Tasting Notes

An appraisal of the 1989 and 1990 vintages - Twenty years on  

The consecutive harvests of 1989 and 1990 are widely acknowledged as producing two of the greatest Loire vintages of the 20th Century, but twenty years on there remains and ongoing debate as to which of the pair is the superior. Is there an obvious stylist difference between the two vintages and does one systematically perform better than the other? Is the quality consistent through all the various appellations and between different the growers?
In order to try and answer some of these questions, a number of like-minded Loire-ophiles freely opened their cellars and converged on Pickworth (the Richards Walford office) in October 2009 and again in April 2010 to consider these questions, tasting through some seventy examples from each vintage sourced from numerous appellations along the Loire.  

Although seventy-plus examples from each vintage might be considered a worthy number to constitute a comprehensive tasting, it should be seen in context of the many thousands of wines produced within the Loire this (and every) vintage. So despite the extensive nature, this exercise should still be viewed as a random census rather than a definitive survey. Despite this caveat, it would be fair to say that the tasting did include those growers who, at that time, would have been viewed as the reference point for their respective appellations. 

Tasting Notes
My tasting notes can be accessed via the links, below.

An appraisal of the 1989 vintage - Twenty years on  

An appraisal of the 1990 vintage - Twenty years on  

Red Wines
As a charitable supporter of Cabernet Franc, I very much wanted to like the wines, but quality was variable and there were too many winemaking faults that hark back to the days of near-medieval winemaking practices. Understandably after twenty years, many of the wines were beginning to tire and dry out, but others showed signs of over-extraction, with too much tannin, or had spent too long in (dubiously maintained) wood. Some were jammy and tasted hot, the result of fermenting at too high a temperature, or where grapes might have simply been harvested too late. Thankfully, improved technology and cellar practices have helped to eliminate some of the issues seen
in these two vintage, and whilst the weather conditions in 1989 and 1990 may not have been seen in a generation, the effect of global warming has ensured that warmer conditions at harvest are becoming much more common. 

If the objective of the comparative tasting was to establish which of the two years was the best vintage, it is clear that there is no clear winner in the red wine category and it comes down to the performance of individual wines. The best examples probably won’t be expected to improve any further, but should offer great drinking pleasure over the next couple of years.

The Sauvignon of the Berry appellations
The handful of wines tasted from the Sauvignon based appellations offered the greatest surprises, with all examples retaining great freshness and, despite their age, distinct varietal character. In the 2002 edition of Michael Broadbent’s ‘Vintage Wines’, he dismisses 1989 Sancerre’s and Pouilly-Fumé as being ‘atypical, a bit too plump, alcoholic and lacking acidity’. That might have been the case for some, but for this commentator at least, it demonstrates that even after 20 years the best producers delivered impeccable wines worthy of ageing.

Based on this relatively small and random selection, the 1989 vintage has the edge over the 1990s, but it very much comes down again to individual performances. 

The Chenin appellations
Both 1989 and 1990 should be seen as exclusively as sweet wine vintages for Chenin Blanc. From the select number of examples of Sec and Demi-Sec tasted, there would be very little to argue against this fact. A surprising number of the Sec suffered from reduction, even after all this time; a classic case of the wines ageing, but never reaching proper maturity. But at the other end of the spectrum, the super rich cuvées, which might have been extremely seductive in their youth were not always the best balanced examples at this stage in their evolution. Whilst the reputation for both years exists for sweet wines, the condition of the grapes at picking couldn't be more different. Whilst 1989 is a year of passillerage, or the natural shriveling of bunches on the vine, 1990 is almost completely botrytised. Certainly the top examples from each flight displayed the individual characteristics of the two vintages. 

It is also clear that Chenin produced in the Touraine appellations of Vouvray and Montlouis were of a much higher standard than those from the various appellations of the Layon; something that is consistent over both vintages. Vouvray towers over Montlouis in terms of overall quality and consistency, although the latter performed much better (in the random selection we tasted) in 1990 than in 1989. Trying to find the quality one would expect to associate with the single appellations of Quarts-de-Chaume and Bonnezeaux over the generic or village appellations of the Layon was all but impossible, with the wines presented from Bonnezeaux being the most disappointing of all. On the basis of these two tastings, there was certainly no justification for the existence of these two Grand Crus, and it's certainly not as if the quality of the generic wines was particularly high.  

Despite the high expectations, the overall impression of the quality of the wines left me a little under-whelmed. At the very pinnacle, the most competent growers had fully realised the potential of the year, but there were, however, too many faults, and the rudimentary nature of paysan winemaking confirms that not every vigneron can make quality wine, even when ideal growing conditions allow. It will come as no surprise that the grower’s considered to be the best in the region at that time were confirmed as such.