1989 Barolo & Barbaresco: The Benchmark Vintage
It’s been twelve years now since I first started down the path to better understanding wine. It was simply a passion at first, which somehow turned into a never-ending quest for knowledge. In that time, there are specific “truths” that I’ve come know. The first is that price doesn’t always dictate quality, which is a valuable lesson to learn. However, just as important is that there will always be another “greatest vintage ever,” according to somebody. These days, that tends to happen quite often.
Granted, I understand that farming practices have improved, that wineries work cleaner and more efficiently, and that global warming has given producers more good vintages to work with. But here’s another truth; because of all of these changes and improvements, the Barolo being made today will never become the wines of yesterday. They might become something totally different, which in retrospect may be considered better. But we won’t see another 1974, ’78 or ’89. The fact is that all of the technology today is simply trying to recreate what a great vintage provided to us in years like 1989.
Which in my opinion is the best—most classic—vintage of Barolo in the last 37 years.
We’re talking about a time when great vintages only came along once in a decade, and it was the result of what Mother Nature gave them. Green harvesting wasn’t regularly practiced in 1989; instead it was a wet, cool spring resulting in irregular flowering, which initiated the short crop. What’s more, severe hail in June left its mark on many vineyards. The summer was warm, but not hot, and temperatures dropped near the end of the growing season with wide fluctuations between day and night. The result was a small, late harvest with perfectly ripe grapes.
When I think back to the first time I tasted ’89 Barolo, the quality struck me. All of the other vintages I had tasted seemed to pale in comparison. The ‘89s were rich in fruit and powerful, yet bright and focused with a structure that I can best describe as “noble.” They weren’t ready to drink yet, which at the time intrigued me greatly. However, even though the structure of these wines dominated, you could still sense the tension of fruit that was just waiting to bloom.
So here we are, at 26 years-old, and the 1989 Barolo and Barbarescos are just starting to enter their early maturity. Yet, I can assure you that there’s something more waiting down the road, and I won’t be surprised if we are still enjoying the best of them 30 years from now. Also, don’t make the mistake of disregarding Barbaresco from ’89, because the wines are holding up just as well. We don’t always see both regions enjoying the benefits of a vintage equally, but they did in ’89, and the best of them are simply stunning today. This is why I love the ’89 vintage.
At our recent tasting, a set of ’89s wowed the entire group. If you have them in your cellar, then you should count yourself as lucky. If don’t—then even at today’s prices, they are still worth buying. 1989 Barolo has not yet reached its peak, and as current vintages continue to gain praise from the media, vintages like ’89 will soon become impossible to obtain.
On to The Tasting Notes
Listed in the order they were tasted
1989 Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala – The bouquet was simply classic in every way. Sweet aromas of red berry, with cedar box, dried roses and tar lifted from the glass. On the palate, it showed savory notes of dark red fruit with saline minerals, balsamic tones and spice. The ’89 Cicala is rich and focused for its age, closing with cedar and balsamic tones lingering long. (94 points)
1989 Domenico Clerico Barolo Bricotto Bussia – The ’89 Bricotto was one of the most accessible Barolo of this lineup, showing a seductive bouquet of dried red fruits, exotic spices, dark wood and undergrowth. On the palate, it showed silky-smooth textures with vibrant acidity adding verve, while displaying dark fruits, wet leaves and soil with salty minerals. The finish was soft with its lingering dark fruits, hints of spice and cedar. This is showing its age but drinking well. (92 points)
1989 Gaja Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn – The ’89 Sori Tildin was gorgeous on this night and another testament to Gaja’s abilities to balance new wood with Nebbiolo. The nose showed deep red fruit, tobacco, espresso bean, a hint of fresh dill and animal musk in a sweet and savory mix of aromas. On the palate, I found silky textures contrasted by brisk acidity and a mix of tart berry, dark spices and cedar. It finished long, still showing youthful tannin with inner floral tones and spice. This is Gaja to be sure, and it is truly enjoyable. (94 points)
1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Villero di Castiglione Falletto – This was classic Giacosa to the core with undeniable elegance and balance. The nose was forward yet finessed, showing bright red fruit with sweet florals, undergrowth and spice. It opened on the palate with silky textures and a slight grip of still youthful tannin, followed by ripe cherry, spice and cedar, seeming to touch upon all of the senses. The finish was elegant with ripe dark fruit and still showing hints of structure. This is enjoyable now for its sheer class, balance and poise, yet it should continue to improve for years in the cellar. (96 points)
1989 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Ovello – The nose showed ripe berry with dried flowers, spice and crushed fall leaves. On the palate, it displayed soft and silky textures yet remained fresh throughout with flavors of red berry, tobacco and dried floral tones. Dried cherry and floral notes lingered on the finish with a hint of still-youthful tannin. (92 points)
1989 Azienda Bricco Rocche (Ceretto) Barolo Bricco Rocche – The nose was big and rich with dark red fruits and spice. On the palate, I found dried red fruits, crushed leaves and spice. The finish showed dried red berry tones and a hint of cedar. (90 points)
1989 Fratelli Brovia Barolo Rocche di Castiglione – Closed is the best way to describe this classic, and possibly immortal, Barolo. The Brovia Rocche was so close in aromatics to the Vietti of the same vintage that you might mistake the two in a blind tasting. Here, the fruit was a dark red with hints of dusty spice and floral undergrowth. On the palate, intense, dried cherry and floral tones developed yet were held back by a still youthful structure. Tannin mounted on the finish, but the fruit here is focused and in no danger of fading. This was a beautiful wine but nowhere near ready to drink. (94 points)
1989 Vietti Barolo Rocche – The ’89 Rocche was stunning with a bouquet of dried red fruit, plum, cedar and gorgeous floral tones. On the palate, it was as soft as silk with stunning notes of red berry, earth and floral tones, which carried over from the nose. This finished classic and refined with an elegant feel, as the tannin here has finally backed off enough to permit enjoyment. I was ecstatic about this night’s performance, as I feel that I’ve been waiting over a decade for this wine to open up—oh, wait a second, I have waited a decade. It was simply gorgeous. (96 points)