1989 Barolo - 20 Years Later

A retrospective tasting 20 years on


1989, it's simply one of the best vintages ever in Piemonte. Now that’s a pretty bold statement, but when you take a look at other vintages, maybe it’s not so bold after all. While we have been getting used to every vintage being great in Piedmont, save maybe one a decade, this is a very recent development.

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: Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo 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 1989

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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.

Flight One

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.

Flight Two

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

Flight Three

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

Flight Four

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.

Fight Five

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

Flight Six

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.

Giacosa 6

Cascina Francia 5

Burlotto 4

Massolino 3

Monprivato 2

Marengo Brunate 2

Marengo-Marenda Cerequio 1

Carretta 1

My wines of the tasting

Cascina Francia



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

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    Great writeup, Greg, and definitely, salivatingly envy-inspiring. So were you really down for the count at the end of the night, as the photos indicate? ;-)

    Nov 11, 2009 at 7:54 PM

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
    227923 333

    salivatingly envy-inspiring : me too.
    And I will taste Burlotto soon, haha!

    Nov 11, 2009 at 10:05 PM

  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 196,613

    I love it! Great reviews Greg. What a great tasting this was and I'm very happy to have been one of the participants. The only unfortunate part of it is far hard it's been to find the majority of these bottles.

    Nov 11, 2009 at 11:06 PM

  • You have been very privileged indeed. Lacking your access to these wines I am left with the sad alternative of pointing out that I still remember fondly the great Monprivato Mascarello 1982 and 1985 vintages. There was also the feeling, drinking the 86's in their brackish youth, and splitting the modern from the traditional in a great tasting in Wandsworth hosted by Italian wine ambassador David Gleave MW, that the 86 would be an underrated vintage.

    Nov 12, 2009 at 5:49 AM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    I'm also curious, Greg, if you double decanted all these bottles...

    Nov 12, 2009 at 6:00 AM

  • Snooth User: amour
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    Nov 12, 2009 at 3:00 PM

  • Snooth User: amour
    Hand of Snooth
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    Nov 12, 2009 at 3:32 PM

  • Snooth User: Marty N
    142701 11

    As usual, a stellar Gregory Dal Piaz production.

    Some of my comments on the wines we tasted:

    1.1989 Tenuta Caretta Poderi Cannubi:A great curtain-riser, displaying for me lots of tar and sotto bosco, great balance and a long, long finish...92

    2.1989 Parusso Mariondino: Not much for me aromatically and palate-wise except for lots of tannin. My feeling is that it's seen its best days...84

    3.1989 Marengo Marenda Cerequio:Somewhat muted aromatically but good structure and the long tarry finish revived your interest and desire to look at it some more...89

    4.1989 Mario Marengo Brunate: Yes, this is rustic and the only rustic quality missing is some Brett. It's loaded with tar, sotto bosco, earth and quite a finish.A real lusty, old-fashioned Barolo...91

    5.1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo:Filled with fruit, great structure and finish...and the funny and admirable thing is that this isn't a cru but"just a Giacosa normale". Greg, next time the crus....93

    6.1989 Mascarello Monprivato:I was disappointed with this one--structure was fine but little flesh on it. It certainly may have been the bottle...85

    Rocche dei Manzoni Riserva: Pleasant--lots of dry fruit--just Ok...87

    8.Burlotto Monvigliero:For me one of the highlights of the evening. Is it the Verduno Nebbiolo or the vinification that starts with crushing the grapes by foot, followed by two months maceration on the skins and then aging in large wooden botti? One of the hallmarks of this wine when young is the black olive tapenade--not present at this time so a cost of growing old or tertiary but certainly not a negative factor with this wine which is so delightful now...94

    9.1989 Brezza Sarmassa:A nice mature Barolo drinking well now and to be had when enjoying a meal at the Brezza restaurant in Barolo...90

    10.1989 Aldo Conterno Colonello: A lightweight and big disappointment. I've had many of Conterno's '80 barolos in the past and none like this. I think it's the bottle...85

    11.1989 Massolino Vigna Rionda Riserva
    12.Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia
    These are two Serralunga behemoths drinking great now but will be even better as they pass into tertiary country. Greg's excellent descriptions are quite appropriate....both 95

    Again, Greg, mille grazie.

    Marty N

    Nov 12, 2009 at 4:28 PM

  • Snooth User: atonalprime
    Hand of Snooth
    157790 1,416

    This sounds like it was phenomenal for everyone involved. It also seems like fate is demanding I open a 1989 GD Vajra Freisa very soon. Any speculation as to how this particular varietal will have aged over 20 years?

    Nov 13, 2009 at 8:26 AM

  • All I can say is that I am very, very envious of thos who attended the tasting, just stunning. Great write up on the tasting.

    Nov 20, 2009 at 10:58 PM

  • Snooth User: Michael759
    259542 89

    Know I'm late to the game on this thread but figured I would chime in since it is such a specific topic. Had the 1989 Marchesi di Barolo Cannubi at a restaurant last year (Bern's in Tampa). Fantastic. I rated it 94 points. It was chewy, nice fruit, well balanced,and just an incredibly, smooth and long finish.

    Feb 23, 2010 at 4:50 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
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    Thanks for the additional note Michael.

    Berns is insane with the best cellar in the country and perfect storage. I great place to try older wines.

    Feb 23, 2010 at 5:06 PM

  • Snooth User: PaPa Jack
    589663 18

    I understand the competition to come up with new and stimulating descriptions of wines we love/hate. But the use of "wet animal" tones for the Marengo Barolo Brunate seems a bit over the top. I can honestly say I have yet to scent the tones of a "wet animal" that have ever brought a wine (even really terrible, cheap etc. etc) to mind. Stick with fruits, woods, rocks, leaves, herbs, even "blood" but not my Golden Retriever in the koi pond.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 1:43 PM

  • Greg,
    I recently tried Bartolo Mascarello '89 from magnum. Definitley a wine you missed in your tasting and one of the wines of the vintage.
    So fresh, austere, rich it can last for the next 40 years easily.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 4:20 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Ciao Andrea,

    Yes, I would have loved to have tried it, and from magnum no less. Sadly, the following night we had a dead 85 Bartolo, but made up for it with a rather fantastic magnum of 70 Monfortino, plus a very fresh 89 Cicala, a 90 Parusso Bussia which was surprisingly good, and several other fine wines. Seems like we have had particularity bad luck with Bartolo's wines over the past year or so.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 4:31 PM

  • wonderful

    Sep 09, 2013 at 3:20 PM

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