A Century of Bordeaux: The Nines


Last year, Vinous published “A Century of Bordeaux”, essentially a pimped-up version of the common-or-garden “Ten Years On” Bordeaux report expanded to include decennial overviews stretching all the way back to 1918. It was intended as an annual feature, and naturally I looked forward to tasting and writing the follow-up, ingeniously titled “A Century of Bordeaux: The Nines.” Alas, my plans were nixed by a bit of unforeseen surgery that precluded traveling, as well as the tastings that are sources of ancient bottles and attendant notes.

But I am not defeated that easily. Firstly, a couple of malfunctioning arteries did not stop my attending a comprehensive blind tasting of 2009s in London last February (notes already published by Vinous). Conveniently, after one of those sessions, we convened at the excellent Hatched restaurant in Clapham for a 1989-themed dinner that included some wonderful bottles. Furthermore, in a rare instance of fortuitous forward planning, when touring châteaux to taste 2016s in bottle last December, at my request practically every property opened their 1989 and 1999, not least because winemakers wanted to taste those vintages themselves.

Consequently, I ended up with a brace of tasting notes that, while not quite as comprehensive as originally intended, furnishes readers with over 100 reviews focused on two contrasting vintages. These are in addition to various verticals already published on Vinous in recent months, just in case you were wondering about glaring omissions such as Brane-Cantenac, Petrus or Lafite-Rothschild. As the icing on the cake, I augmented these notes with a smattering of numerically themed older vintages back to 1929. While I am in possession of a note from 1919, that is earmarked for another forthcoming vertical, so I substituted the only 1899 I have ever tasted. 

Twenty Years On: 1999

Let us begin with Prince’s favorite year, 1999. In retrospect it seems an innocent period in history compared to today’s turbulent times. It was the calm before the storm. Mobile phones and the internet were rapidly becoming essential parts of everyday lives as we bought Nokia flip phones and signed up for AOL, crossing our fingers that the Y2K bug was not the end of the world. That year, Bill Clinton was acquitted and Vladimir Putin became the Russian president. Tony Blair was still popular. A pigtailed Britney Spears danced suggestively through the locker room, pleading to be hit one more time, although Napster meant you no longer had to buy the music from Woolworths or Tower Records. The Matrix was the big summer draw and children lapped up J.K. Rowling’s Prisoner of Azkaban as Harry Potter became a worldwide phenomenon. Me? I was living in a one-bedroom flat in Crystal Palace and working for a Japanese wine importer, just commencing my WSET diploma. I tasted the Bordeaux 1999s from barrel the following spring. Perhaps it says something about their impact that I hold no vivid recollections about that particular en primeur... or it could just be my old age.

Nineteen ninety-nine is a vintage that has slipped between the cracks, insofar as the wines were neither good nor bad enough to stick in the forefront of our collective memory. This renders them ripe for reevaluation. Quality was sufficiently good that many of the top names should continue drinking well, though the wines have not attracted speculation from investors and so market prices have remained comparatively modest.

Growing Season

After an unremarkable March, April was wet but warmed up toward the end. Growth was quite precocious and the vines flowered during a window of hot, dry days between May 23 and June 1. The Merlot flowered rapidly and yields were potentially high. Though June and July were hot, the Cabernets lagged behind. Storms thundered across the region on August 3, 6 and 7 and deluged the region with up to three inches of rain; however, between mid-August and mid-September, the weather turned warm and conditions appeared ideal for harvest. Things started to go awry on September 5, when severe hailstorms decimated localized parts of Saint-Émilion around Canon, Angélus and Clos-Fourtet. Then 100mm of rain fell on a soggy September 20 and, facing potential dilution, châteaux had to practice severe selection and reduce the must-to-juice ratio before fermentation. Most of the crop was picked between September 12 and October 5, the best wines tending to be those whose bunches were safely in before September 20. In a cruel twist of fate, a fortnight of clement weather settled in from October 5. The crop was 5% larger than in 1998, though the combination of green harvesting and declassification at harvest served to regulate yields.

The first pair shown by Jean-Philippe Delmas: 1999 Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion.

The Wines

Reacquainting myself with the 1999s, I noticed how many had not been tasted since I attended ten-years-on horizontals in 2009, evidence that 1999 is overlooked, forgotten or just plain ignored by wine lovers and Bordeaux winemakers alike. It is a vintage that has always avoided headlines. The only time it grabbed my attention was when some 1999 Pomerols performed above expectations – most notably Lafleur, excluded from this article, as it formed part of my vertical last year. It probably has the edge over the 1999 Petrus, retasted at the property with winemaker Olivier Berrouet, which is commendable for the vintage yet not spectacular. (Following the stupendous 1998 was an impossible task.) The 1999 Le Pin is maturing extremely well in bottle and might be one of the “cheaper” vintages in the last two decades if you are determined to experience a mature bottle. Vieux-Château-Certan continues to drink well and offers value for money; likewise a solid Trotanoy.

No château was able to really transcend the 1999 growing season, though 1999 La Mission Haut-Brion comes close. The wines are generally enjoyable, but they don’t set your pulse racing or cause your heart to miss a beat, which probably makes them ideal for anyone who has just undergone coronary surgery. In fact, you are more likely to forget you tasted them by the following week. After 20 years, the 1999s have not undergone some miraculous uptick in quality; they are what you expect.

There were a couple of misfiring bottles, notably a very odd bottle of Figeac that left even winemaker Frédéric Faye scratching his head (I have encountered better in the past) and a bottle of Ducru Beaucaillou that felt a little overdone, as if trying too hard to impress (ditto). Much better was the 1999 Palmer, a terrific Margaux that manages to come across both sumptuous and structured; it is a great success for the estate. Likewise, I have always adored the 1999 Pontet-Canet, which, like Palmer, predates the introduction of biodynamics. It is beautifully balanced and delivers a wonderfully persistent finish. To be honest, 1999 was a growing season that capped the performances of the First Growths, none of which were really able to put a gap in quality between themselves and other Grand Cru Classés. Perhaps I would look at Saint-Julien, an appellation that as usual performs very consistently, especially any with “Léoville” in the name, Barton, Poyferré or Las Cases. Those capped performances, or what you might call “leveling off of quality,” are exemplified chez Montrose, where tasting side-by-side, I was hard-pressed to really distinguish much between the Grand Vin and Deuxième Vin, La Dame de Montrose.

Maybe 1999 is a case of what could have been. Over the years, I have been vocal in my objection to excessively late picking; however, in this year, it seems clear that many wines did not reach their full potential because harvests were expedited after the rains. Maybe these days, winemakers or chefs de culture would take the gamble: wait it out and deselect lots that do not reach standards. The one redeeming factor is that the prices of 1999s have remained static, making them a good value compared to other vintages. Most will not benefit from continued cellaring and yet few seem to be really tiring. I expect many will taste similar in another 10 years, with a little more fraying around the edges.

Bottles of 1989 Bordeaux gathered at Hatched restaurant in London, which included a three-way taste-off between 1989 Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and La Tour Haut-Brion.

Thirty Years On: 1989

Nineteen eighty-nine was one of the most eventful years of my lifetime, and it was unusual in terms of uplifting news that provided a glimmer of optimism to this then-18-year-old. The Berlin Wall crumbled and Germany celebrated reunification with a David Hasselhoff concert. The Iron Curtain began falling away nation by nation and the Cold War ended at the summit between George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet (I’m not sure just how successful that was). The year witnessed tragedy, too, at Hillsborough Stadium and in Tiananmen Square. We flocked to the cinema to watch Jack Nicholson ham it up in Batman, danced to Soul II Soul’s funky beats and donned ludicrous baggy jeans like the Stone Roses. It was also a pivotal year for me personally. I left home in Leigh-on-Sea for university and met my first serious girlfriend while working at the deli counter at Sainsbury’s – love across the taramasalata. Wine was nowhere near my radar. Life was about partying from dusk to dawn, being naive and in love.

The reputation of the 1989 Bordeaux vintage is an interesting one. Whereas some vintages are fixed in people’s minds, 1989 divided opinion from its inception, though perceptions were inevitably molded by the man from Monkton. It has undergone reappraisal in recent years, so that at 30 years old, I would argue, its stock is in fact higher than a decade ago.

The Growing Season

The 1989 vintage is renowned for both a hot summer and one of the earliest pickings up to that date. Budbreak was three weeks later than average, slowed down by an inclement April, then May was sunny and warm, the vines basking in 50% more hours of sun than normal. Flowering was early, at the end of May. The weather stayed hot from June to September, averaging 20.9°C (around the same as in 1947) and extraordinarily dry, receiving just 195mm of rain between May and September, relieved by sharp deluges in August. By the end of that month, the vines had reached potential alcohol levels that would normally prompt picking, yet the brevity of the season meant that the berries were not physiologically mature. Pick or wait: that same old dilemma. Some, like Vieux-Château-Certan and Haut-Brion, picked their Merlot early, from the end of August, while others opted to hold back. Yields were enormous, especially for Merlot, which unofficially topped 100hl/ha at some properties. The Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested over an extended period depending on the decisions of vineyard managers, when they had last sprayed their vines and the more mundane yet crucial matter of whether pickers were available, resulting in an enormous span of picking, between August 28 and October 15. The wines had troubled births, some Merlots lacking acidity and the Cabernets excessively tannic, which may have dented their reception out of barrel the following year. The man from Monkton wrote: “In general, the wines are the most alcoholic in Bordeaux I have ever tasted, ranging from 12.8% to 14.5% for some Pomerols.” Given that a few years later some Right Banks clocked in at 16.5% alcohol, those levels seem modest.

The Wines

I have to confess that I was looking forward to reevaluating the 1989s more than the 1999s, in no small part because the reputation of the 1989s has always been in a state of flux, never quite reaching consensus. Coming off the back of the well-received 1988, and with stocks of 1985 and 1986 floating about, the 1989s met a rapturous reception that was immediately questioned and labeled as merchant hyperbole. There was a bit of overexcited rhetoric, but more importantly, it is a vintage that does not conform to the Bordeaux hierarchy, being populated by more under- and over-performers than usual. Nineteen eighty-nine is a “cosplay” vintage insofar as a handful of properties dressed up as First Growths, acted like First Growths and, most importantly, taste like First Growths. Let’s name names.

From my forays into attaching words to wine, I put my neck out and averred that the 1989 Pichon Baron and 1989 Lynch Bages were equal to, if not better than, the First Growths. Upon reaching their 30-year milestones, I find no reason to alter that view; both remain high points on the Left Bank, probably because to varying degrees, Jean-Michel Cazes is behind both. I tasted the 1989 with the great man himself, and he remarked that it remains one of his greatest successes at Lynch-Bages, though he regrets how few bottles remain at the property. Or there is the stunning 1989 Montrose. I have encountered this wine dozens of times and it can reach perfection. My last bottle at the 1989 dinner at Hatched did not quite achieve that, though it remains a remarkable Saint-Estèphe. Far and away the finest Montrose of that decade, it is cut from a very different cloth than the 1990, albeit with less preponderance of Brettanomyces, depending upon what bottle you have. Likewise, Château Palmer produced a wine that is within touching distance of the 1983, quintessentially Margaux thanks to its floral nose and as vigorous today as when I first tasted it 20 years ago.

How do these overachievers compare to the First Growth at age 30? Well, they are mostly better. Their reputations were tarnished by criticism meted out by Robert Parker that prevailed throughout the 1990s and stuck with them. Though we disagree on some matters, here he was correct. For example, when tasting blind the 1988, 1989 and 1990 Lafite-Rothschild at the property last year, I much preferred the less-fashionable 1988. The 1989 Mouton-Rothschild is decent, though it pales in comparison to recent vintages under Philippe Dhalluin and does display some variation. Likewise, there was nothing wrong with the 1989 Latour... unless you serve it beside the likes of Lynch-Bages or even the commendable 1989 Les Forts de Latour, still chugging along nicely at 30 years old.

None of the First Growths can hold a candle to the legendary 1989 Haut-Brion, one of the few wines that, irrespective of predilection, draws consensus in terms of its greatness. Though I am fortunate to have tasted it numerous times over its 20 years, I had never done so at the property. Jean-Philippe Delmas, whose father Jean-Bernard made the wine, kindly opened a bottle and served it against its one challenger: 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion. In fact, this comparison was undertaken twice for this report, at the château and then a month later at the 1989 dinner in London. The reason I wanted to compare them side by side, sensorial pleasure aside, is that I am convinced that in recent years the La Mission Haut-Brion has crept up and questioned the inviolable supremacy of Haut-Brion. A spellbinding bottle of 1989 La Mission served blind at a lunch in London three years ago rammed this point home. While all the attention focused upon the First Growth, could its sibling have bided its time and begun ratcheting up through the gears in the 21st century? Well, both bottles completely took my breath away, and as much as I have no wish to sit on the fence, both are perfection. I might contentiously suggest that the 1989 La Mission could become the more consistent of the two, since I have encountered a soupçon more variability with respect to Haut-Brion. Does La Mission have a little more gas in the engine? We’ll have a lot of fun finding out.

The Right Bank boasts a cluster of sensational 1989s, many lavished with praise in previous reports on Vinous, not least the ethereal 1989 Petrus, which I’ll review again as part of a forthcoming vertical, and the 1989 Lafleur, which has pulled away from its 1990 counterpart in recent years. The 1989 Clinet shot to fame thanks to its perfect score from you-know-who, although several encounters evince a capricious, dare I say “unreliable” Pomerol that ranges from perfection to vexation. My most recent bottle was very impressive, though it showed noticeable volatility. (Incidentally, my best experiences with the 1989 Clinet have both come from magnums.) In terms of value, perhaps the two best Pomerols are the 1989 La Conseillante and Vieux-Château-Certan, the latter one of Alexandre Thienpont’s favorite vintages.

Not every Right deserves praise: Trotanoy was disappointing in the context of the vintage, and Pavie-Macquin was a little leathery and rustic in style though still enjoyable in its own way. And as an ardent admirer of the dearly departed Magdelaine, perhaps I was expecting more from the 1989; instead, I much preferred the almost Burgundy-like 1989 Le Tertre-Rôteboeuf, one of François Mitjavile’s great successes of that decade and even more impressive from this perfectly stored magnum. The 1989 Troplong-Mondot, again tasted from magnum at the property, just feels fatigued by comparison, and likewise, the Canon-la-Gaffelière suggests that it reached the end of its drinking plateau a few years back.

You probably get the picture by now. The 1989 vintage is a mercurial, topsy-turvy vintage of extremes, a vintage in which every wine has its unique and divaricated evolutionary arc, some impressive from birth and others requiring years in the cellar before hinting at their latent attributes. That makes the vintage both difficult and infuriating for wine lovers to pin down, and yet unceasingly fascinating to taste and reassess – and one that I always relish meeting.

The lineup of 1989s at Mouton-Rothschild demonstrated how far many of these wines have progressed in recent years.

Final Thoughts

I will leave readers to browse through the notes. There are plenty of older reviews included in this report, including rarely seen vintages such as 1969 and even 1939. With respect to the two main focuses, 1989 remains a variable vintage, albeit one that I personally find endlessly fascinating. It serves as a reminder that while nowadays some proclaim that Bordeaux can be consumed early, it cannot provide when young the secondary aromas and flavors, the absorbing evolutionary arcs and profound enjoyment of imbibing history. The 1999 vintage could be traduced as a lesson in mediocrity, but that is harsh; there are some lovely wines that have lasted 20 years. However, it is a reminder that some vintages offer low returns for cellaring. That is why it is so important to keep returning to bottles again and again, especially when you can juxtapose one against another. Next year, I will report on “A Century of Bordeaux: The Zeros.” Let’s see what nothing has in store...

(My thanks to those who proffered some magnificent bottles at the 1989 dinner at Hatched.) 

You Might Also Enjoy

A Test Of Greatness: 2009 Bordeaux Ten Years On, Neal Martin, March 2019

Long Distance Runner: Brane-Cantenac 1924-2015, Neal Martin, January 2019

Enigma Variations: Lafleur 1955-2015, Neal Martin, November 2018

Sharing Alike: Petrus 1947 - 2015, Neal Martin, September 2018

Looking Back To Go Forward: Lafite-Rothschild 1868 – 2015, Neal Martin, July 2018

A Century of Bordeaux: The Eights, Neal Martin, May 2018