If the wine producers of Bordeaux had their druthers, they probably would have postponed the 1990 vintage.
From an economic standpoint, Bordeaux had no need of an abundant, high-quality year in 1990. The cellars were full of very good 1988s and great 1989s. The giant warehouses operated by the negociants who sold the wine were stacked high with cases of superb but unsold 1986s. And with the world economy slipping into recession, demand was in the tank.
But nature is perverse, and 1990 brought yet another summer of warm, dry weather and another healthy, huge crop of top-quality grapes. So now, right on time, the 1990 vintage is arriving in the United States to try its luck in a wine-saturated market where distributors are already dumping some exquisite Bordeaux for half-price or less.
Still, the 1990 vintage is too good to be ignored -- even by those whose cellars are already full. Based on recent tastings, the wines appear to be even better than they seemed out of the barrel in the spring of 1991. They seem to have taken on an added plumpness and generosity of fruit.
The best evidence of 1990's success was found at a recent tasting sponsored by Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore.
Fourteen 1990 Bordeaux were presented, representing all the most important subdistricts of Bordeaux except for Graves. Even the least of them was quite good, while the best were sheer perfection.
Naturally, the wines did not make up a representative sampling because Wells was putting forward some of the best wines it will carry. Independent tasting uncovered some 1990s that were truly disappointing.
But enough chateaux so clearly transcended their other recent performances that 1990 has joined 1982 and 1989 on the roster of historic vintages in France's largest and most avidly watched winemaking region.
Meanwhile, the good news for the consumer is that prices have gone down from those of 1989 -- except for a handful of wines that have benefited from rave reviews. Enthusiasts should be able to find some bargains -- relatively speaking, of course. Bordeaux has not suddenly become an inexpensive hobby.
Take, for example, the 1990 Chateau Troplong-Mondot from St. Emilion, the ancient town that enjoyed its greatest vintage in decades.
The 1990 Troplong-Mondot is a smashing success, with deep flavors of chocolate and blackberry and uncompromising intensity. It'll cost about $300 a case, or $25 a bottle, which doesn't seem inexpensive until you realize that wines of equal quality are selling for $450 or even $600 a case.
Even more impressive, though just by a hair, was the 1990 Chateau Beausejour-Duffau, also from St. Emilion. This former underachiever has emerged from obscurity with a powerhouse wine that gives extraordinary pleasure now even though it has the structure to improve for two or three decades.
The wines of neighboring Pomerol were also impressive, though they didn't allay my suspicion that 1989 and 1982 were superior for that village.
Still, nobody can fault the performance in 1990 of Chateau
L'Evangile and Chateau La Conseillante. Both properties produced wines of stunning intensity and superb length. If you prefer deep, brooding power, try L'Evangile. For an almost ethereal elegance, choose La Conseillante.
The 1990 Chateau Bon Pasteur, another Pomerol, would have showed well in other company, but was clearly overmatched in this tasting. The chunky, ripe flavors were there, but not the layers upon layers of complexity one found in the 1982.
Across the Gironde estuary in the Medoc, 1990 produced both triumphs and disappointments. Results were mixed in Margaux and St. Julien. Pauillac, despite some great wines, was significantly less consistent than in 1989. St. Estephe had a glorious harvest, although its leading chateau seems to have missed the party.
Margaux, as always, produced some wretched wines in 1990, but all that is likely to be forgotten because of one incredible triumph. For more than a decade, I have been tasting and rating Bordeaux but had never given a perfect score. That streak ended with the 1990 Chateau Margaux.
Suffused with super-concentrated flavors of black cherry, chocolate, cedar and herbs, it rolls across the palate with layer Aupon layer of electrifying flavor. If ever a wine that costs $80- $100 could be called a good value, this is it.
If that's beyond your reach, but you would still like to taste an exceptional 1990 Margaux, there is an excellent alternative: Chateau Monbrison (about $30).
In St. Julien, 1990 brought exceptional performances from underrated and often overlooked Lagrange and Leoville-Barton. Both are medium- to full-bodied wines of surpassing elegance, with the classic St. Julien flavors of cedar and black cherry. The prices will be reasonable by Bordeaux standards.
But St. Julien also produced some disappointments in 1990. Chateau Talbot, while better than it seemed from the barrel, couldn't compete with the top wines in either power or complexity. And the 1990 from normally impeccable Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, tasted separately from the Wells event, left me scratching my head and wondering what happened. It was so bitter, tannic and weedy that there was no pleasure in it at all. One can only hope it was an aberrant bottle, but $48 wines don't get second chances.
In Pauillac, the 1990 Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Baron could not match the triumph of the 1989, which vaulted this longtime under-performer back into the top ranks. The 1990 is a big, burly wine, packed with fruit and tannin but rather coarse. Time could transform it.
Chateau Latour requires no transformation. The celebrated First Growth produced a monumental 1990 -- a complex, ripe, long and multilayered essence of black currant and black cherry. The difference in quality between it and Chateau Margaux is microscopic.
The biggest disappointment for me was the 1990 Chateau Cos d'Estournel, a Second Growth that is normally the finest wine in St. Estephe. Cos d'Estournel had seemed exceptional from the cask, but in the bottle it has taken on a coarse, rustic character. It's still a good, full-bodied, intense Cos d'Estournel, but my hopes for a successor to the classic 1982 have apparently been --ed. For now, you're better off with the supple, chunky 1990 Chateau Haut-Marbuzet for about half the price.
The honor of St. Estephe has been more than redeemed by Chateau Montrose, a Second Growth that has come on strong the last two vintages. The 1990 Montrose is one of the legends of the vintage, and it's disappearing as quickly as retailers get it in stock. It's an immensely spicy wine, with superb length and the structure to last 30 to 50 years. For a big wine, it's incredibly elegant.
There were no Graves wines in the Wells event, but a tasting in Washington two weeks earlier showed that 1990 was very good to the region's two leading red wines -- Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. Neither quite reached the heights they achieved in 1989, but they aren't far behind. The First Growth Haut-Brion is especially succulent, with black cherry and chocolate playing off the characteristic grilled-meat flavors of Graves.
While most of these wines are rather expensive, you don't need to be a lottery winner to enjoy fine 1990 Bordeaux. There are many fine examples available for under $20. Chateau Tour-Haut-Cassan and Chateau Coufran (both about $17) are among the best.
Serious Bordeaux enthusiasts might be wise to acquire some of these 1990s, even if the cellar is well-stocked for now. Both the 1991 and 1992 harvests were subpar in Bordeaux, and the 1993 crop is off to a shaky start. The 1990s might have seemed like too much of a good thing when they came off the vine, but wine drinkers could end up living off them for many years.
* Worse things could happen.
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1990 Chateau de Chamirey
Mercurey, Antonin Rodet ($17).
It's tough to find a truly satisfying white Burgundy for under $25, but this impeccably made wine from underrated Mercurey could pass for a good village Meursault. It's medium-bodied, lightly toasty and finishes clean and long, with refreshing vanilla and lemon flavors.