Recently, many of my favourite wines have come from the stellar, 1990 Bordeaux vintage. Having opened and enjoyed a great number of 1990 bottles over the past year, there is no doubt in my mind that the vintage has now hit full stride. At the moment, these wines are providing enormous drinking pleasure.
As wonderful as they are individually, enjoying these wines alone cannot replicate the focus and feedback provided by a dedicated, horizontal overview. Tasting a wider range of wines, from both the Left and Right Banks in a single sitting, allows for a more comprehensive look at the entire vintage.
Therefore, it is no wonder that I was so looking forward to our most ambitious tasting at AWC Wine Academy yet – a 1990 Bordeaux Retrospective – hosted by writer and broadcaster Charles Metcalfe.
Of course, 1990 was the third ‘great to excellent’ vintage in a row in Bordeaux (not unlike the most recent trio of 2008, 2009 and 2010). It was also a very dry, warm year and, as Charles reminded us, July and August were extremely hot and sunny. In fact, July was the hottest it had been since 1949 and August was the sunniest since 1949.
Above: The line-up of 1990 Bordeaux.
As a result, by the end of August, some vines were so stressed from the lack of water that they started to shut down. However, necessary relief arrived with some September rains and the ripening process resumed. A further downpour on October 7th prompted some to pick sooner rather than later. However, those who waited were richly rewarded. Once again, fortune favoured the brave.
We began the evening on the Right Bank with the 1990 Château Gazin. This highly respected estate is tucked up into northeast corner of Pomerol where its nearest neighbours are none other than Château Pétrus and Château Lafleur! At 24 ha, it is also one of the biggest estates in Pomerol. For the quality it provides, it remains one of the appellation’s best values. Here the soil is predominantly clay, which is extremely useful in hot vintages like 1990 because it retains more moisture and remains cooler. Further, as this is on the Right Bank, we are firmly in Merlot territory. Gazin regularly contains as much as 90% Merlot to the final blend, with the remainder comprised of Cabernet Franc. As a testament to the quality of the terroir here, in the past, Château Pétrus actually purchased some of Gazin’s vineyards and integrated them with their own.
Arguably, the turning point in Gazin’s recent history occurred in 1988 when the present incumbent, Nicolas de Balliencourt took over management of the estate. Just in time too, as the impressive 1990 vintage was right around the corner. The 1990 Gazin was sweet, soft, plumy and savoury, with hints of tobacco leaf and some sous-bois maturity - just as one would expect. To me, this wine was evolved and drinking beautifully. Elegant, refined and possessing surprisingly good acidity, the tannins here were also notable in how deliciously soft they were. 93 Points.
Above: Charles Metcalfe was our expert tutor for the evening.
The next wine was the 1990 Château Calon-Ségur. The 3rd Growth estate sits at the far, northern edge of St-Estèphe and for many years it was run by the redoubtable Denise Capbern-Gasqueton, who was quite the character. Mme Gasqueton unfortunately passed away in September of this year. However, the estate is now managed by her two daughters and they are doing a wonderful job. Perennially known for its fabulous, long-lived wines, the individual now responsible for carrying on Calon-Ségur’s winemaking traditions is Vincent Millet, who took over chief production duties in 2006.
As many of you will know, the wines of St Estèphe have a reputation for being tough and tannic, particularly in their youth. Now at 21 years old, this perfectly-aged Calon-Ségur had shed its youthful exuberance and had become the exact opposite. Fully mature, it was sleek and sensuous with a slightly smoky character. There were still some excellent, primary black fruit flavours remaining - mainly cassis and mulberry - as well as some lovely sandalwood notes. Secondary and tertiary flavours were also coming through with hints of earth, mushrooms and undergrowth, all of which added to the impressive complexity. This wine was exquisitely balanced, with ripe tannins and a generous finish. 92 Points.
From St-Estèphe we headed south to the commune of Pauillac and another rising star of the Médoc, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, which is owned by the charming Francois-Xavier Borie. I’ve always loved GPL, as it can offer tremendous value for the quality it provides. While it has showed top form over recent vintages, the question was whether the 1990 would showcase the same level of excellence?
The answer was a resounding affirmative. In terms of pure quality to price ratio, the 1990 GPL absolutely stole the show. For a start, the colour was still impressively deep and it had an incredibly intense nose – with notes of tar, black cherries and cream. On the palate, the fruit was still redolent of blackcurrants, with firm tannins that were only just starting to yield a bit of grip. Compared to the Gazin and the Calon-Ségur, this was showing more concentration and staying power. I think this wine will continue to improve and be delicious for at least another decade. This was an astonishing effort which was well worth a score of 95+ Points.
Above: Wine Academy Assistant Valeria Rodriguez refills glasses at the Haut-Brion table.
We then took a short jump south to St-Julien and a real Left Bank legend - Château Léoville-Las Cases. Owned by Jean-Hubert Delon and managed to his exacting standards, we all had very high expectations for this superb, ‘Super Second’ estate. We certainly were not disappointed. The 1990 Las Cases continues to march on with vim and vigour. At first the nose was a bit tight, but it opened up spectacularly as the wine developed in the glass. The palate exuded class and concentration with cedar, cassis, blackberry and lead pencil shavings. The texture was plush and pure, with supremely elegant and refined tannins. The length was beyond description. This is benchmark claret from a great terroir and a great vintage. What more can you ask for? 97 Points.
How do you top a wine like the 1990 Las Cases? With a classical First Growth like Château Haut-Brion, that’s how! While the 1989 Haut-Brion is undoubtedly a legend (repeatedly rated a perfect, 100 points), on the strength of this tasting, so is its younger sibling. The 1990 is now approaching its prime and it is providing enormous drinking pleasure. The colour and freshness belied its age, suggesting the wine has plenty of stuffing left to last it for the long haul. Polished and pure, with dark black fruits, cassis, sous-bois, cigar box, meat, minerals and wet stones, it was an absolutely sumptuous wine. The finish, balance and texture of this wine are extraordinary. 98 Points.
Fortunately, we still had one red wine remaining in the line up and so we crossed back over to the Right Bank for the 1990 Château Cheval Blanc. This happens to be one of my favourite wines of all time. Interestingly, it has also garnered magnificent scores from both Parker and Robinson over the years – a testament to its quality, as they don’t often see eye-to-eye.
True to form, this proved to be the most popular wine of the night, just edging the Haut-Brion in the final attendee vote. To me, this represented everything that a Cheval Blanc should be. The greatest Chevals are never over-done or unnecessarily extracted and this was a quintessential example - both fresh and elegant. The perfume of this wine absolutely leapt from the glass and the colour was still so dark that it gave almost no concession whatsoever to age. In the mouth it was lively and vivid, with a good attack of mid-palate acidity and the world’s most luscious, cashmere-like tannins. It continued to grow ever more expansively in the glass – with layer upon layer of exotic scents and flavours revealing themselves. I picked up leather, coffee, red fruits, plums, violets, graphite, pencil shavings and cedar. This was utterly magnificent and it is now flirting with perfection. 99+ Points.
The last wine from the 1990 vintage was another liquid legend – Château d’Yquem. It was the perfect ending to a perfect tasting. Rich, honeyed and powerful, this wine offered everything that makes d’Yquem so special- an incredible sweetness, a luxurious texture, en pointe acidity and a spectacular sense of balance. On the palate, botrytis-infused flavours of coconut, apricots, honey and brioche explode in succession. It is no wonder that Parker gave the 1990 d’Yquem a 99 point rating or that he predicted it could last for more than a century! 99+ Points.
Above: Tasters listen carefully to the rules of 'Wine Options' before the final, secret wine is poured.
The final wine of the night was a last minute, unannounced addition. We often like to introduce a challenge of sorts to our tastings for a bit of competitive fun and this evening was no exception. The final wine was poured and guests were told it was, in fact, another vintage of d’Yquem, poured as a thank you to everyone for attending. Tasters then had to try and figure out which exact vintage the wine was from.
The colour was much darker than the 1990 and the nose was noticeably more developed. The fragrance was reminiscent of stepping outside just after the air has been cleaned by the rain. Fresh, enticing and beguiling - with loads of butter toffee and caramel - this was a fabulous, older bottle of d’Yquem. Eventually the vintage was revealed to be the spectacular 1959. While this wine was more than 50 years old, it was clear that it had many more decades of life left in it. The winner of the ‘options’ game ended up taking home a bottle of the 1990 Cheval Blanc for his efforts. Just goes to show - you never know what kind of wonderful luck may find you at an AWC Wine Academy tasting! 94 Points.
Ultimately, this tasting reconfirmed just how epic the 1990 Bordeaux vintage has proved itself to be over time. As these wines were all perfectly stored, they have all aged extremely well. Most importantly, they are now providing the optimum amount of drinking pleasure and they are great value options compared to many more recent vintages. Stock up on these stellar 1990s soon as they are simply amazing.
We look forward to welcoming you into AWC Wine Academy in the coming months, whether for another Bordeaux tasting, for your own private tasting or for one of the other exciting events we have planned.
To join us for a tasting or to reserve the Wine Academy for yourself, please visit - http://www.awcwineacademy.com - or contact Deborah Ives on +44 (0) 20 3219 5560.
To purchase any of the wines which were covered in this particular tasting, please contact one of our staff wine experts.