Bordeaux Hot Summer Resulted In A Spotty 1990 Vintage

April 14, 1991|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Correspondent

BORDEAUX, FRANCE — Bordeaux, France

The French call it the "vendange verte" -- the green harvest. It's a miserable experience, but it made all the difference in Bordeaux's 1990 vintage.

What happens is this: In the heat of the July sun, sweating workers go through the vineyards cutting perfectly healthy bunches of grapes off the vines and letting them fall to the ground.

It's not at all like the true harvestin the fall. There are no "vendange verte" festivals, and no priests come to bless the green grapes that end up getting mashed into the dirt.

To most of the workers, such waste seems like madness, but dedicated growers know that when the vines carry too large a crop, the juice will be too dilute to make great wine. Still, it's a job they hate.

"We are intellectually prepared to do it but spiritually we are not," says Paul Pontallier, winemaker at Chateau Margaux, where strict crop-thinning helped make one of the successful wines of the 1990 vintage.

If all of the winemakers of Bordeaux had been as rigorous as Mr. Pontallier, 1990 would be going into the books as an excellent vintage. But the sad fact is that many of his fellow growers were not prepared -- intellectually, spiritually or economically -- to wield a sharp enough pair of pruning shears last year, even though it was apparent by June that the crop was enormous.

And that's why 1990 is a very spotty vintage -- not a "bad year" per se, but one in which disappointments abounded. Yes, some wines were made that any Bordeaux enthusiast would love to have in the cellar, but some of the region's most consistent producers stumbled badly. On the whole it's a very good vintage, but far from great. Certainly the 1990s are no match for the splendid 1989s, which are showing even better now than they did last spring.

This judgment comes after a week in Bordeaux tasting almost 300 barrel samples of Bordeaux from the 1989 and 1990 vintages. The wines included most of the best-known chateaux of the region, as well as many lesser-known, less expensive wines.

It's also a judgment that's certain to be challenged. Many of the wine journalists tasting with the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux appeared to accept the premise being pushed by producers that 1990 was an exceptional vintage of great LTC elegance -- different from 1989 but its virtual equal.

Perhaps it's just my unapologetically American palate talking, but that's baloney. Too many of the 1990s have gobs of hard tannin and too little fruit. Wine is for pleasure, and many of these will not be pleasant for 20 or more years, if at all. Some call that classic; I call it a flaw.

At its best, 1990 produced tannic but well-balanced and concentrated wines like the top 1988 Bordeaux. At its worst, the wines taste like medium-weight 1983s that have had the hard tannins of 1975 or 1986 superimposed upon them -- a most unpleasant combination. Among the vintages of the last 10 years, I would rank 1990 in the second half -- behind 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989.

Certainly, 1990 did have its triumphs. Petrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Cos d'Estournel, Trotanoy and Montrose produced wines that would be classics in any vintage. But on the other hand, such fine producers as Gruaud-Larose, Talbot, Leoville-Barton, Langoa-Barton, Figeac and Canon made deeply disappointing wines. More commonly the best estates -- Mouton-Rothschild, Pichon-Lalande and Ducru-Beaucaillou -- made wines that were quite fine, but far short of their efforts in 1989.

The fundamental problem of the 1990 vintage was that there was too much of a good thing. Normally Bordeaux producers love to see a hot, dry growing season, but the period between July 21 and Aug. 31 brought searing temperatures and only one-third of the rainfall of same period in 1989.

In many cases, 100-degree days and drought created such stress on the vines that the maturation of the grapes stalled almost entirely until September rain brought some relief. Thus in spite of a start as precocious as in 1989 and even more heat, the red wine harvest started several weeks later and didn't finish until early October. Given the pounding taken by the grapevines, it's a surprise they produced as good a crop as they did.

"We know that vines must slightly suffer," said Mr. Pontallier, "but as soon as they suffer too much, quality starts slipping quickly."

This is where the question of crop size, or yield, became so important. Where vines were carrying too much of a load because their owners hadn't done an aggressive enough job of pruning in July, the stress was magnified. Grapes reached technical maturity, but there was no depth of flavor -- just a lot of alcohol and tannin.

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