Conclusions from the tasting:
This 1989 Bordeaux blends tasting as the first in the two 2019 Summer FAWC ! Library Tastings got off to a shaky start. No less than three of the eight Bordeaux wines were corked, an unprecedented experience for me, whereas not one of the four New Zealand wines was affected. Yet popular mythology of the day (and subsequently) states that New Zealand, being at the end of the world from the cork producers’ viewpoint, routinely received the lowest quality corks in the world. In wine, always question the conventional wisdom.
These 1989s were assembled by Hawkes Bay wine-man Nick Stewart, as part of his wide-ranging wine activities. Nick was keen to taste the wines, and asked me to present this tasting as part of the FAWC ! programme. In hindsight, we should have deferred it till we had some reserve 1989 Bordeaux. But who would anticipate three corked among eight reputable Bordeaux labels ? Accordingly we had to present defective wines, and ask people to try to see through the faults. For one of the wines that proved near-impossible. Not ideal.
The notes below indicate my best guess at a ranking of good bottles, for two of the TCA-affected wines. They combine first impressions with those of successive days, all the wine samples being kept in tasting glasses under ice, the defective wines with 100 mm² of Gladwrap® in each glass. Happily, the wine considered to be one of the top wines of the vintage (by overseas wine writers) was in excellent shape. It was so good, and such a vivid example of the quality to be found in fine Bordeaux at 30 years of age, that for many tasters it almost made up for the tainted wines.
In a tasting set back a little by so many TCA-affected bottles, nonetheless the good wines created much pleasure for participants. From the left: 1989 Ch Brane-Cantenac, a Margaux Second Growth, a little more oaky and developed than hoped, sturdy rather than exciting bordeaux, 17.5; next the revelation of the tasting, 1989 Matawhero Cabernet / Merlot from Gisborne showing international-level ripeness and dry extract, a little too oaky but exciting, 17.5; 1989 Ch Pichon Lalande, Pauillac Second Growth, elegant wine but with that tell-tale thread of leafiness that petite verdot so often brings to this wine, 17.5 +; 1989 Ch Grande-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac Fifth Growth, as so often punching above its weight, cedary, balanced, ripe and lovely, 18; 1989 Ch Gruaud-Larose, Saint-Julien Second Growth, basically a lovely wine, with cassisy berry and supremely subtle oak handling (see text), 18 +; and 1989 Ch Pichon-Longueville Baron, in another class from the other wines, beautiful berry, subtle oak, great richness, a stand-out wine with six first-place votes, 19 +.In a tasting such as this, one expects some of the bordeaux to be good – as a matter of course. The single most staggering outcome of this tasting was to demonstrate that Gisborne, a district traditionally dismissed as a hopeless red wine place by the cognoscenti, can in exceptional vintages make fine red wines, even in the most demanding (for New Zealand ) cabernet sauvignon-dominant class. The single reason for this unusual result is cropping rate. Given fertile soils even on the hills (by vine standards), the perennial problem in Gisborne has been over-cropping, and hence the inability of the vine to properly ripen red varieties. Many years of dreadful weedy Montana Merlots illustrate this exactly.
In contrast, Denis Irwin (and his father Bill before him) right from the outset in the 1970s, cropped their vines more along the lines of classic French AOC practice. One only has to recall the 1978 Matawhero Gewurztraminer, a wine famous in its day, to know that was true. And at the time that this 1989 Cabernet / Merlot was made, Hatsch Kalberer was co-winemaker with Denis, and very much reinforced the tendency to European viticultural and winemaking practices. This 1989 Matawhero Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot shows exactly the same depth of dry extract as that earlier Gewurztraminer, reflecting a conservative cropping rate and hence appropriate physiological maturity being achieved in the berries – leading to really ripe flavours. It is to be hoped that latterday Gisborne winemakers can learn (even now) from these remarkable viticultural pioneers.
Background information for participants:
Everybody talks about 1990 Bordeaux, so much so that 1989 is rather overlooked. But it is in fact a remarkable vintage, though one of a hotter year. Such wines do not necessarily suit traditionalists. It was the hottest summer since 1949. Picking of the reds started in August … the 28th … Broadbent records that is the earliest start date since 1893. But it was not an easy year, for there were rains as well as heat in September, and problems with what were seen then as unnaturally high sugars, with consequent difficulties in fermentation for some, since temperature-controlled fermenters were still not universal in 1989. Yet at the same time some of the tannins did not ripen sweetly at all – some of the cabernet sauvignon-led wines show a lack of physiological maturity in the fruit. Merlot was much better. The style of the wines tends to higher tannins and low acid. Pomerol excelled.
Broadbent says: “What is certain is that with the euphoria and general satisfaction with the 1980s, ending up with the magnificent twins of ‘89 and ‘90 …” and then compares them with “the earlier twins, 1899 and 1900” ! As only Michael Broadbent could do. He goes on to say: “When youthful, the wines almost without exception were extraordinarily appealing. I personally thought we were in for … an early developer. In fact what seems to have happened is a sort of reversal of roles, the tannin becoming more noticeable, turning the ‘89s into a much longer-haul vintage than I had anticipated.”
Robert Parker has probably undertaken the most careful analysis of the 1989 and 1990 vintages, and is careful to point out that there were circumstantial as well as technical factors which led to unwisely early picking in 1989, some of the wines showing a lack of ripeness in the tannins. That mistake was followed in some cases by a lack of careful selection for the grand vin bottling. He feels the lesson was learned for the 1990 vintage, and a much greater discrimination and consistency in that year's bottlings is clearly tasteable, in comparative line-ups.
Parker writes: “I have consistently written that 1990 is a greater vintage overall than 1989. ... With the exception of Pomerol, and the two splendid performances by La Mission-Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion in 1989, 1990 usually triumphs in side by side tastings of the two vintages. There are several other exceptions, but in general, the 1990s are more concentrated, complex, and richer than their 1989 counterparts, excepting, of course, the Pomerols, and 1989 La Mission-Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion, which are undoubtedly legendary wines. ... One of the surprising disappointments of the 1989 vintage is the uninspiring performance of the Médoc first-growths. The 1989 Latour, Château Margaux, and Mouton-Rothschild are very good to excellent wines, but they are completely overshadowed by other top wines of this vintage.”
To sum up the style of the vintage, Broadbent says of 1989: “Unquestionably a great vintage and one which brought the decade to a resounding close.” And in his more recent and highly regarded book The Complete Bordeaux, Stephen Brook writes: “The wines are quite burly, but undeniably rich and powerful, and the best of them are superb. In some cases they were superior to the 1982s, not because of climatic conditions but because most wineries were far better equipped to deal with a hot and precocious harvest. … Alcohol levels are high (for Bordeaux) and acidities are relatively low, but that has not prevented many of the wines from ageing majestically. Both the Medoc and the Graves did exceptionally well, and the Right Bank benefited greatly from the precocity of the Merlot.”
Vintage charts: For the Robert Parker vintage chart, where five Bordeaux districts are plotted, the scores for the 1989s range from 86 to 96, and average 89.8. By way of contrast, the 1990 scores range from 90 to 98, averaging 94.4, a substantial difference. Wine Spectator (who I think have the edge on Parker for thoughtfulness in their vintage charts) are the other way round, 98 for 1989, “bold, dramatic fruit character; tannic and long-aging”, and 97 for 1990, “opulent, well-structured and harmonious.”
In New Zealand, it is now hard to find records in print. As always, Michael Cooper steps into the breach, and he is in no doubt, in his 1990 publication. For 1989, he rates Auckland, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay as 7/7, the only year in the decade with such a result. 1990 is 4 – 6. There is little doubt 1989 was one of our best vintages, in that whole era. This should add considerably to the calibre of the tasting.
In this first FAWC ! tasting assembled by Hawkes Bay wine-man Nick Stewart of Stewart Financial Group, and (at Nick’s insistence) presented by Wellingtonian Geoff Kelly, we will have eight highly-regarded (but not the most expensive) 1989 Bordeaux classed growths set against four of New Zealand's best 1989 cabernet / merlot blends. One of the Bordeaux is from Pomerol, so merlot-dominant. The New Zealand wines will be the top two Waiheke Island Cabernet / Merlots of the time, and two of Hawkes Bay’s best. [ Later comment: In the event, one of the Hawkes Bay wines was not of a quality sufficient to present, and an extraordinary Gisborne red was substituted – to great advantage.] Vintage conditions were favourable in all locations. A tasting like this is rare now, in New Zealand, and will be full of interest.
Robert Parker and associates have marked the eight bordeaux between 88 and 95 points. Pichon-Baron was the most exciting for Parker, in early days: “The 1989 is this property's finest wine in at least three decades. … exceptional extract and super-ripeness, its aroma reminded me of essence of cassis and plums intertwined with the scent of smoky new oak. Spectacularly rich and ripe …, 95.” Latterly, the Brane-Cantenac has appealed to Neal Martin (when at www.robertparker.com), though he paints a picture of a smaller and subtler wine: “beautifully defined bouquet with ample red berries, cold tea, sous-bois, tobacco and mint, 94.”
For the New Zealand wines, it is harder to get a clear report. Our most consistent reporter, Michael Cooper, was in the very early stages of developing a format for his admirable and continuing series of the Buyer’s Guide. But the impression comes through of the substituted Matawhero and Coleraine perhaps being fractionally riper than the two Waiheke wines. It will be fascinating to see how these four wines, three of them acknowledged leaders among the New Zealand Cabernet / Merlot pack, sit amidst varying examples of classic classed-growth bordeaux.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent’s Wine Vintages. Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Brook, Stephen, 2007: The Complete Bordeaux. Mitchell Beazley, 720 p.
Cooper, Michael 1990: Michael Cooper’s Pocket Guide to New Zealand Wines & Vintages. Hodder & Stoughton, 256 p.
Cooper, M. 2002: Michael Cooper’s Buyers Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder Moa Beckett, 373 p.
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and increasingly the associates (subscription needed for reviews)
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding (subscription needed for reviews)
www.winespectator.com = vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED, CABERNET / MERLOT:
The first ‘price’ given is the current wine-searcher value. An approximation of the original purchase price is given in the text, if evidence is available. In the reviews, I try to contrast a British view with a United States one. Where possible, the data provided is for the ‘80s, not currently.
1989 Ch Beychevelle, Saint-Julien
1989 Ch Brane-Cantenac, Margaux
1989 Ch La Fleur-Pétrus, Pomerol
1989 Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac
1989 Ch Gruaud Larose, Saint-Julien
1989 Ch Pichon-Longueville Baron, Pauillac
|1989 Ch Pichon Longueville Lalande, Pauillac|
1989 Ch Prieuré-Lichine, Margaux
1989 Goldwater Cabernet / Merlot / Franc, Waiheke Is.
1989 Matawhero Cabernet / Merlot, Gisborne
1989 Stonyridge Vineyard CS / Me Larose, Waiheke Is.
1989 Te Mata Estate Coleraine, Hawkes Bay
Ruby, velvet and some garnet, the deepest wine, and midway in the ruby : garnet stakes. Right from first opening, this wine smelt gorgeous: a lovely depth of fragrant cassisy berry browning now, some complex dark pipe-tobacco notes, and cedary oak. Palate is by an order of magnitude the richest wine on the table, showing perfect ripeness of the cabernet component, a big velvety mouthful of ripe fruit with beautiful oak, no hint of over-ripeness, and great length of classic Bordeaux flavours. I’m sure the alcohol is higher than the given 13%, though. This was one of the most popular wines, six first-places, one second. It is at a peak of maturity, and will hold this form for another 10 – 20 years, then decline gracefully. Definitive claret, in a New Zealand context. GK 11/19
Ruby, some velvet, clearly the reddest wine, and the third deepest. At the tasting, this wine was somewhat affected by TCA. It responded well to the Gladwrap® treatment, opening up over several days to reveal beautiful, surprisingly fresh, cassisy berry, with subtle cedary oak. Palate richness and ripeness increased too, to be one of the more substantial wines in the set, with attractive berry, though not comparing with the Pichon Baron. It was the subtlety of the oak handling that made the most impression on me. A good bottle would be lovely wine, probably scoring more highly. Despite the TCA, its Bordeaux qualities shone through, only two tasters thinking it might be a New Zealand wine. With its youthful appearance, it should cellar for 10 – 15 years more. GK 11/19
Ruby, garnet and velvet, one of the redder wines, in the middle for depth. On bouquet this wine was classic last-century Grand-Puy-Lacoste, fragrant, soft, and exquisitely cedary, with beautiful browning berry below. On palate it tastes simply Pauillac, not as rich as the top two, but beautifully ripe and balanced, delightful claret. There is this lovely smell of cedar, without the oaky taste of the New Zealand wines. At the tasting, the wine was so subtle as to not stand out: one top place, three second. This seems further along its plateau of maturity than the top two, but should be attractive for another 10 years. It is a delight with food. GK 11/19
Ruby, garnet and velvet, midway in both depth and the ratio of ruby to garnet. This wine had a most distinctive (positive) bouquet, showing a freshness and almost a hint of leafyness / potential pale tobacco, with somewhat redder fruits than the cassis-dominated top three. In mouth any doubt one had about under-ripeness is counterbalanced by the richness and purity, so while there may be a hint of stalks (perhaps from the petit verdot, which was higher then than now), the wine comes across as simply lovely claret in the English style. Or should I say the earlier English style. One person had the Lalande as their top wine, but six as the second-favourite: interesting. This wine too should be attractive for another 10 years. GK 11/19
Ruby, garnet and velvet, above midway in both depth, and ruby in favour of garnet. The amazing thing about this wine is the richness, ripeness and purity of the berry. I have never before seen a cabernet / merlot from Gisborne anywhere near this ripe. The cropping rate must have been off-the-scale low in the context of of the times. Or even now, for many producers. As soon as you taste it, the quality of cassisy berry is remarkable, but the oak is higher than one would wish, as is usually the case with New Zealand reds. Even so, the total achievement is phenomenal, for the times. It reflects great credit on the aspirations of the wine makers, Hatsch Kalberer (now Fromm) and Denis Irwin. As for the Brane-Cantenac, people like oak: three first-places, three second. There is no hurry at all with this wine, oak notwithstanding – it has at least another 10 years in hand, maybe more. Is there any New Zealand 1989 Cabernet / Merlot better than this ? GK 11/19
Garnet, ruby and velvet, just above midway in depth, below midway in favour of garnet. This is the first of the Bordeaux to smell oaky as well as cedary, on cassisy and plummy fruit markedly browning. Palate has fair richness, but less balance than the top wines, the wine being long on oak rather more than berry. As always in New Zealand, people like oak: four first-places, four second-places. This wine too is further along its plateau of maturity: the oak will increase over the next 10 years or so, as the fruit fades. GK 11/19
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth, and midway in ruby : garnet. At the tasting, this was the least TCA-affected wine of the three affected wines, but since it is lighter, the taint seemed more apparent. It cleared up well, once treated with Gladwrap® and left standing overnight in the glass. The wine shows elegant lightish cassisy berry browning now, with beautifully balanced cedary oak. Palate is lighter than the bouquet suggests, cabernet dominant, just a hint of under-ripeness but in a different less elegant way than the Lalande, the wine slightly more austere. It is not as ripe or rich as the Matawhero, but the oak handling is excellent. It would be good in a dinner context. This 1989 Beychevelle is nearing the end of its plateau of maturity, and will be drying soon. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, the second-deepest wine, but below midway in the ratio of ruby : garnet. Bouquet is softer and less aromatic than the Ch Beychevelle, more browning plums than cassis, as befits its higher merlot, the fruit extended on a prominent dark pipe-tobacco note as well as cedary oak. Palate seems both softer yet a little oaky, and just starting to dry. Like the Ch Beychevelle, this wine was seen as very much in the middle, no votes. It too would be good with food. Nearly at the end of its plateau of maturity. GK 11/19
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth but one of the redder wines. As with all the New Zealand wines except the Matawhero, you smell the oak before the fruit, but the wine is clean and aromatic. Palate is skinny after the Bordeaux, the cabernet seeming cassisy yet lacking fruit and dry extract. There isn't much body to roll around on the tongue, just oak molecules. But the nett flavour is refreshing in a New World way, clearly cassisy but also a trace of methoxypyrazines, long on the oak. Again, oak was liked, three people rating Coleraine their second-favourite wine. It will hold this form for several years yet. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, the second-lightest wine, more garnet than ruby. Bouquet is both clearly under-ripe, and very oaky, but fragrant, and loosely in style. Palate is interesting, being richer than the Coleraine (or Goldwater) but not as ripe as the former. Except for the Matawhero, all the New Zealand wines lack fruit (dry extract) relative to the Bordeaux, and here there is a clear suggestion of methoxypyrazines. The long flavour is oak. Accustomed as we are in New Zealand to under-ripened, over-oaked cabernet / merlot blends, this fragrant wine was well received, six first-places, one second. Clearly more ‘bordeaux blend’ blind tastings are required in the Hawkes Bay district. Near the end of its plateau of maturity. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, the lightest and least red / most garnet wine. Bouquet is fragrant, but for the wrong reasons, being both clearly under-ripe with the most marked methoxypyrazines in the set, and far too oaky. Palate still shows some stalky browning fruits more redcurrant than blackcurrant, but the long flavour is oak. It is perfectly wholesome in its fruitless, under-ripe, oaky way, but the oak will become more noticeable if it is kept any longer. Best finished up with capsicum-rich pizza. GK 11/19
Garnet, ruby and some velvet, below midway in depth, and the second most garnet. As the only East Bank wine in the set, hopes were high for this wine to speak about merlot. But one sniff, and it was not to be. The wine was both TCA-affected, but also it had a more profound cork-related issue best described as earthy at best / rotting mushrooms. Beyond those characters, there is rich markedly-browning plummy fruit, and no cabernet aromatics, with a very plump mouth-feel bespeaking good dry extract. Mushroomy berry, dark tobacco and cedary oak meld into a long rich tanniny flavour … but distinctly impure. A good bottle would be a rich round velvety wine, and might have been around 18 points, maybe more. Unlike the other two TCA-affected wines, for this wine I am not attempting an unimpaired score. Freshly opened, it was without doubt the least-liked wine in the set. Once treated for TCA, it later became barely OK with food, in an earthy way. GK 11/19