Rockeries in Living Rooms: 1988 vs. 1989 Bordeaux


A golden glow surrounds my childhood memories of 1988 and 1989. I had the comfort of living in my parents’ semi-detached in Leigh-on-Sea with all the attendant five-star hotel service: dad’s mug of tea in the morning, mum slipping a hot water bottle under the duvet on cold nights. Once the front door was closed behind me, however, I embarked upon the kind of teenage rebellion that years later, I regaled to my own daughters in a futile effort to demonstrate “cool dad” credentials, only to spend sleepless nights fretting they might be up to the same treacherous acts of hedonism. In those years, practically every night was spent gallivanting about in crowded smoke-filled bars, nightclubs with names like Penthouse or the notorious den of iniquity, The Pink Toothbrush. Then, there were naïve teens who foolishly decided to enhance classroom popularity by hosting a house party when equally naïve mum and dad went on a weekend break. Oh dear. Some of these parties have passed into folklore. My personal favorite is the one where some lads rebuilt the garden rockery in the living room: boulders, soil, plants and gnomes. I'm not sure whether our host’s parents appreciated this upon their return, not that anyone had a clue who the host actually was. This period marked my first foray into DJing. The music was Public Enemy, Prince, INXS, Inner City and The Cure. Wine? It only existed either for its intoxicating purposes or the Liebfraumilch that chaperoned the Sunday roast and left a sugary aftertaste that was gone by around Wednesday.  

I was oblivious to the fact that Bordeaux was finishing a decade that saw the region enter the modern age, a region carried on a tide of benevolent vintages. Wineries had seen burgeoning demand for Claret, and attendant increased prices that gave them income to invest and update wineries, some of which were unchanged since the war. Whereas the 1982 vintage could not really take advantage of that flush of income, the triumvirate that finished the decade certainly could. Add to the mix the rise of Robert Parker, who, whatever your opinion of his palate, was a lodestar that incentivized winemakers to improve quality. No wonder those vintages are now a treasure trove for wine lovers. Of the three that ended the decade, received wisdom is that 1989 and 1990 vie for supremacy and shade in 1988.

It is always useful to revisit vintages and examine how the wines are evolving. In the last six months, I attended three dinners in London, two focusing on 1989 and one on the 1988 vintage. Gathering these notes together, I added a handful of ad hoc wines, including one or two Champagnes that whetted the palate before broaching the claret. In total, that makes around 40 reviews.

Some bottles, such as the 1988 Lafite-Rothschild, were served in magnums. Do they age better than bottles? I am still waiting to be totally convinced based on empirical evidence.

The Growing Seasons

The 1988 growing season followed the rather miserable 1987. Flowering was late but passed relatively smoothly, though some coulure and millerandage affected the Merlot. After a series of storms in June, July was relatively calm, and August was very dry, though not particularly hot. September saw the mercury rise to 37°C, and without rain, winemakers began to worry about vine stress. Things turned on their head when a cold northerly wind slammed the brakes in mid-September. Producers were on a knife edge. A storm on September 29 gave them the jitters. Some cut their losses and picked, resulting in wines compromised by under-ripe Cabernet. Many held their nerve and waited, some out in the vines until October 23, and they reaped the rewards as conditions settled and nudged fruit to full ripeness.

The 1989 season began very differently, as an early budding portended an early harvest, possibly in mid-August - inconceivable in an era before global warming. Those thoughts were nipped in the bud, literally, by an unseasonably cold April before May swung the other way so that it was 5°C warmer than average. Flowering passed smoothly, and a large volume was on the cards. June was hot with the occasional storm. July saw localized hail in Sauternes, which meant Yquem lost one-third of its crop. Nevertheless, temperatures remained high between June and September, averaging 20.9°C, not far from 1947 levels. It was also extremely dry, with just 195mm of rain between May and September. This slowed the vegetative cycle and created dissonance between higher alcohol levels and physiological ripeness, so winemakers faced a dilemma of whether to pick or not. Some did go out at the beginning of September, others waited and benefitted from rain on September 10, which revivified the vines. It was an enormous crop of 4.9 million hectolitres, though some of the Merlot lacked acidity, and some of the Cabernets were excessively tannic.

The Wines

Given their reputation, I would have bet on the class of 1989 trumping 1988. Yet the flush of 1988s made such a positive impression that I immediately raised my admiration for the vintage. These wines exuded an increasingly rare sense of classicism that is becoming a valuable commodity in the glaring light of global warming. Amongst this admittedly small sample size, these 1988s showed little sign of reaching the end of their drinking plateaux, imbued with refreshing salinity that ensures you finished the glass – the litmus test of a great vintage. Even ignoring the First Growths, the likes of 1988 Léoville-Barton and Lynch Bages are relatively inexpensive and can still be found pretty easily. Both have much to offer. The 1988 Pichon-Baron came from magnum and epitomized mature claret in all its glory. Christian Seely advised that this vintage is superior in large formats, and he was spot on with respect to two magnums tasted in September and again in February this year. 

What the 1988 vintage lacks is a superstar. That may explain why it is not quite as revered as others. Compare this to 1989, which boasts two or three headliners that helped establish its reputation, namely Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and Petrus. Robert Parker’s adulation on release anointed each, and he was right on the money because all three flirt with perfection. However, the Pessac-Léognan wines are inconsistent from bottle to bottle, and the Haut-Brion and La Mission poured in London were a bit off-color, whereas the pair poured in Hong Kong were absolutely stunning. Before that dinner, I was adamant that La Mission was pulling away from 1989 Haut-Brion. But on this occasion, the First Growth was perfection - one of the greatest of two dozen bottles over the last two decades. By contrast, the 1989 Petrus has been a consistent performer. I cannot remember a bottle that didn’t have me leafing through my thesaurus for superlatives, winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet perhaps at the peak of his powers. As you move away from the elite château, the 1989s become less consistent with some Grand Cru Classés either drying or tinged with under-ripeness, an aspect that jars with a superficial sweetness. Some of my favorite estates, like Grand Puy Lacoste and Léoville Barton, are adequate but outshone by their 1990 counterparts. Perhaps it is unfair to contrast with my selection of 1988s because it focused on the very best, and if I were able to taste more widely, would I have encountered similar inconsistency?

Final Thoughts

The decade of the 1980s is a sweet spot for lovers of mature Bordeaux. It is blessed with benevolent growing seasons, and its wines are at an age when their terroirs shine through. Banal as it reads, these are mostly delicious wines that are fascinating in terms of their complexity, their virtues, and, in a perverse way, their shortcomings. Wines express their respective winemaking philosophies in their youth, and it is only through maturity and the manifestation of secondary aromas and flavors that individuality is articulated. As such, 1988 and 1989 are perfect vintages to revisit, and due to the abundant crop, they occupy merchants’ lists at prices that question why you keep shelling out at primeur. My takeaway from these dinners was to drink more 1988 Bordeaux.

Finally, I take this opportunity to apologize to the parents who returned from their weekend break to find the rockery rebuilt in their living room. It was not my idea. I can’t imagine how I would react if it happened in my own home, but I know that behind all my anger and expletives, I would be laughing.

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