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A Tale of Two Vintages—1990 Red Burgundies at Age 20

December 1, 2010

From its early days, the 1990 vintage in Burgundy was hailed as a very great vintage, with the potential
to become the finest vintage since perhaps 1959. The summer had been quite hot and dry, enough to
retard maturation, but significant rain at the end of August and in early September restarted development
and after three weeks of warm weather a large crop was harvested beginning in late September. In their
youth, the reds seemed to be bursting with ripe fruit, and to have a depth and intensity that certainly had
not been seen in Burgundy in quite some years. Yet as these wines began to reach adolescence, troubling
signs emerged. The flavors often seemed baked, and increasingly one began to see wines whose fruit
was drying up, leaving behind an empty shell. However, other wines remained youthful and bright,
seeming to retain their early promise. Clearly, as the wines approached twenty years of age, it was a
good time to assess the vintage. At a tasting held in Connecticut March 27-28, 2010, organized by Bob
Feinn and benignly presided over by the buddha of Burgundy, Clive Coates, we sampled approximately
60 reds from 1990, in three sessions (we also tasted half a dozen whites; more about these later).

The first session included about a dozen wines from the Cote de Beaune, beginning with the Santenay
Clos Tavannes of Pousse d’Or and including three Volnay 1er Crus from Hubert de Montille, Beaune
Clos des Mouches from Drouhin, Pommard Grand Clos des Epenots from Courcel and Clos des
Epeneaux from Comte Armand, and Corton Clos des Cortons from Faiveley. The dominant impression
from all of these wines was of baked fruit, and a distressing lack of balance, with several beginning to
show oxidative notes and others, most notably the Volnay Champans from de Montille, still retaining
aggressive tannins. Most merited scores in the low 80s. Even the Lafarge Volnay Clos des Chenes, while
showing some finesse, seemed to be beginning to dry out (89). The situation improved, but only slightly,
when we arrived at the wines of the Cote de Nuits, with a pleasant if undistinguished Morey-St.-Denis
En La Rue de Vergy from Bruno Clair (accompanied by a curious, almost non-Burgundian version from
Henri Perrot-Minot), and a more nuanced Morey-St.-Denis 1er Cru Vielles Vignes from Hubert Lignier,
which has some nice old vines complexity, though it seemed lighter and less interesting than it was 5+
years ago. A Nuits-St.-Georges Aux Meurgers from Meo-Camuzet displayed the virtues and flaws that
seem to run through all the Meo 1990’s (including the Cros Parantoux, tasted two weeks earlier), with
good depth of fruit and complexity being marred by an inexperienced oak regimen that obtrudes on the
finish. Only a poised and nuanced Nuits-St.-Georges Les St. Georges from Gouges broke the spell, with
excellent balance, sweet, unbaked fruit, earth and mineral tones, and a long, if slightly hot, finish (92).

For the second session, we began with the Vosne premier crus, and while the problems were more
varied in nature, things were not necessarily looking up. A Chaumes from Jean Tardy was heavy and
ponderous, with too much rustic tannin (85), while the Clos des Reas from Jean Gros had almost dirty
off-notes (several people noted that the same was true of a bottle in the Clos des Reas tasting the prior
week). The Hudelot Malconsorts, like all of the Hudelot 1990s, began with a fair amount of barnyard and
an almost soupy quality, and then transitioned to something that was sweet and easy, pleasant but no more
(88), while the Meo Brulees, which had a lot going for it in terms of black fruit, minerals and balance,
again was dominated on the finish by the oak (88). A flight of Clos Vougeots raised the bar only slightly,
with the Rion, despite some attractive qualities, typically soupy and with enough finishing oak to make
the Meo look restrained (87), a good but not profound Arnoux, which had nice clarity and minerality
but a touch of heat and burnt fruit at the end (89), an Anne & Francois Gros Grand Maupertuis that was
powerful, with rich cherries and plums, though the oak up front and heat on the finish troubled me (88),

a Faiveley that showed a remarkable lack of fruit given the vintage, dried underbrush notes, and raspy
tannins (82), and a Hudelot-Noellat that resembled the Malconsorts in being sweet and easy, slightly
more weighty though with less minerality than its premier cru cousin (87). Among the Clos Vougeots, the
best for me was the Musigni of Gros Frere et Soeur—with good minerality, a gamy note, medium body,
excellent balance and a sweet fruit finish (91). (Clive Coates noted that these vines were still relatively
young in 1990.) Two Romanee St. Vivants followed: a Confuron which despite some silkiness had too
much toasty oak and not very refined tannins for an RSV (86), and a very good Jadot, with a nose of
refined Asian spice, excellent power and presence, and only some slightly rough tannins detracting a bit
from the overall positive impression (90).

It was with the next flight, however, that we really began to see the “other” 1990 vintage emerge. Finally
we saw wines that reflected the full potential of the vintage, and it was a remarkable potential indeed.
The most outstanding of seven Richebourgs was clearly the Jean Gros, with a deep nose of smoke,
spice, black fruit and game; on the palate it was both intense and refined, with a very long minerally
finish (96). Indeed, if any appellation seems to evoke the spirit of this vintage, it is Richebourg, with
its predisposition to power and density allied to finesse. The Gros Frere & Soeur was also quite good,
showing that density and power, with refined tannins on the finish (93). The Hudelot-Noellat was again
a bit too easy but its appealing sweet fruit and charm were hard to resist totally (90), while the Leroy was
still young, and a bit idiosyncratic—more Leroy than Richebourg, one felt—but complex, with notes of
cinnamon, gingerbread, and gooseberry (!), and quite powerful (91+). (A bottle from Anne-Francoise
Gros, though the same wine as the Jean Gros, was distinctly different in both color and flavor profile (87);
bottles from Grivot and Thibault Liger-Belair were clearly off-kilter (NR)).

Building from strength to strength, the next up was La Romanee (Bouchard P&F bottling), which had
a distinct aroma of violets, spice and game; though to the nit-picky (moi?) it was a bit burly for La
Romanee and carrying a bit too much new oak, it was nevertheless a triumph of vineyard and vintage
over indifferent winemaking (92). The La Tache was in another realm; while it remains stubbornly
youthful, it is also full of promise, with a nose of intense Asian spice, violets and what Aubert de Villaine
calls the “touch of green” that turns eventually to rose petal; on the palate it had wonderful sweet silky
fruit, great power and highly refined tannins, and after a half hour in the glass, the glorious “peacock’s
tail” finish emerged (96+). We then finished the evening, perhaps a little idiosyncratically, with two
Musignys. The first, from Drouhin, while still evolving and carrying a fair amount of tannin, was
becoming silky and elegant, a wine of great charm and breed, with a long transparent finish (94). Last
came the de Vogue, a controversial wine whose last credible defender, Clive Coates, was there to present
the defense. This wine, which Clive said was, out of barrel, the best young Burgundy he had ever tasted
(and indeed I felt similarly when I tasted the wine newly arrived in bottle), seemed to me—among many
others, most notably Burghound–to be coming apart by the turn of the millennium, with drying fruit and
screechy tannins. Yet Clive has maintained that the problem was one of the “American stock” of this
wine—that something had happened in the shipping process, and that bottles in France, acquired from
the Domaine, showed no such problems. To make his point, Clive provided a bottle from his own stock.
While this was in relative terms fresher than any bottle I have had in a long time, it still showed signs of
losing its fruit and had a raspy tannic finish, suggesting that this bottle was merely a few years behind
in its (negative) development, rather than being different in kind to the “American stock.” Even Clive
acknowledged that this bottle had not showed as he hoped, and doubt seemed to be creeping in—at least
for the moment.

The third session proved something of an anti-climax, though with five Rousseaus in prospect, it should

have been more than that. In brief, there were a number of wines from both the “good” and “bad” 1990
vintages, as well as a number that simply failed to show well, or reflected poor winemaking. Among
the wines that showed well were the Drouhin Chambertin, with lovely meat, smoke, spice, lavender and
licorice, impeccable balance and a silky texture (96), Roumier Bonnes Mares, showing more density
than most examples I have had of this (93), and a first-rate Griottes-Chambertin from Ponsot, now
developing a great silky texture despite still carrying a fair amount of tannin (93+). Also showing well
were the Ruchottes-Chambertin from Dr. Georges Mugneret, with characteristic meatiness, excellent
weight and power, though not an especially elegant wine, and one that still needs time (91), and both
the Mazy-Chambertin (90+) and Clos de la Roche (91) from Rousseau, as well as a Drouhin Bonnes
Mares that, while still good, had seemed more compelling earlier in the decade (90). Sadly, especially
given the performance of the “lesser” Rousseaus, neither the Chambertin nor the Clos de Beze was in
form: both seemed reduced, though I’m not sure why that would be, and though they showed elements
of greatness, neither of these bottles was what it should have been (at the Chambertin/Beze retrospective
in 2002, both showed quite well, meriting 94 and 93+ scores). Other bottles worth mentioning included
the Rousseau Ruchottes, which was a bit on the barnyard side (89), its showing consistent with most prior
tastings of this wine; and the Vogue Bonnes Mares, from “American stock” and showing about the same
level of negative development as the Musigny (88). The Faiveley Gevrey Cazetiers and Clos de Beze
were both disappointing, as was a Bouchard Chambertin, but all seemed to suffer more from indifferent
winemaking and sloppy oak treatment than from the vintage, and a Dujac Gevrey Combottes was pleasant
but anonymous (87). A Remoissenet Charmes-Chambertin is best passed over in silence.

A few brief words on the whites: we only had 6, not enough to be a representative sample (and of these,
one was corked), yet they ran a considerable gamut: a dead bottle of Latour Chevalier-Montrachet Les
Demoiselles (no surprise there), an aging but still aggressive and idiosyncratic Lafon Meursault Charmes,
a youthful but slight bottle of Leflaive Puligny Pucelles, a delicious bottle of de Vogue Musigny Blanc,
beautifully reflecting the unusual terroir of this wine (92), and a really fine bottle of Bienvenues-Batard-
Montrachet from Ramonet, showing perhaps more power than usual for this vineyard, a classic Ramonet
flavor profile, a good deal of intensity and great persistence (93).

In sum, the best reds have rich, ripe fruit, complexity, density and balance, and at age 20 are now just
beginning to develop a silkiness that should become more pronounced as time passes, and they possess
the tannin and acid structure to age and develop for a considerable period to come. Though this is not a
particularly terroir-driven vintage, the terroir is not invisible, and certain terroirs (Richebourg) seem more
in sync with the vintage than others (Volnay). But the vintage clearly had its problems, and as noted
above many of the wines are unbalanced, with baked flavors and aromas, drying fruit, and the beginnings
of oxidative notes. What happened? Allen Meadows offers the best perspective, noting that the cessation
of progress toward full maturity as a result of the summer’s heat, coupled with generally quite high yields,
often did not allow for fully ripe phenolics despite producing aromas that were initially suggestive of
full ripeness. Also, one needs to remember that in 1990, Burgundy was in transition: for example, as
Clive Coates notes in his book, canopy management, which would have been helpful in a vintage such as
this, was as yet poorly understood, and there was less pruning to lower yields than is the case today. In
addition, while most of the then-top producers were represented in this tasting (a significant exception
was Henri Jayer, whose Cros Parantoux, tasted two weeks earlier, was stunningly pure and elegant (96)
), among those producers, several–including Meo, Hudelot-Noellat, Arnoux and Grivot (and to an extent
Georges Mugneret), as well as Faiveley and Bouchard among the negociants–were not producing wines
of nearly the caliber that they are today. Thus, between the problems the vintage turned out to present,

and the smaller number of producers at the top of their game, it is not so easy to find wines that express
the full potential of this vintage, and there is probably less great wine than one would see were there to be
a comparable vintage today. Nevertheless, the best of them are truly superb, and it is certainly reasonable
to believe that they will continue to develop well.

© 2010 Douglas E. Barzelay


From → Tastings

  1. Marcus Titley permalink

    A great summary of the vintage Doug. Thanks.

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  1. BURGUNDY TRIP NOVEMBER 2010 — PART 1 2009 An Outstanding Red Wine Vintage « Old Vine Notes

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