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March 14, 2013

The Best Wines of 1990, Plus Tasting Notes

By Spear's

Ninety Degrees Marlon Abela assesses the wines of 1990, a memorable year the world over

Ninety Degrees
Marlon Abela assesses the wines of 1990, a memorable year the world over

1990 WAS A special year: it was of remarkable quality in all the major wine growing regions of the world, which is a rare occurrence. There are countless examples of wonderful bottles in this fine vintage that passionate wine lovers seek either to open for a special occasion or to hide away in their cellars for the long term. I know from personal experience at the Greenhouse that 1990 wines are hard to keep on the list due to their popularity, and even more difficult to replace.

Throughout France and Italy, the bounty is plentiful. Although German Rieslings are often sidelined, I have enjoyed some extraordinary dry and sweet 1990s; in fact my cellar is full of them. It was also a strong vintage in Australia, with Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace competing. Both are a cut above their peers, with years of bottle-ageing potential ahead of them.

The oenological landscape has evolved over the past three decades, with the birth of the ‘cult’ wine being one of the defining moments. Its impact has been felt throughout the world, nowhere more so than California and Spain. It was in 1992 that Napa Valley’s future stars — Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Colgin’s Herb Lamb Vineyard — were first released commercially, achieving immediate acclaim. This was the start of a new era — the emergence of these cult wines has overshadowed the classical but terrific 1990s from Napa.

The story in Spain is similar, with the phenomenally successful launch of L’Ermita and Pingus, in 1993 and 1995 respectively, which sent shockwaves throughout the country’s languishing wine industry.

I hosted a 1990 tasting at Cassis in December and invited a handful of experts. I chose an eclectic mix and there were a few surprises along the way. The New World flight showed remarkably well, confirming that 1990 is ubiquitously a great vintage. The joker in the pack was the extraordinary William Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir 1990, which was loved by all of us. Who would have thought that a 1990 Californian Pinot Noir faced with such stiff competition from Burgundy would perform so well? Unfortunately it was my only bottle.

My outstanding wines are highlighted in red.
Tasting Notes

Champagne and Aromatic Whites

Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs — Corked, unfortunately. Not the best start.

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Jacquesson, Degorgement Tardif — Medium to full-bodied, good length and backbone, interesting saline mouth. Drinking well but still has time ahead. Lovely.

Riesling Clos Saint Hune, F E Trimbach — Outstanding. One of the greatest dry Rieslings ever made. Lemon confit rind colour, still very bright, dense and thick texture. Extremely complex nose, subtle petroleum, mineral, a bit of smokiness. Pleasant vegetal/dried grass aroma. Quintessential Clos Saint Hune, great length and structure. A huge mouthful and still opening up beautifully after two hours in the glass, years ahead of it.

Riesling Auslese, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Dr Loosen
— Golden colour. Petroleum, melted butter/lactic, caramelised apple nose. Good immediate presence in the mouth but not quite as long as hoped. Creamy, lactic palate, semi-sweet, lovely wine, à point now. (I specifically wanted to open Dr Loosen’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr for this tasting, as opposed to the legendary J J Prum, which was an impeccable wine the last time I tried it.)

Gewurztraminer Altenberg Grand Cru, Vendages Tardives, Marcel Deiss
— Deep golden colour. Lychee, banana skin, apricot confit and orange blossom aromas. A little whiff of volatile acidity. A full and harmonious mouth that lines the palate with essence of rose and lychee. An excellent wine and very classy for a Gewurztraminer.

Condrieu Les Ceps de Nebadon, Alain Paret
— I’d had this wine in my cellar for over ten years, an obscure producer that even my very knowledgeable companions hadn’t heard of. I thought it would be fun to put it in the mix. Pale-ish colour, mint humbug, herb-like, verbena nose. Rather tight mouth, obviously vinified with high doses of SO². Not very complex but one can still identify the Viognier — not a bad wine but surprising and impressive for such an unknown quantum.
Full-bodied Whites
Chablis 1er Cru, Montée de Tonnerre, Raveneau — Golden colour. Reductive nose, hints of nail varnish and yoghurt but lovely underlying typical Chablis notes of honey, mature citrus and dried lime tree leaves. The mouth showing good texture and grip. Clearly Premier Cru and not Grand Cru quality. Esoteric and intellectual rather than fun.

Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru, Domaine Ramonet
— Oxidised, unfortunately, and undrinkable. I have had some spectacular bottles of this wine. The following evening I opened a Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru Les Vergers from Ramonet, which was showing very well and was in fact still rather young. Very good wine considering it’s not among the most acclaimed Premiers Crus in Chassagne.

Batard-Montrachet, Domaine Leflaive
— Surprisingly light colour, astonishingly closed, obviously reductive. Took time to show itself. Aromas of patisserie, crystal sugar and dried herbs, still tight on the mouth. Seems still to be young but I wonder if it will ever fully open up. A little simple for a Batard but a good wine.

Château Haut-Brion Blanc
— Golden colour, aromas of lemon grass, drying cut grass, fresh walnut husk, a little alcoholic medicinal whiff, mouth was disappointing for a wine with such pedigree, unfortunately not a good example.

Pinot Noirs
Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu, Domaine des Comtes Lafon — Surprisingly dark. Complex nose, mineral, spicy, ripe dark Bigarreau cherry, notes of vegetal, some volatile acidity showing. Mouth dense but still tight, all in all still rather hard. If it blossoms and comes into its own, it will be excellent.

Clos de la Roche, Hubert Lignier — Ruby red, clear colour. Lovely aromas of red berry paste, spices, soya and a whiff of alcohol. Very round and harmonious mouth, underpinned by balanced acidity. Not overly complex but a lovely Pinot Noir, drinking well now.

Williams Selyem, Pinot Noir, Allen Vineyard — One of the outstanding wines of the tasting and a total surprise to many in the group. Outstanding. Colour rather light but clear, beautiful quintessential mature Pinot Noir aromas. Confit cherries, coffee, liquorice, sweet meat but still underlying freshness, reflecting the coolness that Russian River wines can express. Long, harmonious mouth, still has ageing potential but is already drinking beautifully. Very complex and surprisingly Burgundian in style — a great wine.

Gevrey-Chambertin, Aux Combottes, Domaine Leroy
— One of the more controversial wines in the group. Dense colour for a 1990 Pinot Noir. Some vegetal aromas, coupled with notes of spiciness, boiled cherry drops and a whiff of cough syrup aromas. Full mouth but high underlying acidity, not entirely integrated yet; however, the mouth is better than the nose. I have had some remarkable 1990s from Domaine Leroy, in particular the Chambertin and Richebourg’s. Perhaps I should have opted for a Grand Cru.

Romanée-Saint-Vivant, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
— Ruby colour. A little tight on the nose, not as floral as I would expect from such a great pedigree. Medium-bodied with good underlying acidity. Rather closed. I have had some significantly more expressive bottles. This was not the best era for Romanée-Saint Vivant from the Domaine Romanée Conti; now it is one of the stars of the Domaine. A good wine but I was expecting so much more.
Rhone Valley & Southern France

Côte Rotie, La Landonne, E Guigal — Good colour, mature Syrah nose, confit tomatoes, sweet meat, drying strawberries. Medium to full-bodied, still a bit tight, perhaps going through a closed phase but well-made, with potential ahead.

Hermitage la Chapelle, Paul Jaboulet Aîné — Extremely dark, blackberry-like colour. Intense nose, albeit a little closed. Aromas of ripe cherries, black pepper, flint, mineral, still a little oak showing. Very layered with a lot more to give in time. A big wine, huge palate and structure, very well balanced still in its youth, perhaps the youngest wine of the tasting and the one with the most potential ahead. A great bottle.

Châteauneuf du Pape, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine de Marcoux
— Not the blockbuster I had expected. A little Brettanomyces of the nose, mature red fruit paste, a sweet and pleasant palate but not overly complex. Drinking well now.

Mas de Daumas Gassac — This is not a wine I often open, in this case very unpleasant nose and mouth. An off bottle?
Ornellaia Bolgheri, Tuscany — Bright colour not showing its age. Still early days for Ornellaia. A fresh nose of bell pepper, mint. Medium-bodied but harmonious, a bit one-dimensional but well-made and a very good effort considering Ornellaia’s nascency and the probable young age of the vines. No doubt helped by the advantageous climatic conditions in this vintage.

Barbaresco, Costa Russi, Gaja
— Lighter than expected, not the structure or breed that I’m used to from this exceptional winery in this vintage.

Brunello di Montalcino, Riserva, Soldera — Still dense and dark in colour, this wine took a good hour and half in the glass to open. A very complex nose with ever-evolving nuances. Notes of Oolong tea, concord grape paste, exotic spices. Big, full mouth, huge body and structure. Will go on for years. A great wine.

Amarone della Valpolicella, Giuseppe Quintarelli
— Lighter colour than expected but still bright. Very complex nose, candied Morello cherries and syrup, crystallised violets, stewed prunes, dried figs. Very complex, elegant palate with an impressive marriage between sweetness and dryness, wine’s answer to ‘sweet and sour’. Very balanced, a great and atypical wine.
Château Clinet, Pomerol — Young colour. A well-made wine. Still firm, a little one-dimensional but a good drink.

Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan
— Good colour. Slight Brettanomyces on the nose. Elegant rather than full-bodied, lacking a little expression. I find there to be significant bottle variation with this wine and I’ve had more expressive bottles, but still lovely.

Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac
— Youthful, deep colour, a big Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine. An excellent example in this vintage, opulent, sweet, textured and layered. A bold wine with time on its hands. Impressive and still good value.

Château Margaux, Margaux
— Youthful colour. Very fine aromatics with hints of cedar wood and fresh, ripe red berries. The mouth follows through, great breed, medium to full-bodied but very long. Still very young — will definitely improve and flourish. A very good bottle now, may become outstanding. Teetering on highlighting it in red.

Château Beausejour Duffau Lagarosse, Saint-Emilion
— There is great demand for this château in this vintage, although typically it is not one of the most sought-after wines in Saint-Emilion. Big, full of glycerol, lovely texture though a little one-dimensional aromatically. The mouth is a definite winner here.

Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru — Colour not overly dense but very fresh. Classic Saint-Emilion nose, bell pepper, redcurrant, spiciness. Beautiful velvet texture, harmonious, elegant and pure. Very long. A baby but an outstanding wine, one of the best 1990s from Bordeaux. The epitome of class.

New World & Vega Sicilia

Penfolds, Grange, Bin 95, Australia — Intense, dark colour. Nose surprisingly tight but layered — sweet spices, red berry paste, eucalyptus with a lot more to give. Big in the mouth but not over-extracted, underpinned by perfect balance and acidity, will go on for years, an outstanding wine that will continue to flourish.

Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa Valley, California
— Youthful colour, pure Cabernet nose, hints of mint and graphite. A little Brettanomyces but not unpleasant, medium to full-bodied, elegant, a lovely wine.

Vega Sicilia Unico, Ribera del Duero
— Dense colour. Smoky, dark berry and damson plum nose but still a little closed with a lot more to give. Compact and layered mouth full of fruit and sweet spices. Showing huge potential, like a greyhound in a trap raring to go. I’ve had this wine a few times over the last couple of years and it’s never impressed me as much as it did at this tasting.

Château Montelena, Napa Valley, California
— Still youthful colour, very expressive, ripe Cabernet-Sauvignon notes, hints of Eucalyptus and ripe red fruit. Not overly complex, but a good wine with texture and length.

Henschke, Hill of Grace Shiraz, Eden Valley — Youthful, lighter in colour than I’d expected. Very sweet nose; the palate likewise. Aromas of acidulated red berries and violets. Very fine, open, although still has time on its hands. More feminine than the Grange, remarkably elegant and harmonious — a great bottle.
Sweet Wines

Château d’Yquem — Golden colour. Oily texture, saffron, orange confit, dried apricot nose. Medium to full-bodied, a beautiful wine.

Vouvray, La Goutte d’Or, Domaine Naudin — Dark gold. Aromas of apricots in syrup, sultanas, cinnamon. Incredible dense texture, length and acidity. An eternal wine. I can’t ever see this ageing.

Tokay-Pinot Gris, Sélection de Grains Nobles, Hugel
— Corked, sadly.

Acininobili Maculan, Breganze
— Corked, sadly. I’ve had this wine on many occasions and typically it’s one of the outstanding sweet wines of the vintage. I’ve often paired it with the d’Yquem.

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