did not make a second wine. Many cellars were less sanitary than they are today, and taints like brettanomyces were more commonplace.  But so much for general conclusions: what about the wines?

At a recent dinner in Belgium, we worked through several 1989 Bordeaux. All the bottles had been impeccably cellared, with firm corks and good levels.

We began with the 1989 Château Lafite-Rothschild. Aromatically, this is certainly a ‘text-book’ Lafite, with the pencil shaving bouquet that makes this one of the most distinctive wines in Pauillac, however there is also an unripe green pepper character. On the palate, delicate flavours of red currants and cigar box are accompanied by a slight astringency, though the tannins have largely melted away. This wine, the least impressive of the evening, seemed unripe and dilute.

The 1989 Château Mouton-Rothschild was certainly a more enjoyable wine, and the best bottle I have yet encountered, with boisterous aromas of blackcurrant and plum sauce, but it too lacked intensity. Mouton did not make a second wine until 1993, so perhaps that explains it.

By contrast, the 1989 Château Latour was outstanding. Like the Lafite, this offered a paradigmatic example of the distinctive aromatics one associates with this famous estate: a bouquet of walnuts and ripe black fruits. This Pauillac is more intense, and possesses more of the characteristics one would associate with a warm vintage in Bordeaux. It is not as good a wine as the 1990 Latour, but that is another matter.

People sometimes describe 1989 Château Montrose as the Latour of Saint-Estèphe, not only by virtue of its power and longevity, but also because both are situated in a similar relationship to the river. In 1989 Montrose undoubtedly produced one the stars of the vintage. This wine offers stunning aromatics of saddle leather, spices, charcoal, earth and black fruits, and its silky, layered texture is in sharp contrast to the dilute, slightly astringent Lafite. Now is a wonderful time to approach this wine.

Much younger and still primary was the 1989 Château Haut Brion. Acclaimed as the wine of the vintage, it is easy to see why, although it is still years away from maturity. The concentration of this wine is remarkable, but it is amazingly light on its feet and low in alcohol (and acidity), showing pure aromas of burnt earth, blackcurrant, graphite and fresh tobacco and lasting in the mouth for minutes.

The 1989 Château Palmer, tasted the following week over lunch at the Château, is fully mature, with aromas of autumn leaves and sous bois complementing the deep plumy fruit and a plush, low-acid texture. It will appeal to those who enjoy old-school Bordeaux wines that have begun to develop tertiary aromatics, and that complement food so well.

This is a vintage, then, by turns profound, by turns disappointing. It is interesting that many winemakers and Château owners in Bordeaux claim to prefer 1989 to 1990, on the grounds that it is more ‘classic’. Of course, ‘classic’ is a word that different people use to mean different things, but it seems to me that some estates were afraid to produce something exceptional in 1989. Every truly great vintage produces unique wines with a particular personality, not ‘classic’ wines that could hail from any decent vintage. Great wines express their typicity: not just the typicity of their vineyard, but also the typicity of their vintage. For me, with the exception of 1989s handful of superlative wines, the silky tannins and distinctive, voluptuous character of the 1990s wins every time.

Written by William Kelley

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