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The 1990 Vintage in Europe

by Tom Cannavan, 09/00

This is the major event in my personal wine-tasting year, a chance for me to pull together wine-loving friends and regular tasting pals to make a dent in my cellar and enjoy dinner. Once again, we were blessed with fine evening weather, so we warmed up in the garden with a glass or two of the mature and succulent Hüffelsheimer Steyer Riesling Auslese 1989 from Weingut Antoniushof, or the Hochheimer Kirchenstück Riesling Spätlese 1997 from Franz Künstler which was sweet, racy and mineral-laden.

The tasting itself was of 18 wines, which were served blind. The stated theme was the 1990 vintage in Europe, but I also included a couple of "ringers" - one wine was from 1991, and one from 1988. There was also supposed to be a real treat to culminate the Burgundies; the 1967 Richebourg from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti which Clive Coates regards as the best red wine of the vintage. Unfortunately the wine was badly maderised, once again proving the old adage that there are no great old wines; only great old bottles.

At the end of the tasting guests were asked to give a single vote for most enjoyable wine. We then enjoyed a palate-refreshing glass of the 1990 Veuve-Clicquot before settling down for a dinner of smoked fish soup, followed by roast herb-crusted loin of lamb, followed by a light chocolate and maple syrup tart.

The first few flights of white wines included a German Trocken Riesling that for some around the table was a bit of a culture shock, its classic sherbet-lemon and melted wax aromatics being followed by a bone-dry, grapefruity palate. The Puligny-Montrachet was, unfortunately, oxidised with a rather flat palate.

White Wines

Veuve Clicquot, Vintage Champagne 1990
Only a brief mouthful or two due to kitchen duties, but an obviously cracking V-C with beautifully toasty, rich, nutty character beginning to develop on top of crisp, cool lemon and pear fruit. Lots of body and richness to the mousse and fantastic length. An absolute beauty.

von Schubert (M-S-R) Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken 1990
Seductively waxy yet lemon-sharp nose with nettle and petrolly nuances. All sorts of intriguing citrus fruit and mineral nuances with glimpses of peachier richness. On the palate it is absolutely bone dry, the crisp lemon fruit merging with quite pithy grapefruit acidity. This is definitely a wine that needs food, but the length is very good and it has plenty of fruit so should cellar quite well.

Louis Jadot (Burgundy) Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Referts 1990
Unfortunately oxidised. I didn't write a note at this tasting, though I last opened a bottle of this in June 1998.

Louis Jadot (Burgundy) Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 1988
Distinctly nutty, aromatic nose suggesting toasted sesame seeds, coconut and vanilla. There is plenty of fruit too, apple and melon with a ripe, honeyed edge. Lovely. The palate is truly opulent, lush but well-balanced with a mass of ripe orchard fruits and again a nuttiness that keeps it really chewy and savoury. Acidity is moderate and the long finish is very pure, very generous and full of fruit. The best showing yet for a wine I've drunk many times in the past five years and which wears its powerful oakiness well. My white wine of the night and the favourite of the crowd - many of whom thought it might be younger than 1990, let alone a couple of years older.

Michel Niellon (Burgundy) Chassagne-Montrachet 1995
(Served with dinner after the formal tasting). Very powerful nose with plenty of spicy, toasted oak but plenty of punchy citrus fruit. Quite full-bodied with good concentration, this seems quite straightforward and fruit-driven with little hints of steely backbone and a fine, pure finish with a balanced acidity. A lovely food wine.

Red Wines


The red wine selection for the evening commenced with a set of five Burgundies, one village wine, two 1er Cru and two Grand Cru. The Grands Echézeaux was a "ringer" in that it was from 1991, not 1990

Rossignol-Trapet (Burgundy) Gevrey-Chambertin 1990
A real old favourite of mine, with several notes already going back to the mid 1990s. Not tasted since 1997, and in that time it has started to fade quite noticeably based on this evidence. The wonderfully plush, berry fruit has taken on a slightly astringent edge. The nose has cherry, earth and spicy oak. There are hints of that exotic lushness on the palate, but it is definitely drying and the oaky flavours and acidity dominate the finish. Time to drink my remaining bottle or two.

Louis Jadot (Burgundy) Nuits-St-George 1er Cru Clos des Corvées 1990
Nose is much danker with a perfume of sweet, smoky charred oak, a hint of farmyard and red berry fruit. The smokiness carries through to the palate where the fruit is of terrific quality; really ripe and concentrated and persisting through moderate tannins and acidity into a long, sweet finish. Drinking beautifully.

Coste-Caumartin (Burgundy) Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Boucherottes 1990
Quite closed at first with a vegetal, dark, stewed-fruit quality. With coaxing in the glass super-ripe scents of mulberry and fudge-like oak emerge. Very fat and sweet. On the palate there is tremendous concentration here. The wine is gripped by tannins and has a very tight structure. On returning to the wine later in the evening it had begun to open, with lovely fruit and a seriously long, tightly-wound finish. This needs time still, but is terrifically dense and powerful.

Domaine Drouhin (Burgundy) Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru 1991
Absolutely beautiful nose with plenty of sweet, attractive coffee-bean, dark chocolate and caramel oak but a wonderfully ripe, almost jammy raspberry and black fruit character. There's just a hint of something mineral and again of damp earth and woodland. Lovely. On the palate it is quite full-bodied, with a fine weight of fruit that is ripe, thick and black. Again that core of minerality adds a spine to the lushness of fruit. The creamy oak coats the mouth into a long, fruity, velvety finish. A little heavier than I'd expected, but outstanding. Probably my wine of the night.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (Burgundy) Richebourg Grand Cru 1967
What a shame. The colour was rather brown, the fill level to top of shoulder, so I was prepared for the worst... and found it. Very obviously maderised. Those brave enough to put in mouth found vestiges of terrifically concentrated and powerful fruit, but only by digging through layers of dirty, oxidised flavours.

There were no ringers in the second flight of six red wines: all were from 1990. The cheapest wine, the Château d'Isolette from Provence was the favourite with at least two of the tasters.

Château d'Isolette (Cotes du Lubéron) 1990
The Cotes du Lubéron is a relatively new French AC, an area of Provence that is making some seriously good reds containing a high proportion of Syrah. The nose has a soulful, dense, cedary richness with a whole spice-box of clove, nutmeg, mulberry and sweet, rich black fruit. The palate is very creamy and generous with a tremendously focused, juicy quality of fruit bolstered by ripe tannins and background acidity into a long finish. A really lovely wine. Several tasters guessed at a serious Northern Rhône, two were convinced it was a maturing Grange.

Piero Antinori (Italy) Chianti Classico Riserva "Baddia a Passignano" 1990
Powerful cherry and liquorice nose that harnesses such a tightly-wound seam of rich, black, concentrated fruit. There are subtle notes of tobacco and pencil-shavings, but pure fruit with a tart, racy edge is the dominant influence. On the palate very grippy. Fine tannins coat the palate. Medium bodied, there is lovely cherry and blackberry fruit and a leathery toughness here. The wine is chewy and structured, revealing glimpses of briary wood, citrus and leafy blackcurrant. The finish is once again very long and focused with great definition. When I drunk a previous bottle in 1998 I noted "cellar for 3 to 4 years". Not only did I open this too soon, but I clearly under-estimated this profound wine that should easily cellar for another decade. Picked up at least one "wine of the night" vote.

Alejandro Fernández (Ribera del Duero) Pesquera Gran Reserva 1990
The nose is massively aromatic and ripe with sweet kirsch, cherry and thick black fruit tinged with earth, woodsmoke, vanilla and tobacco. Truly delicious. On the palate one can't help but veer towards a Parkeresque "great gobs of fruit": it is just so loaded with sweet, fat, dense black fruits and beautifully integrated tannins and acidity that present a seamless purity. Great length too. Voted as a favourite by several tasters, I thought this was drinking very well but would cellar, others thought it needed a little more time.

Château Lafon-Rochet (St-Estèphe) 4th growth 1990
Another powerful and inviting black fruit nose with plenty of concentrated, leafy blackcurrant and cedar. Unmistakably claret. This has real structure with a backbone of tannins and acidity beneath fine, sweet, ripe black fruit. This needs time, but seems to have the balance and concentration necessary to evolve into a superb wine. A favourite with one or two of the group - and one guess at Latour.

Clos du Marquis (St-Julien) 2nd wine of Léoville-Las-Cases 1990
Gorgeous on the nose which is redolent of cedar wood, mint, cassis and a pleasantly animal note of blood or game. The palate is spicy and concentrated with powerful black fruit that has great sweetness and purity. Medium-bodied, classy tannins and gentle acidity lead to a focused, gentle finish with good length. Lovely quality; a classy wine.

Château Gruaud-Larose (St-Julien) 2nd growth 1990
Aromatic, with a sauvage fragrance of leather, herbs, coffee, blueberry and cherries. Charry oak underpins and a mineral quality adds another dimension. On the palate quite grippy with excellent concentration, power and balance. This has been a favourite for some time and is clearly a terrific wine with 10 years plus ahead of it. The G-L is always a favourite claret, but this vintage is truly excellent and I suspect a little under-appreciated in the market. Another one that picked up a vote or two for favourite wine of the night.

Sweet Wines

Chateau Suduiraut (Sauternes) Premier Cru 1990
The glowing, burnished golden colour of this wine promised a really luscious character and so it proved. The nose has lovely botrytis notes of marmalade and figgy fruit, with a butteriness and floral nuances. On the palate it is very pure and softly constructed with moderate acidity and plenty of sweet, unctuous fruit. Maybe lacks just a little grip because of the lowish acidity, but it is tight and focused; not lacking in length or in any way flabby. Just very accessible and utterly delicious now.

Jean Geiler (Alsace) Gewürztraminer Sélection des Grains Nobles 1990
The nose is very exotic with distinctly orangy fruit and subtle hints of honey, roses, lychee and just a little suggestion of smokiness. On the palate drier than the Sauternes, with a great deal of grapefruity acidity, but a lovely concentration of fruit too: sweet, fleshy peach on top of crisper citrus notes. Concentrated and subtle, this is not of the same calibre as the best SdGN examples from Zind-Humbrecht or Hugel, but it has good complexity and length and should come together nicely over time given the quality of fruit and acidity.

All in all a tremendous evening. Read the report on last year's event.