Piedmont’s Greatest Vintage?

An exceptional tasting of wines from the 1989 vintage


It has been some four years since I last took a look at 1989 Barolo in any depth. Now at age 25 these wines should be in the prime of their lives, at least the better examples still out there. Increasingly rare and well traded, there is much to be concerned with with these wines. Faulty corks, poor storage along the way and the simple vagaries of old wine mean that not every bottle will perform to its potential. Yet when they do, there are few wines that can match these for their alluring combination of power, grace, aromatic complexity and sheer excitement.

As a vintage 1989 is a watershed vintage for Piedmont. The modernist movement was in full swing, yet not yet at its apogee. That drive to improve the work done in both the vineyards and the cellars certainly had an affect on traditional producers as well. While many produces stuck to their tried and true techniques, almost all adopted a more rigorous attitude to both vineyard and cellar management. Combined with the glorious crop of 1989, this ushered in a new age for the region.
As with the wine, the story here begins with the weather. The 1980s had not been unkind in Piedmont, with a great vintage in 1982, another pair of very good vintages with 1985 and 1988, and serviceable crops during the remainder of the decade with two notable exceptions. the hail of 1986 ruined what was shaping up to be a promising vintage for most producers, and the  weather in 1984 persuaded many to forgo producing Barolo entirely in that difficult vintage. The rule of thumb back in the 90s, and for many years before, was to expect 3 good vintages per decade, and having filled that quota most producers were not expecting what was to come. In fact 1989 found itself wedged in an impressive trio of vintage and in the years that have followed only four vintages 1991, 1992, 1994, and 2002 have produced little to no wine of note.
Hindsight of course allows us to see that the modern era for Barolo in both climate and wine production began in 1989.  The weather played a key role. Rains during flowering ensured the vines access to water during the summer, while limiting the size of the eventual crop, which, In Barolo, further reduced by hail in Serralunga and Monforte, was the third smallest of the decade. The summer was warm and dry, conditions that persisted right through the end of harvest, which enjoyed cool, crisp nights in contrast to the warmth of the day. It was what one might call a warm year, but one with enough rain here and there, and those cool nights in October that allowed for the near perfect maturation of the fruit.  The following year, 1990 was the first of what one might call hot vintages, but 1989 was just about perfect and produced wines that were both richly fruited and powerful but at the same time that retained aromatic complexity and the lean, tight, structured mouthfeel that Nebbiolo excels at.
In the cellars it was a time of experimentation and increasing recognition for the modernist producers. names like Scavino, Sandrone, and Altare were gaining fame for their innovative take on Barolo. Richer fruit, clean and well preserved through shorter macerations, clean cellars and cellar equipment were changing the way people thought about Nebbiolo. There was new oak of course, and this eventually drove the narrative in terms of what it imparted to the wines,. The story of what it did not impart tot he wines is often overlooked.  Of course I am not fan of new oak with Nebbiolo, but at the time it was new and exciting, adding sweetness and spice to what had been rather tough wines, particularly in their youth. But beyound that, it was new. It was clean. Gone were the aromas of old cellars and corners cut over the years. The cleanliness of the modernist movement was to be it's enduring contribution to the region.

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Great 1989 Barolo tasted 1/2014

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia (1989)
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Elio Grasso Nebbiolo Langhe DOC Gavarini Chiniera (1989)
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Prunotto Cannubi Barolo (1989)
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Poderi Rocche Manzoni Valentino Barolo Riserva (1989)
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Vietti Barolo Villero (1989)
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Poderi Aldo Conterno Nebbiolo Barolo Cicala (1989)
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Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Ovello (1989)
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Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Riserva la Brunata (1989)
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