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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Mentioned in this article


  • My name is Cristiano Veglio over it is I direct the "Cascina Bruni" from about 10 years, I wanted to make my appreciation for this beautiful article devoted to of the Barolo's Vintage, few times you comment they have been so objective, I understand the state of the wines that a lot of times have not been preserved with care (you see the auctions) or you cover yourself used in the years '90 didn't have the characteristics and today's controls, our Barolo taken in examination has been produced by my grandfather with his traditional technique, memory that his grandfather didn't use yeasts and made the submerged hat and put then to grow old for 7 years in strokes of Chestnut tree that today we still have in our wine cellar, of the same year I have opened a bottle this summer finding her same described characteristics, our family it is pleased to entertain it for a tasting of the others our years where we can also go up again a years '20 being our house founded in 1897

    Jan 20, 2014 at 11:35 AM

  • Snooth User: Gordoben
    1328401 141

    My nose was tingling with anticipation while reading this wonderful summary of a great Barolo vintage. Many thanks! But how sad to see what a high proportion of of the hard work of growers and winemakers is wasted. One can live the problems associated with dubious provenance, but what a tragedy to have such a high proportion of wine ruined by an inadequate closure. I would appreciate your thoughts one day on what a good cork can add to a wine. What a bad cork can take away is all too obvious.
    Modern closure (or the best cork money can buy) enthusiast.

    Jan 21, 2014 at 12:12 AM

  • She must think that the year 1989 in 1995/1996 have been bottled for the reserves, in that years corks are found only of origin of Sardinia, and there were not the practice to use the natural cork, in that time the cork was treated with water oxygenated for the cleaning the controls of laboratory they were simple, for which could happen and it often happened that the cork bought from the wine cellars was: of scarce quality and whitened with the oxygenated water, for which there could be problems of elasticity and transfer of peroxides, for this many wines could have defects as forgery taste of cork, today corks are used coming from the portogallo very elastic and not essays chemically, the controls of analysis are best besides

    Jan 21, 2014 at 3:41 AM

  • Snooth User: acevola
    549918 3

    Glad Cristiano added valuable insights here, especially in reference to the cork situation in those days
    Auguri , Cristiano

    Feb 15, 2014 at 9:14 AM

  • Snooth User: Ken V
    Hand of Snooth
    91350 45

    Here's my write up on the same dinner. My notes mostly agree with Greg's.


    Feb 15, 2014 at 9:40 AM

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