As the 1980s drew to a close, Jive Bunny were topping the charts and the England team were stumbling to qualify for Italia ‘90, but Chateau owners and drinkers alike could look back fondly at a decade that had given them more top quality Bordeaux vintages than most others in the 20th century.
After a good vintage in 1988 (one which turned out better than initially expected), the Bordelais were in buoyant mood and reacted with their customary gusto to excellent weather conditions right from the off. Following a mild winter May was hot and dry, prompting early flowering and setting a trend for sweltering temperatures that was to continue throughout the rest of the growing season. The summer started early and remained hot and dry until after the harvest was completed – so hot and dry in fact, that 1989 was the hottest year on record since 1949 and the earliest harvest since 1893.
With all of this sun it would be easy to think that the ‘89 vintage was plain sailing, but that was not exactly the case. While the high temperatures meant early ripening for the fruit in an analytical sense (sugars and acids), the shorter growing season left the grapes without the required phenolic (or physiological) ripeness. This presented the chateaux owners with a dilemma – should they pick early to preserve acidity levels and prevent the wines from taking on too much sur-maturité (over ripeness), or should they wait for full phenolic ripeness to avoid massive sugar levels and green, harsh tannins. The answer to this difficult question would dictate what sort of wines each chateau made and there was no universally accepted ‘right’ way to do things.
This issue of physiological ripeness was particularly acute for Cabernet Sauvignon and therefore it had a much bigger impact on the wines of the Médoc. Estates on the right bank picked relatively early (some getting started in August) as Merlot doesn’t need so long to achieve a high level of phenolic ripeness – the Mouiex properties in Pomerol and St Emilion delayed picking until the first week of September and the fruit they brought in was superb so expectations were high for the quality of the wines. With things a bit more complicated over on the left-bank many winemakers lost their nerve and on the advice of their risk-averse oenologists they sent out the pickers early, missing the opportunity to harvest fruit that would’ve proved to be spectacular if they had waited. Those that did wait were rewarded, producing wines that stand up to those made in the other great vintages of the 20th century.
So how was the vintage received by the critics? Well, at the time there was a great deal of positive press for the ‘89s, resulting in proclamations that it was the vintage of the century. Of course, a century in Bordeaux tends to mean 2 or 3 years, but nevertheless the feeling was very positive and the wines showed very well when they were young, fetching the highest prices of any vintage released up to that point. Michael Broadbent scored the vintage 5* and called it “Unquestionably a great vintage”. Robert Parker has never been quite so enthusiastic as other commentators (with the notable exception of Pomerol), feeling that it pales in comparison to its younger sibling 1990.
The Roberson team have always felt ‘89 has been an excellent performer in the many verticals we’ve hosted, but 21 years on it will be fascinating to taste how the wines have developed with their combination of low acids and high tannins.