Bordeaux's wonderful 1990 vintage is starting to come of age. DAVID PEPPERCORN MW looks at which wines are ready and which need a few years longer.
I have had the opportunity in the last year to taste – and better still, drink – many 1990s often comparing them with their great rival, 1989. Looking at my notes, I am encouraged to see that the largest group are in the category that can now be drunk with pleasure but are still improving. Only a few should still be resisted, while quite a number should be on your ‘drink now’ list. This is a year that really wears its heart on its sleeve, with a seductive fruit that gives the wines an irresistibly hedonistic quality. As the wines have matured, so the differences between this year and its immediate predecessor have become more and more marked. Firstly, as a general rule, the 1989 St-Emilions and Pomerols, with certain exceptions, now look less good than the 1990 vintage from the same châteaux. The key is probably that many Merlots were picked too late and were overripe in 1989, giving the wines a rather flat, dull quality, while the 1990s have much more bouquet and flair. But on the Left Bank, while the 1990s are beautiful and mostly drinking well, they seem to lack the depth and concentration of 1989 and in the lesser appellations and even in first-rate ones where producers did not control their yields, tell-tale signs of dilution are evident. Such wines need drinking up. 1990 is about bouquet and texture. Bouquets that are wonderfully expressive, that jump out of the glass and are highly typical of their origins, so you can see the differences between appellations and appreciate the individuality of the great châteaux. And textures, soft and rich but harmonious, with ripe, soft tannins.
Comparisons with other vintages are not easy to make. So much has changed in Bordeaux in terms of vineyard work to control yields, as well as selection in the vat house. In terms of richness, charm and general style, 1982 comes closest, but the selection was far superior in 1990 so the strike rate of success should prove higher.
So which wines should you be enjoying this year? Now, I think, is the moment to get the best out of any wines from the St-Emilion satellites and Lalande de Pomerol, as well as many St-Emilion grands crus. Some now show signs of dilution from the high Merlot yields but most are still delicious. The same holds true for Fronsac and the Premières Côtes, where seriously produced wines have matured attractively. Even some very serious wines are now so delicious that I believe they may never be better than they are now. On recent evidence, I believe Figeac and Petit Cheval in St-Emilion, and Bon Pasteur and Le Pin in Pomerol, fall into this category, as do all the second wines. Most AC Médocs are now delicious to drink, with La Tour-de-By especially noteworthy. Lesser crus further south such as Cordeillan-Bages, Lilian-Ladouys and Les Ormes-de-Pez are best drunk now. But the same holds good for some crus classés such as Talbot which seem to lack the structure for further ageing, as do Lagrange and Beychevelle.
Drinking now but will keep
Now for more serious things, where you can expect immediate pleasure without needing to hurry. First I must make special mention of Château Roc de Cambes in humble Bourg. Most Côtes de Bourg should have been drunk but François Mitjavile of Tertre Rôteboeuf fame has shown what the best sites overlooking the Gironde can achieve. Underneath its complex, rich, black truffle flavours there is a tannic structure to support further ageing, while the power and harmony provide a highly enjoyable mouthful now. The Right Bank highlights are: Ausone – sumptuous fruit and plenty of fat, but the 1989 will be more long-lived and more classically Ausone; Cheval Blanc – heady and opulent with that quintessential Cheval Blanc trait of always seeming to be at its best yet with a freshness and youthfulness promising many days’ drinking to come; Tertre-Rôteboeuf – aromatic, spicy and rich textured yet so long flavoured and exotic; Lafleur – spicy and chocolatey with great middle power, not unlike the great 1982; Troplong-Mondot – the intensity of its flavour fills the mouth with layers of sweet fruit but preserves balance with great structure; L’Eglise-Clinet – a spice box, exotic and exciting with layers of spice and liquorice; Vieux Château Certan – complex and concentrated with all the expected breed and a long life ahead.
If these are my frontrunners among the ‘enjoy now and keepers’ category on the Right Bank, not far behind are L’Angélus, Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarosse), Clos Fourtet, Matras, Larcis-Ducasse, Canon-La-Gaffelière, L’Arrosée and Latour à Pomerol. These are only wines I have managed to taste recently. If a wine is not mentioned it is not necessarily detrimental. In Médoc and Graves the leading wines in this category are: Haut-Brion – more forward than 1989 but with an aromatic quality and a lovely lingering spicy fruit, wonderful now but with the capacity to last; Margaux – with a lovely harmony of all its elements, freshness, purity of fruit, a full middle palate, length and elegance; Montrose – with its incredibly sumptuous and all-enveloping fruit flavours, one of the greatest of all Montroses; Mouton Rothschild – forward for Mouton, ripe with aromatic fruit, rather open textured but with enormous hedonistic charm; Léoville-Las-Cases – lovely cedary cassis fruit, long flavoured and growing in stature, if out-gunned by the 1989; Léoville-Barton – lovely succulence and richness as well as a wonderful scent, an exceptional 1990 for the Médoc; Pichon-Longueville Baron – a wonderfully opulent Médoc which fills the mouth with ripe, supple fruit flavours, lots of charm and elegance; La Mission – spicy and thick-textured, more backward than the Haut-Brion. Not far behind come Lynch-Bages, Léoville-Poyferré, La Lagune and Olivier.
Wait a few years
There are a few 1990s, however, that have not yet fully developed their great potential. You hardly expect an unclassified Médoc to fall into this category, but Sociando-Mallet is no ordinary Médoc. At present the 1990 is less expansive than the wonderful 1989 but with its tannic structure and intriguing flavours of plums, chocolate and bittermint at the finish, it has the potential to be one of the great Médocs of the vintage. Not far away, Cos d’Estournel has proved tight and curiously charmless for a 1990 but is beginning to give signs of awakening. The finish is still firm but middle fruit is now emerging and there is no doubting the breed and elegance. Lafite is the deepest coloured and most concentrated of all the Médoc firsts, a true long distance runner, with a wonderful intensity and a velvety texture to its superb fruit. Probably the star of the Left Bank in 1990, in need of another five years at least. Latour is a puzzle, so attractive and fine two years ago but my last bottle was quite brutish. Wait and try again. Pétrus is the one Right Bank wine where it is a shame to pull corks yet. The wine is so massive and concentrated, so many-layered, an exotic masterpiece that deserves patience.
A footnote: all wines in the second and third category will greatly benefit from decanting two hours or more prior to drinking. And don’t forget the large glasses!
David Peppercorn MW is a world-leading authority on Bordeaux wines.