The burning debate surrounding the best Bordeaux vintage of the 1980s has been re-ignited. A new look at the 1989s, 10 years down the line has provoked a flurry of interest on the speculative wine market, yet the classic 1982s remain a more expensive and desirable commodity. ANDREW JEFFORD tackles the vintage which appears to be coming into its own and pits it head to head with previously acknowledged stars of 1982 to assess how the two are growing with age.
Bordeaux 1989 Vintage
- The Wine Spectator declared, in 1999, that it considered Bordeaux 1989 a superior vintage to 1982
- When the 1989s arrived on the market, prices were so high, that the 1990 vintage was undervalued.
- The top wines in 1989 show more concentration of flavour
- Winemaking styles were more artless in 1989
Evolution of the Vintage
Hot, hot, hot: the growing season, the harvest, the hype. April was 1989’s only cruel, cool month; the rest sweltered into the record book (as warm a summer as 1947; as early a red harvest as 1893). When the Bordeaux 1989s arrived on the market, prices, inevitably, were high; so high, indeed, that the 1990 vintage which followed was actually undervalued. By the mid-1990s, though, 1989 seemed to have slipped into something of a critical shadow; 1990 now looked like a classically great vintage, while 1989 seemed a more eccentrically great one; 1982 continued to lord it over both. As time went by, moreover, the initially stern 1986s began to look increasingly beguiling.
At any rate, 1989 had nothing forbidding about it. The best wines were tasted, and retasted; the pantheon was rescrutinised. James Suckling of The Wine Spectator declared, in 1999, that he now considered 1989 a superior vintage to 1982. This revisionism caused a flurry of renewed interest in the 1989s. Market prices still put 1982 ahead of both 1989 and 1990, but there is too much money at stake in the 1982s for the market to change its mind quickly.
Ten years on is an ideal moment to take a look at a vintage, which was why 17 tasters gathered in an upstairs room in a Pimlico pub on September 17th 1999 to taste 88 of the best 1989s. This tasting was followed by a more informal look at a cross-section of 14 1982s by six tasters (four of whom were also at the 1989 tasting) exactly one month later.
Full results of both tastings are given below. All tasters were asked to give each wine a score out of 20 (half-points were permitted). The 1989 tasting was semi-blind (the wines were served blind in flights by commune, but it became evident during the tasting that the wines with the most form were placed at the end of each flight, and first growths were tasted in a flight of their own); the 1982 tasting was fully blind, and included two 1989 ringers. I list the wines in the order in which they were placed by each group, together with my notes where space permits, followed by the group score out of 20 and then my own score.
The general verdict on 1989 is that it is a difficult great vintage, with the fiery maturation cycle (creating, in particular, Cabernet grapes which were analytically mature, but which nonetheless did not taste fully ripe) and very hot ambient temperatures during the fermentation period causing some châteaux difficulties. There is, though, a huge swathe of magnificently ripe and yielding wines which will bring much drinking pleasure over the next two decades. The finest dozen wines have a textural density and saturation of flavour which the finest 1982s no longer have.
Perhaps, though, 1982 was an easier great vintage for the less skilled to manage; the brimming, unctuous, lush quality of its fruit remains amply in evidence in most bottles, even those without much pedigree. Winemaking styles were more artless in 1982, with less selection; this seems to be why the top wines in 1989 show more concentration of flavour, even though 1982 may have been naturally greater as a vintage. Carefully selected, middle-ranking 1989s still offer relatively good value for money. Some 1982 trophy wines are frankly overpriced, whereas less highly fancied wines offer relatively fair value for money.
The Bordeaux 1989 Tasting
1 Haut-Brion – A giant, beefsteak-thick wine with superb, teasing woodland scents of wild mushroom and ham stock; it has a succulent, sweetly savoury flavour with a classically earthy finish. Its astonishing density is showing no signs of thinning or easing (19.3/19.5).
2 Pétrus – Almost port-like, this powerfully tannic Pétrus still has a fresh, clean aromatic style into which soft, animal notes are beginning to pad; its depth-charge of flavour needs minutes to gauge. Commanding and authoritative, with decades of life ahead (18.5/19.5).
3= Clinet – Despite being served after Pétrus, this barely less tannic (and slightly darker) wine still has fresh summer fruits infusing its scent. It has extraordinarily spicy, tarry flavours which last for minutes (18.3/18.5).
3= Mouton-Rothschild – Lots of toasty oak is evident on the nose of the Mouton compared with other first growths, yet this is beginning to mesh with fruit to give an enticingly roasty quality. The driving, oak-suffused flavours are choice and nutty, yet finish slightly hard (18.3/18). Served as a ringer in the 1982 tasting, it finished in eighth place, suggesting that the tasters were both more severe with scores on that occasion and liked this wine less (16.8/17.5).
5 Margaux – Even in torrid 1989, Margaux succeeding in retaining its hallmark floral aromas, finely edged with chocolate and cinnamon. Not a hugely structured or tannin-laden wine, but has fine, seductive intensity to which this hot vintage has added an unusually rounded, glowing quality (18.1/19).
6= Lafite-Rothschild – The warmth of 1989 sometimes gives classic Cabernet a slightly raisiny, Grenache-like scent and flavour. I found this in Lafite, which bubbles sweetly like a pan of fruit and cream. It’s a lush, tissue-soft wine, at the same time deft and enchanting, yet it seemed faintly one-dimensional among its first-growth peers to me (17.9/17).
6= La Mission-Haut-Brion – Warm, come-hither scents, less overtly savoury and more subtly allusive than Haut-Brion. Another magnificently dense wine, its multilayered flavours unfolding with patient intensity (17.9/19).
8 Latour – The vintage has robbed Latour of any sternness: it brims with gentle cedar and creamy fruit. I found this to be a magnificently composed wine with impeccable balance, svelte tannins and a sweetly resonant finish (17.8/19).
9 Le Pin – Scents of tea and mint and lush, voluptuous, creamy, opulent fruit characterised this sexy wine for most tasters. I felt it lacked the dimensions, excitement, complexity, tannic support and length of finish of many other wines, certainly those amongst which it was placed, though with hindsight my mark seems exaggeratedly severe (17.6/13.5).
10= L’Angélus – The group put this oak-and-earth scented wine at the top of the Saint-Emilion pile. Like all the best 1989s, it still retains an impressive, chewy density to it, packing its core of ripe fruit with long-haul tannin (17.5/17.5).
10= Pichon-Longueville – The Pichon-Longueville 1989 is the first in an extraordinary double for a property which was only just beginning to reap the benefits of investment. Dark in colour, with cinnamon and clove spice drifting through its fruit, this dense, almost stewy wine has remarkable power and length (17.5/18.5).
12= Cos d’Estournel – The rich, earthy quality of Cos’ scents are almost Graves-like, yet its splendidly ripe, ample tannins and liquorice-infused fruit are true to its commune (17.4/18.5).
12= L’Eglise-Clinet – You’ll find promisingly meaty, rich scents here, with an unctuously textured flavour of chocolate-infused fruits: a beautifully vinified classic (17.4/18.5).
12= La Fleur-de-Gay – A fresher, more vivid wine than many, with pure yet intense flavours suggesting a little menthol and spice. I felt it was relatively simple in construction amongst its peers (17.4/16.5).
15= Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse Another wine to which the fresh, sweet, vivid and curranty fruit of youth is clinging well, eased into supple tannins which were notably less chewy and grinding than the two Pauillacs which preceded it, Pichon-Longueville and Lynch-Bages (17.2/18).
16= Léoville-Las-Cases – Plenty of roasted, almost meaty warmth infuses the multi-dimensioned fruit of this velvety wine. Ready now, but there is plenty of life ahead of it, too (17.1/17.5).
17= Lafleur – This wine heaves with tannin, in marked contrast to its neighbour in the tasting, La Fleur-de-Gay. There is cedar, cream and suede in its scents, but the press of tannin remains so intense on the palate that full expressivity here still seems at least a decade away (17/18).
17= Léoville-Barton – An exuberant, graceful and enticing wine, already drinking beautifully, this Léoville-Barton folds the plums, earth and fire of the vintage gently into soft tannins and warm, ripe acids. Burgundy fans will (as so often with Léoville-Barton) love it (17/17).
17= Tertre-Rôteboeuf – A delicious scent of bacon fat seems to pervade this wine; warmth and fatness characterises its generous, accessible flavours (17/18).
20= Pape-Clément – Another 1989 with a decidedly burgundian side to its character, this is relatively delicate for the vintage, and certainly ripe and ready, with fine drinking balance (16.9/16).
20= Léoville-Poyferré – Concentrated, classic claret, with appealing cream and violet notes on the nose, with relatively soft tannins and with a slightly stewed fruit quality (16.9/17).
22= Cheval-Blanc – A vivid, relatively light-textured wine with prominent acidity and lots of red-fruit, summer-pudding characters. Lacks cream and unction by comparison with many (16.8/16.5).
22= Domaine de Chevalier – Classically cedary scents, in an accessible, ripe, almost nutty style in which acidity is a relatively prominent note. Ready now (16.8/17).
22= L’Evangile – Cinnamon scents and an elegant, sweet-fruited but relatively angular style. Seemed more successful to the group than to me (16.8/14).
25 Lynch-Bages – I am at a loss to explain the group’s lack of enthusiasm for this wine. Personally, I hesitated between awarding it 18.5 and 19 points and it seemed to me to be the best of the non-first-growth Pauillacs. A wonderful roast-beef-and-gravy scent, a melange of roasted berry fruits and an almost brandied extract, combined with generously textured tannins. It seemed the very definition of the kind of ripe yet rippling gorgeousness which 1989 should offer at its best (16.7/18.5).
26= La Conseillante – A worthwhile Conseillante, with a scent of lint and plenty of ripe fruit still clinging to its soft, ample bone structure (16.6/17).
26= Grand-Puy-Lacoste – Classic Pauillac meatiness in the aroma, I found this a terrifically satisfying mouthful, with lots of soft, earthy, gutsy fruit and a high-firepower finish (16.6/18).
28= Batailley – Perhaps the palest Pauillac in the tasting, Batailley has a scented style (summer fruits and flowers) with a vivid, deep, plunging flavour in which acidity seemed to me to be over-prominent. Don’t keep too long (16.5/16.5).
28= Troplong-Mondot – An aromatically articulate (oak, bacon fat, wood fires) wine with dense flavours. Spoiled for me by a green, piquant note in both its aroma and flavour (16.5/15).
30= Forts de Latour – Most appealing, classic aromas of antique furniture and wood polish, yet with a rich, glamorous, almost decadent flavour, the two combining to suggest an old lady in high heels. Lots of fun still here (16.4/17).
30= Gruaud-Larose – An exuberant wine smelling of dried currants, berries and rose hips, with a vivid, enjoyable flavour marred only by slightly hard acidity (16.4/15.5).
32= Langoa-Barton – A quiet, restrained, neat-and-tidy kind of aroma, with subtle, understated yet intense, classic flavours. For the thoughtful claret-lover (16.3/16).
32= Vieux-Château-Certan – Intriguing, marmalade-like scents, yet it seemed very slender, thin and elderly on the palate to me. Three tasters awarded it 18 or 18.5, so it is a wine about which there are decidedly mixed opinions (16.3/13).
34 Montrose – Some cream in its aromas and a complex flavour, but in general this seemed a little tough and hard in style to most tasters (16.1/16).
35 Reserve de la Comtesse – I liked this wine more than most tasters. Its complex, subtle aromas of cedar and summer-pudding fruits combining with its supple textures and tobacco/vellum flavours, it seemed lightly stated yet very lovely, like a mini-Lafite (16/17.5).
36= Bahans-Haut-Brion – Like Lynch-Bages, this seemed to me to be another very fine wine which the group underestimated. I found its super-subtle scents of woodland undergrowth and parchment exquisite. In the mouth, it’s fully ready, yet it has such delicious milky warmth and curranty pungency, combining with brimmingly ripe acids, that it will last well (15.9/18.5).
36= Haut-Bailly – This is yet another beautiful Graves which the group score denies justice to. There’s ample fruit and cedary warmth to its aromas, while the flavours are close-grained yet elegant and accessible, with deft plum-prune fruit and a classically earthy finish (15.9/17.5).
38 Talbot – This appeared a rather odd wine for me. It possessed putty-like, toffee scents and a relatively slender, reedy flavour. Ready now (15.8/14.5).
39= Brane-Cantenac – 1989 was not a notably successful vintage for the lesser Margaux. This wine has some sense of the year’s warmth to it, yet its aromas are slightly resinous and the palate finishes dry and pinched (15.7/13).
39= Petit-Village – It is in the lesser Pomerols that one has the clearest sense of the difficulties posed by uncontrolled, over-hot fermentations in 1989. In fact, Petit-Village seemed to me to be one of the more successful, with lots of roasted fruit notes if a slightly hot, glaring finish (15.7/14).
41= Beychevelle – There seems to be a surprisingly oaky character to this warm, mid-weight, agreeable wine (15.6/15).
41= Clerc-Milon – A soft, rather unfocussed aroma, but I found this to be a full-flavoured, satisfying wine with an impressively beefy finish (15.6/16).
41= La Fleur-Pétrus – Spicy, fresh scents, with an unusual briskness of flavour for an 1989 Pomerol, this seemed nonetheless well-composed, elegant and vivid, with no sense of it fading or thinning (15.6/15).
41= Pavie – A wine with woodsmoke scents, and an unsubtle, exuberant, gutsy, labrador-like flavour of fire and earth, Pavie’s 1989 will provide enjoyable winter drinking (15.6/16).
45= Figeac – This is a vivid, lively but relatively slender 1989 (15.5/15).
45= Les Ormes-de-Pez – Strange, compost-like scents but a chunky, generously tannic style (15.5/17).
45= Saint-Pierre – Fleshy, creamy, soft, easy-going and tasty (15.5/16).
45= Trotanoy – Serious, dense, vivid and succulent, with deep-packed plum fruit and an earthy finish, this wine was generally underscored (15.5/16).
49 Ausone – Typically understated and difficult, yet dense wine (15.4/16).
50= Calon-Ségur – Pleasant, soft, with its acidity assuming prominence. One to drink up soon (15.3/14).
50= Latour-à-Pomerol – Warm, with generous tannins but simple, mono-dimensional fruit (15.3/13).
50= Magdelaine – Spicy, concentrated, ripely fruity wine, yet possessing a strange raw note, too (15.3/16).
53= Lagrange (15.2/14)
53= Prieuré-Lichine (15.2/15.5)
55= Le Bon Pasteur (15.1/13.5)
55= Certan-de-May (15.1/13)
55= La Dominique (15.1/17.5)
55= Le Gay (15.1/15.5)
55= Gazin (15.1/16)
55= Gloria (15.1/12)
61= Lilian-Ladouys (15/12)
61= Meyney (15/12)
63= Carruades de Lafite (14.9/14)
63= Duhart-Milon (14.9/13)
63= Giscours (14.9/15.5)
63= Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux (14.9/15)
67= Clos du Clocher (14.8/16)
67= La Lagune (14.8/14)
69= Branaire-Ducru (14.7/14)
69= Cantenac-Brown (14.7/11)
69= Palmer (14.7/14.5)
72= Ducru-Beaucaillou (14.6/13)
72= l’Enclos (14.6/14)
74= d’Armailhac (14.5/16)
74= Lynch-Moussas (14.5/12)
76= Cantemerle (14.4/13)
76= Clos René (14.4/13)
78= l’Arrosée (14.3/14)
78= Lagrange-à-Pomerol (14.3/14.5)
80= Chasse-Spleen (14.2/11.5)
80= Labégorce-Zédé (14.2/11)
82 La Croix-de-Gay (14.1/12)
83 La Gaffelière (14/14)
84 de Sales (13.7/13)
85 Caronne-Ste-Gemme (13.5/11)
86 Rausan-Ségla (13.1/14.5)
TCA-spoiled: Canon, la Pointe (TCA-spoilage has been a consistent problem with some stocks of Canon 1989. I have a case from which four clean bottles have come so far. I put a fifth bottle from this case into the 1982 tasting as a ringer. This bottle was also unaffected by TCA, and came 12= in that tasting with a score of 16.3).
The 1982 Tasting
1 Latour-à-Pomerol – Astonishingly, this wine smelled of popcorn, yet (as Wallace Stevens might have put it) much lovelier than popcorn – a sort of ethereal popcorn and celestial cream toffee. There was the same thrilling roundness in the mouth. Rolls-Royce tannins and Bentley depth of fruit. What a ride! (18.3/19)
2 Mouton-Rothschild – For most tasters, this was a classically powerful, ripe and allusive 1982, and denser than many. I was disappointed, though, finding it closed on the nose, with impressive concentration yet rather four-square in build, gruff and lacking in enchantment (17.7/16).
3 Pichon-Longueville – Our sample suffered from initial sulphury bottle stink, but this cleared to produce a much cleaner, creamy warmth with a powerful, sustained flavour supported by generous ripe tannins and with a trumpet-blast finish. It was one of the most powerful wines in the tasting, with a long way to run, and thus fine value. Decant first, though (17.6/19)
4 Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse – This celebrated 1982 did not disappoint:it remains one of the darkest wines of the vintage; its characteristic voluptuousness billows from the glass. In flavour, it is as deep and sonorous as ever, its beautiful black-currant fruit character simmered gently down the years, yet still palpably present (17.5/18.5).
5 Figeac – Another relative bargain, the Médoc-like 1982 Figeac is full of classic blackcurranty discretion and tapered elegance, brushing its way through the mouth with thrilling concentration. Still firm-fleshed, too (17.4/18.5).
6= Clos des Jacobins – This wine impressed many with its unusual scents and flavours. For me, however, it appeared slender and dry (17.3/15).
6= Lafite-Rothschild – A true classic in style, the scent was charged with the warm cereals and bubbled cream of the vintage into which notes of liquorice and ghostly fruits steal later. In the mouth, it was intense, with ample tannins, fine concentration and firm flesh (17.3/18).
8 Mouton-Rothschild 1989 – (see 1989).
9 Haut-Brion – Gentle but rather reticent aromatically, with ripe, curranty flavours tapering away to a chocolate and brandy finish. Though relatively lightly coloured and less well-fleshed than some, this was nonetheless a concentrated and penetrating wine (16.8/18).
10 Branaire-Ducru – Another relative bargain, this was a supersoft, seductive, truffley sort of wine with succulent flavours and singing, creamy fruit: everything you expect from the vintage, and clearly still going strong (16.6/18).
11 Beychevelle – A relatively gutsy, deeply coloured wine with chocolate and blackcurrant flavours, if rather unpolished (marked with some high-toned notes of volatile acidity) (16.5/16).
12= Canon 1989 – (see 1989 tasting).
12= Palmer – Typically ripe and gratifying plum and warm chocolate cream flavours with fine drinking balance, yet the bottom is beginning to drop out of this wine and its aromas are beginning to suggest age rather than maturity (16.3/17.5).
14 Grand-Puy-Lacoste – I enjoyed this classically cedar-scented, intense and voluptuous wine much more than the other tasters, finding it masterful and concentrated, with great breadth of flavour and no signs yet of age (15.9/18).
15 Léoville-Las-Cases – This wine, surprisingly, won only middling scores from all tasters. Compared with others, it seemed to be relatively advanced, with notes of sharp acidity becoming increasingly apparent amid otherwise impressive coffee, toast and chocolate aromas and flavours (15.8/15).
16 Durfort-Vivens – This lightly coloured wine was spoiled by harsh acidity and bitter tannins (14.2/12).