The 1990 Clarets...To Have and To Hold
You read it here first, folks. The
New York Wine Cellar was the first publication in America to inform you that
1990 produced at least as many great, collectible clarets as the previous year,
and to recommend that, rather than go hog-wild over the '89s, you save some of
your available funds for the '90s. Now that the '90 clarets have had a year or
more in bottle, it is clear that this vintage is a fitting exclamation point to
the greatest decade, weather-wise, in the long history of Bordeaux.
That does not mean that 1990 can be
bought blind. Far from it. 1989, as we wrote a year ago, produced an opulent,
extremely ripe and variable crop of wines. But only the best of these wines
have the levels of extract and underlying structure to offer exciting medium-
term development potential. The same can be said about 1990.
These were two of the hottest and
driest growing seasons of the century, in a class with 1947 and 1949. In both
'89 and '90, the Bordelais faced complicating factors: most importantly, vine
and grape maturation retarded by drought, and periods of September rainfall.
Picking strategies were of paramount importance. Many proprietors learned from
their experience in 1989, and did a better job harvesting the following year—in
many instances picking optimally ripe fruit over a more protracted period.
Although 1990 witnessed a second consecutive enormous crop load, more chateau
owners carried out "green harvesting" at veraison to reduce ultimate
yields. This crop-reduction had the additional benefit of partly correcting the
uneven cabernet ripening that had resulted from unsettled weather during the
period of flowering.
We find the '90s, in general, to be
somewhat fresher and less roasted than the '89s, and generally less
aromatically evolved. Only a few of the top wines betray signs of raisiny
overripeness. At the classified growth level, fewer wines show the finishing
dryness that plagued numerous '89s containing grapes whose skins and tannins
were not thoroughly mature. But crop-thinning, followed by strict selection of
the better lots for inclusion in the grand vin, was essential to making great
wine in 1990. While a host of '90s have the velvety, glycerol palate feel that
comes with wines high in alcohol and low in acidity, too many of them, we fear,
won't have much of a story to tell when the baby fat burns off three or six or
ten years down the road.
At the top levels, numerous
exciting wines were made, With the exception of Mouton, all of Bordeaux
"big eight" (the four Médoc first growths, Haut Brion, Pétrus, Ausone
and Cheval Blanc) made stunning wines. Montrose and Léoville-Las Cases are two
additional stars of the vintage. As a general rule, the further south you go on
the left bank of the Gironde, the less extract and structure the wines display,
but there are noteworthy exceptions. Pomerol and especially St. Émilion
produced many magnificent bottles, but while St. Émilion clearly did better in
1990 than in '89, in Pomerol only L'Evangile seems clearly more successful in
the later vintage.
Except for a few limited-production
right-bank wines like Pétrus, Lafleur, Le Pin, and Tertre Rôteboeuf, virtually
all of the 1990s can still be found on the shelves by the enterprising
collector, though prices for these scarce wines, as well as for sought-after
items like Montrose and Latour, have climbed. With the Bordelais now holding
three vintages ('91 through '93) that will be difficult to sell unless tariffs
are cut sharply, pricing for '90s is likely to remain firm—even while '88s and
'89s are discounted by American importers and retailers desperate to raise
cash. Price ranges listed on the following pages for each 1990 claret represent
what you can expect to pay today in major metropolitan wine markets. Due to the space constraints of the original publication, tasting notes on only the most important classified growths
and other wines of particular interest are attached.
You Might Also Enjoy
1982 Bordeaux, 20 Years On, Stephen Tanzer, July 2002
2005 Bordeaux with Tanzer & Galloni, Antonio Galloni, Nov 2015
The 2010 Clarets: A Modern Classic, Stephen Tanzer, July 2013
-- Stephen Tanzer