Historically you’ll find the reverse was true - that only once a decade did Piedmont enjoy a truly spectacular vintage. In the 1980’s, 1989 stood head and shoulders above it’s peers, much like 1978 did in the previous decade and 1964 and 1961 in the sixties. While these older vintages were, and continue to be, great, the wines of 1989 represent not only a great vintage, but also an inflection point in the development of the wine industry in Piedmont.
What to expect: NebbioloNebbiolo is a fickle grape famed as much for its pale appearance as for its tannic character. It produces some of the most perfumed and richly flavored wines. Though generally only medium-bodied, the wines possess rose and anise scented aromatics and deep flavors of cherry, orange peel and subtle green herb tones.
Producers, new and old, were firing on all cylinders in 1989Find Wines from Mario Marengo
The 1980’s saw a revolution in Piedmont, and to be truthful, across much of the world of fine wine. As the decade drew to a close it had become obvious that something special had transpired. Never before had so many Piedmontese been producing wine of such a high quality. The proof was in the bottle.
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This modern revolution had it’s pros and cons, I am not about to get into a discussion regarding the attributes on barrique ageing and rotofermenting here, but the advances made in understanding the roles of cellar hygiene, and just plain, old fashion hard work, allowed the brilliance of 1989 to shine through more producers' wines than ever before.
Just a bit of background on the vintage. It was a year marked by sever hail in June that destroyed a good portion of the crop for many producers and left it’s mark an several vineyards, further reducing the load for vines that had had a modest fruit set. All in all production was down significantly from historic levels, though the warm summer months encouraged even and advanced ripening throughout the region.
September put the brakes on the vines as the weather cooled during the first half of the month. Slowly the end of the month and early October returned to form with warm days and cool nights that allowed the grapes to be harvested judiciously and yielded wines that combined the intensity of ripe fruit that resulted from the summer’s heat with the precise structure that the weather before harvest preserved in the fruit. Simply put, a recipe for brilliance.
Now that these wines have hit their 20-year mark it is time to begin to take a look and see what has happened in the bottle to these wines filled with potential. One of the attributes of great Barolo, and Barbaresco for that matter is their ability to improve in the bottle for decades, developing nuanced aromatics and gorgeously layered, voluptuous mouthfeels.
These wines, each and every one, are still remarkably youthful. The best wines of the bunch are just barely entering their drinking windows, while most are drinking well today, yet are destined to improve with additional cellaring.
Now it may strike some as odd, or even excessive, that I am recommending cellaring these 20-year-old wines for another 5, 10 or even 20 years but some of these wines need the time to fulfill all of their promise. Others are great today and for the future but have entered their peak-drinking window.
As a vintage there is no doubt that 1989 is one of the greatest vintages ever in Piedmont. The wines combine freshness with ripe structure and hugely engaging fruit. There are aging slowly but evenly and can compete with the worlds finest wines at every level. By that I mean our sample set contained some wines that were and remain relatively modestly priced as well as a few wines that represent the cream of the crop of traditional producers.
Some may argue that this data set, small as it was, does not represent a particularly broad spectrum of producer styles. I would have to disagree. While the really famous modernist producers are absent, Altare, Clerico, Sandrone and Scavino to name the big guns, the line-up we indulged in did indeed range from modernist to traditionalist, perhaps prejudiced slightly to the latter. Though that was entirely acceptable and intended since these are wines that have come from my cellar and were purchased with the full understanding of my prejudiced palate.
One final point. This is a point I have become more acutely aware of with each passing year and was certainly driven home by the results of our tasting; chasing quality with money is, or at least was, a fool’s pursuit. The price differential among these wines, though more modest on release, is somewhere in the realm of 2.5 or 3 to one
As you can see the qualitative differences had little to do with the current value. I can’t really add current value for most of these wines; I just don’t know exactly what they are, but those of you who follow Barolo as I do, will be intimately familiar with the priciest wines among the bunch and surprised by the positive performance of the unknowns. And now onto that performance
Just a note about the order of the wines. I had originally planned to pair these up by commune, they were served blind, but in the end I chose instead to pair the wines in a manner more attuned to each wine’s style and quality, though after several hours of air some wines improved while others, well you’ll see.
1989 Tenuta Caretta Poderi Cannubi
Perhaps the surprise of the evening with a simply knockout array of aromatics. Classic notes of prosciutto fat, old Middle Eastern spice tones, smoke, leather, mint and minerals are all enmeshed in a precise core of crystallized red raspberry fruit. In the mouth this was fine but lacked the punch promised by the nose though there was plenty of rich, dark fruit with an almost salty mineral edge that added nice length to the wine. The tannins here are significant and pretty hard so while this will definitely benefit from some added time in the cellar to soften them I doubt they will ever actually resolve. A wine I would prefer to drink too early, while the fruit is still intact, than too late, when the tannins will be all that remains. Still a great bottle of wine to drink until 2019. 92pts
1989 Parusso Mariondino
Warm and plummy on the nose with a touch of toasty and actually quite smoky wood adding a nice accent to the jammy fruit that gains a nice strawberry tone. There are nuanced notes of fennel fronds, roasted meat, menthol cigarettes and a growing note of perfumy wood. On entry there is a touch of woody sweetness followed by lots of tannin leaving the palate a bit lean and astringent with nice red fruit notes. Once you get past that initial burst of sweetness this is actually very dry and while there is some nice fruit lurking it’s simply not enough to handle the tannins which cut the finish short. This is a disappointment considering previous showings of this wine. Drink 2009-2014 85pts
The Tenuta Caretta was preferred by every taster.
1989 Marengo Marenda Cerequio
This had aromas that just exploded from the glass with notes of veal, sour cherries, moist earth, minerals, sweet root vegetable tones and background notes of angelica root and sweet herbs. On the palate this had lovely structure, super-fine tannins paired with zesty yet integrated acidity that supported a rich core of sweet wild cherry fruit. There was a nice touch of mineral grab on the mid-palate that lead to a minerally, tarry, waxy finish of moderate length. This was just super friendly if a touch chunky and inelegant but it had wonderfully immediate appeal. 2009-2019 91pts
1989 Mario Marengo Brunate
Wow was this ever rustic on the nose. Just packed with damp cellar scents, wet concrete, dried spices, wet animal tones, dirt, dried herbs, leather, limestone and espresso. On the palate this was brothy with a loose texture and supple tannins. The sour berry fruit tones were well balanced by classic notes of dried earth and herbs. This really did very well with food and had a long finish that gained clarity as the night progressed. Drink this up over the next several years. 88pts
The group was even split on this flight 4 and 4
1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo
This had as complete and complex a nose as we were going to see this evening. Redolent of dried spices, fresh rose petal, raspberry, black pepper and medicinal herbs in a nuanced, balance package. On the palate the tannins started out with a chewy edge but quickly revealed their ripeness as they melded into the sour raspberry and sour cherry core of fruit that had an inner mouth perfume hinting of peach. Lovely notes of rose and fruit linger on the long finish 2009-2022 93pts
1989 Mascarello Monprivato
Low key on the nose with notes of raspberry coulis, tobacco, dried rose and roasted strawberry. This is gentle and feminine smelling with very subtle spicy earth tones. In the mouth this is quite velvety with a seamless quality to the slightly astringent red plum fruit. There is nice drive on the palate with a big licorice drive tone that completes the palate and adds length. This seemed to be very youthful though I can’t discount the possibility that this suffered a bit of abuse along the way since the incredibly long cork was quite fully saturated though I did pick this up from a reputable shop in Germany. 2009-2024 92pts
The Giacosa was universally preferred in this flight
1989 Rocche Dei Manzoni Riserva
While there is plenty of cocoa scented oak on the nose this still smells fantastic with a sweet, perfumed, complex bouquet of licorice, balsamic tones, waxy lipstick and sweet cooked cherries. On the palate the wood tannin are obtrusive, big and bitter with a sweet, woody, chocolaty element buffering them but not leaving much room for the fruit to express itself. As I said at the time, it’s impossible to get where this is from. 2009-2022 86pts
1989 Burlotto Monvigliero
This smelled quite bloody at first, down right like an abattoir but with incredibly sweet spearmint, sassafras and sautéed mushroom notes that were deeply embedded in the gamy, slightly roasted, meat core of dark berry and dried fig fruit. On the palate this had a brilliant texture with bright acids balanced by a blanket of superb, soft tannins. The dark fruit presented itself with great precision possessing a lovely sweetness matched by the complex, layered notes of dried herbs, earth, tobacco and salted capers that drove through the long, powerful finish. 2009-2030 93pts
The Burlotto was the unanimous winner of this flight.
1989 Brezza Sarmassa
This possessed superb aromatics with very clear notes of astringent red fruits, limestone, tobacco, and nuanced notes of spice, wood and flowers it was simply a classic expression of Barolo with just a hint of oak. In the mouth this was sweet and packed with ripe, juicy raspberry fruit supported by fine tannins that lend this a fleshy, rich feel. Altogether likable in a rather enthusiastic style the palate doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the nose, but this is still fun to drink and very satisfying 2009-2024 90pts
1989 Aldo Conterno Colonello
This smelled of old bones, shoe polish, and balsamic tones but overall was very ungiving and remarkably shallow. On the palate there is a lot of sweetness here from both fruit and wood lending this an easy style. This is neither complex not particularly well structured, but it is fruity. 84pts
The Brezza was preferred by all the participants
1989 Massolino Vigna Rionda Riserva
This was a great change of pace with a nose decidedly on the mineral, austere, and strict end of the spectrum It was spicy with oak and mineral tones, though the oak was almost all absorbed leaving just a hint of spicy cinnamon, sweet baking spice and Graham cracker that added to the bouquet. The fruit was intact, spicy and sweet with limestone and incipient notes of truffle adding depth. On the palate this was seamless with a soft and sweet entry, which builds to a sweet, black, plummy midpalate that is precisely balanced with very fine tannin and acids. The acids and mineral note draw out the finish giving this cut and fantastic definition and length as the finish segues from fruit to a sweet baking spice finale. This is very youthful but a gorgeous wine. 95pts
1989 Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia
Another great nose, full and complex with layered notes of licorice, wild cherry, animal fur, dry earth, salame, and very fine rose and lilac notes. In the mouth this is silky and polished with impressive weight. The fruit is dark and medicinal with a bitter, earth edge to the very ripe fruits. The texture is velvety and this really saturates the tongue with superb, sweet fruit that recalls tarry, roasted or dried strawberries. This is still decidedly young and ever so disjointed but with fabulous potential for the future. Leave it for a few years yet, if you can. 2012-2040 96pts
These last two wines were so good I didn’t want to put anyone on the spot regarding their preferences. I did however poll the group regarding their preferred wines with the following results. I arrived at the ranking simply by polling everyone for their top three wines, in any order, and then adding up the number of votes each wine received.
Cascina Francia 5
Marengo Brunate 2
Marengo-Marenda Cerequio 1
My wines of the tasting
Honorable mention: Wine I would most want to drink again tonight - Brezza
Last words? Back fill 1989 Barolo if you can. These are superb wines with a long life ahead of them and they remain bargains in the world of fine wine.
Photos by Brad Kane