Piedmont’s Greatest Vintage?
An exceptional tasting of wines from the 1989 vintage
All of this was noticed by the traditional producers, many of whom must have been envious of the super high scores the upstarts were receiving from many in the media. It doesn't take a trained palate to notice a change right about 1989. In fact that change, a shift towards cleaner wines probably driven by more rigorous control in the cellar, topping off barrels, and a wholesale adoption of a more thorough cleaning regimen in the cellar, began in 1985. Comparing wines from 1982 and 1985 it is obvious. Interestingly 1985 had a role to play in 1989s greatness. It was a highly touted vintage on release. The growing season was fabulous and the fruit nearly flawless. The media noticed and ran with the story, which in turn introduced many people to these wines. The income from those highly rated wines was wisely invested by many producers. Investments that paid off immediately with the glorious raw materials of 1989!
So the crop was small and concentrated. the fruit perfectly ripe and the season such that growers were able to wait to pick until just the right moment, though there was a two week period in October where rains swirled around the Langhe. It must have tested many a man's patience but in the end the Langhe was spared any significant late season rains and the harvest concluded under clear, sunny skies. This perfect fruit was brought into cellars reinvigorated by the profit of 1985, and the rest as they say, is history.
All of which is good and fine, but today we are tasting the wines as they exist today. These wines, small production wines in a short cop from a universally praised vintage, have become both rare and expensive. I am fortunate to have such a generous group of friend who all came together and donated wine to this evening's tasting. A tasting that otherwise would have been nearly impossible to pull off. When you are dealing with wines like this, old, with bottles that have likely changed hands more than once, you have to be prepared for some disappointments. Tonight was no exception. There were corked bottles, two that held much promise. Worthy of note was that the 1989 Brovia Rocche was not surprisingly corked. I think that the Brovia wines of 1989 and 1990, beautiful when there are clean, suffer from abnormally high incidence of cork taint. Given the current pricing I am hesitant to buy them even knowing their potential.
In addition several of the bottles suffered from poor storage along the way exhibiting the tell tale notes of beefy bouillon, celery seed, and brown sugar that heat damage and advanced bottles tend to display. In some case the damage was complete while in other you could still get a clear sense of what lay beneath. Even with the occasional dud this was a spectacular tasting and reaffirmed the superior quality of the vintage. No vintage that is ready to drink, and 1989 Barolo are just barely ready to drink and in no danger of fading, shows better today. Both 1978 and 1982 are more rustic, 1985 lacks the power and complexity, 1996 is not nearly ready to drink and while potentially gorgeous it’s a vintage much more inline with 1978, exhibitind an austerity and tension that is very attractive yet not with the density and roundness that the 1989 also offers. It will be exciting to watch the 1999, 2006, and 2010 vintages show us their full potential in years to come; each has produced wines that will probably be as good as many from 1989, but for today I can say that I would rather have my cellar full of 89s than any other vintage.