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  • Monday 24 January 2011

Like the trio of most recent Bordeaux vintages, two decades ago all the talk was of the
’88s, ’89s and ’90s. John Stimpfig looks at how their fortunes have fared as investments

History appears to be repeating itself in Bordeaux as reports of a stellar 2010 crop filter back to the UK. It looks like being the region’s third consecutive good to great vintage, mirroring a similar trio in 1988, ’89 and ’90.

A decade ago, most critics favoured 1990 over 1989, but all agreed they were both terrific. Decanter’s Michael Broadbent, for instance, gave both vintages five stars, while the ’88 merited four.

Some legendary, ageworthy wines emerged from this golden era. For Sotheby’s Serena Sutcliffe MW, the standouts include both the ’89s from Haut-Brion and La Mission as well as Pétrus in both ’89 and 1990. ‘Initially, I favoured the ’89 over the ’90. But now, it’s difficult to rate either vintage above the other. Both are drinking exceptionally well and
will continue to for many years.’

And what about the 1988s? ‘Foryears, they were as tough as old boots,’ says Tom Jenkins of Justerini & Brooks. ‘But now they’ve started to come round, having shed a lot of tannin. They’re good wines, though perhaps not desperately exciting.Enjoy them now because they’reprobably not going to get any better.’

Others are more positive about the vintage, including Christian Seely of Pichon-Longueville. ‘If you compared our 1988, ’89 and ’90 a few years ago, most people would have preferred the younger wines. But today, opinions are divided. I love all three, but the ’88 is now really coming out to play.’

Portfolio potential

1990 was always considered the investment vintage of the three, followed by the ’89. This was largely due to an unusual combination of exceptional quality and low release prices in 1991 – thanks to the first Gulf War and a UK recession.

While the investment funds have exposure to the top wines of both the ’89 and ’90 vintages, it is almost impossible to find any ’88s in their portfolios. ‘It’s not a vintage we’d consider. I’m sure there are some good wines for price-conscious drinkers but it’s not on our radar,’ says Chris Smith of the Wine Investment Fund.

This is certainly true when you compare the prices of the 1988s to the ’90s – on average, the ’88s are less than half the price. But when you look at the recent figures for all three vintages, a surprising picture emerges. According to Liv-ex, the worst-performing vintage of thethree is the ’90. Top is the ’89.

Over the past four years, the top ’89s have moved up by an average of 74%, while the ’88s have accelerated
by 70% over the same period. The ’90s, by contrast have moved up by just 55% – a big underperformance.

Will Beck, fund manager at Wine Asset Managers, says 1990 is easily the worst performer of all so-called investment-grade vintages between 1982 and 2005, followed by the ’89s.

One reason why the ’88s have done so well is that they started at a much lower base. Another is that prices still look relatively cheap and the wines are starting to be consumed by traditional collectors.

But why have the ’90s done so badly? Parker liked the vintage, but there is a dearth of high-scoring wines. Only Margaux and Montrose can claim perfect, 100-point scores. But perhaps the biggest reason why the lid has been kept on prices is that Asia doesn’t ‘do’ older vintages.

‘There are some lovely wines from 1988, ’89 and ’90,’ says Ed Byrne of Armit. ‘But we are having
difficulty selling them to China. They want younger vintages and key brands. If a wine doesn’t meet both of these criteria, then it will almost invariably trade at a discount.’

What will drive up prices is that these wines are drinking well now and look extremely good value against more recent vintages. The ’88s continue to appeal to drinkers, while top investment-grade wines from ’89 and ’90 will gather steam as corks are pulled. Take the 100-point 1990 Margaux at £9,000 a case – less than the unbottled 2009.‘A screaming buy,’ says Beck.

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