More Votes for 1989 Bordeaux
By James Suckling, senior editor
I have taken some heat for writing earlier this year that 1989 is the greatest Bordeaux vintage since 1961, better than such highly touted years as 1990 and 1982 (see "Better Than 1982," May 31).
The criticism has come mostly from claret cognoscenti -- self-confessed Bordeaux wine experts -- who believe for one reason or another that '90 is the superior vintage of our time. I have received everything from polite face-to-face gripes about how I missed the mark to insulting anonymous e-mails describing my palate as "stone" and "inept." Of course, these critics are more than welcome to their opinions. However, some of them must have forgotten that I have always said that '90 is one of "the" great modern vintages, just as I have said from the beginning that '89 was the best since '61. In fact, I have always rated '89 just one point more than '90, or 98 points (out of 100) vs. 97.
These things were all going through my mind in July, when I sat down in front of a row of glasses full of all the first-growths, as well as La Mission-Haut-Brion, from both vintages at a blind tasting in London organized by the blue-chip claret specialists Farr Vintners. It was a small get-together, just eight of us, including two guys from Farr, a television producer, a restaurateur, another wine merchant, a popular actor and a well-known novelist. They were all serious palates and staunch believers in '90 Bordeaux.
The wines were served in a random order. We tasted and rated each wine, one at a time, and we were all asked to give our scores (out of 100 points) for each one. The individual ratings were tallied and then averaged. Stephen Browett, one of the owners of Farr, collected all the wines and threw in a ringer, so there were 13 wines in all.
Overall, there were no dogs in the bunch. Most of the wines received scores in the high 90s, from about 95 points to 100. The only somewhat scruffy wine was the first one, which I thought was slightly corked but others just assumed was musty. It turned out to be the '89 Latour, which received an average score of 88.3 points -- dead last.
My stomach got slightly tight when we found out the first wine was Latour. I felt ready to eat (or at least drink) my words about the '89s. The next wine was the usually phenomenal '89 Haut-Brion, a wine that I gave 100 points to earlier this year. It only mustered fifth place this time around, with an average score of 96.1. I could barely stay in my seat.
But then came the third wine: a first-growth that many believe is the greatest of the '90s -- Margaux. It finished ninth in the tasting, with a meager 93.9 points. Slowly but surely we went through the line of wines. Almost all the '89s were better than their counterparts in '90. After averaging all the scores for each vintage -- not including the ringer -- '89 was the clear choice of the group, with 95.1 points. The '90s averaged 94.2 points. Everyone seemed to agree that the '89s were tighter, more powerful, richer and more complex than their counterparts in '90, which were more open and more ready to drink.
This is good news for anyone who's thought about buying first-growth 1989s. Granted, they're megaexpensive -- anywhere from $150 to $400 a bottle -- but they're about the same price as first-growths from the superlative 1995 vintage and in some cases (Lafite, Latour) as little as one-third the price of their counterparts in '90. Most of the first-growths from the overrated 1996 vintage are also more expensive than those from '89.
Here's a list of the wines and their scores: Pichon-Baron 1990, 99.1; La Mission 1989, 97.5; Margaux 1989, 97.2; Mouton 1989, 96.6; Haut-Brion 1989, 96.1; Haut-Brion 1990, 96.0; Latour 1990, 95.6; Lafite 1989, 95.0; Margaux 1990, 93.9; Mouton 1990, 93.8; La Mission 1990, 93.6; Lafite 1990, 92.1; and Latour 1989, 88.3.
You had to have noticed that the top wine of the tasting was a '90 -- the flaming ringer! It received an average of 99.1 points, miles ahead of everything else. Maybe it was the most open or the most racy compared to the big-gun first-growths. Who cares, anyway? It was a great glass of wine, and it only goes to prove that '90 produced some phenomenal wines, even if the vintage overall was not as great as '89.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Suckling. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)