Excellent climatic conditions and improved winemaking made 1990 a great vintage in Tuscany. NICK BELFRAGE MW introduces a tasting of some of the top wines, 13 years on

Excellent climatic conditions and improved winemaking made 1990 a great vintage in Tuscany. NICK BELFRAGE MW introduces a tasting of some of the top wines, 13 years on

At the time, 1990 was hailed as one of the great Tuscan vintages. ‘Eccezionalissimo! Perfettissimo!’ one famous grower raved. Several others rated it among the best – if not the best – of the post-War period, with perhaps a nod or two towards 1985 or 1997. The press, prior to 1997, was in no doubt: 1990 was the bona fide ‘vintage of the century’.

The weather that year was ideal. Spring temperatures fluctuated between cool and warm and there was a reasonable amount of precipitation. Early June was on the cool side, and the flowering was not entirely successful, favouring quality over quantity.

July and August were quite hot and there wasn’t much rain, but what there was was well spaced out. Then, just when growers thought drought might affect vegetation, towards the end of August and in early September enough rain fell to keep nature’s processes moving without compromising the health of the grapes.

After about the first third of September the rains stopped and well into October there were clear skies and sunny, but not hot, conditions. The fruit came in abloom with health, and where vineyards had been properly tended, yields were low and vines had loose bunches and small, thick-skinned berries. You couldn’t ask for better.

SKILLED WINEMAKING

There was another reason for declaring 1990 ‘vintage of the century’. No doubt veteran commentators could point to other post-war years in which conditions had been almost as perfect: 1945, 1955, 1964, 1971, 1985, 1988. But wine knowledge in Italy in general, and Tuscany in particular, had come on in leaps and bounds over that period, especially in relation to oenological technology and technique. So much so that in 1990 it was possible to turn out a much better product than it would have been with similar material in 1960.

On the other hand, by 1990 limited progress had been made in viticultural terms. The great replanting era of the late 1960s and 1970s had transformed Tuscany’s landscape from mixed cultivation to specialised vineyards, but little was known about what we think of as modern scientific viticulture. Most producers’ efforts to improve between 1970 and1990 were concentrated, as stated, in the winery. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s (with a few exceptions) that it began to dawn on people that great wine really can only be made from great grapes. And as we know, improvements in the vineyards take place over a much longer timescale than do those in the winery. Indeed, one of the producers represented in our tasting maintains even today, after more than a decade of intensive work on clones and other viticultural aspects relating to Sangiovese, that the grape will not be properly understood for another 50 years.

Sangiovese, after all, is a notoriously temperamental and unpredictable grape, with sub-varieties so numerous as to be beyond classification. Most of these sub-varieties work well in certain conditions, badly in others, so one can’t point to one (say the much maligned R10) and say it is invariably inferior, and another (such as the widely vaunted R24) and say it is invariably superior. Excellent wines have been made from the former, poor ones of the latter.

Equally, one cannot say that wine made from Sangiovese, in general, is good for ageing (as is maintained with some credibility by Biondi Santi andother traditionalists in Montalcino), or poor. The outcome depends on various factors: site, soil, clone, viticultural practices, yields, weather. All we can say is that, in the right conditions, Sangiovese can be good for ageing. Just how good, 12 years after a supposedly great vintage, was the principal question behind this tasting.

On this subject the general opinion tended towards the negative. David Gleave MW felt there were some ‘pretty nice wines’, but in others ‘the fruit has faded and the tannins taken over completely’. Steven Spurrier commented that ‘compared with the 1990 Médocs they certainly taste and look older’. Tim Atkin MW was
‘surprised by how many wines were already ready to drink – I don’t think there were many that will age for another 10 or 20 years – perhaps just half a dozen.’

Dissenting voices included that of Giuseppe Turi, whose excellent Enoteca Turi restaurant in south-west London where the tasting was held, boasts one of the finest Italian wine lists in England. He felt that ‘quite a lot of them have aged quite well, considering Sangiovese is not supposed to age so well’. And Ossie Gray, responsible for the River Café’s no less impressive list, reckoned: ‘A lot of these wines still have time to go.’ Spurrier’s comment was interesting in this context: ‘I wouldn’t think many of these wines have ageing potential but from previous tastings I know they do hold. You think they are drying out but in fact they have such internal energy that they don’t.’ Personally, I would share this view, considering that the glory of Sangiovese – when it is glorious – is in its ‘second
coming’, when like Pinot Noir it turns into something else. Not many of these wines had reached that stage, but I suspect more of them will than we may think.

One of the major factors responsible for allowing wines to age well, of course, is tannin, and there was plenty of that around. Too much for Gleave, who opined that the wonderful sugar ripeness of the vintage was not matched by polyphenolic ripeness, in which respect 1985 was
superior. Michael Schuster agreed: ‘There were too many wines with too much astringency.’ But he tempered this by saying that, ‘overall, ‘this was a lovely
tasting and the best wines were gorgeous.’

There was some disappointment around though, perhaps partly contributed to by the high expectations. As Gray said: ‘I remember tasting these wines when they first came out, straight from the cask and tank, and the levels of concentration were incredible.’ However, Dalbir Singh added: ‘When I taste a wine, I ask myself – “does this wine thrill me?” The answer in too many cases here was no.’

Of the 41 Sangiovese or Sangiovese-based wines tasted there were Brunellos, Chianti Classicos and Super Tuscans, with a few Vino Nobiles and a scattering of others. The strongest group were the Brunellos; nine out of 10 had three or more stars. Spurrier praised them for their ‘smoothness’, as against the ‘leanness’ of the Chiantis, and Atkin scored them highly for their ‘combination of ripeness and
balance.’ But Gray thought they suffered from too much tannin and too little fruit, and Andrew Caslin found the lack of ageing potential in the wines particularly marked in the Brunellos.

The Super Tuscans did not stand out as some expected, though four wines earned four stars, as opposed to just three Chiantis (including one Chianti Rufina). There was disappointment with the Vino Nobiles which, back in 1990, were still suffering from the harshness and astringency that they have only recently begun to deal with as a group.

There were no award winners, partly because of disagreement among the panel, partly because the usual procedure of nominating candidates to be re-tasted by the panel was not followed, this being something of a one-off event. The two wines that I awarded five stars were Mastrojanni’s Brunello di Montalcino Riserva; and Ruffino’s Romitorio di Santedame – a judgement apparently not shared by others as it won only three stars.

I am at a loss to understand how certain wines ended up with two stars, particularly the Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva (which Caslin listed among his favourites) and the Biondi Santi Brunello Riserva, which, though displaying a somewhat attenuated colour, had more going for it on the nose and palate than its appearance would suggest. Admittedly, this style of wine is now unfashionable, but both have a certain nobility in their own right. And as I know from previous tastings (in Lungarotti’s case back to 1973, in Biondi-Santi’s case back to 1888) they are certainly capable of ageing most impressively.

Decanter would like to thank Enoteca Turi for hosting the tasting. Enoteca Turi, 28 Putney High Street, London, SW15 1SQ. Tel: +44 (0) 20 8785 4449.

Written by Nick Belfrage