SAUTERNES, FRANCE — Sauternes, France--On paper it seems Sauternes should have had one its best vintages ever in 1990.
In fact, it hasn't worked out quite that way.
All the conditions seemed right. After an extraordinarily warmdry summer, the semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes that make up this wondrous dessert wine entered mid-September in robust health, free of all ignoble molds. Then, as happens in all the best vintages, fog crept up from the tiny river called the Ciron and wrapped the vineyards in cool, moist blanket until midday.
The conditions were ideal for nurturing botrytis cinerea -- the "noble rot" that shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugar and acid while imparting a unique and enchanting flavor to the nectarlike dessert wine they yield.
The oenologists were ecstatic.
"The great sweet white wines benefited from an exceptionallprecocious, rapid and even development of botrytis," wrote Pascal Ribereau-Gayon, director of French government's oenological station in Bordeaux, and his associate Mr. Guimberteau. "The first pickings began very early, when the red grape harvest had not ended" -- an extremely rare occurrence.
They compared the sweetness and richness of the 199Sauternes favorably with those of the previous two years -- both highly regarded vintages -- and concluded that with 1990 "one can speak of an exceptional success in quality and quantity."
Unfortunately, excellent numbers in the laboratory don't alwaymean excellent wines in the glass. Based on a pair of tastings in Sauternes early this month, it seems clear to me that the 1990s will fall well short of greatness and will not match the performance of either the exquisite 1988s or the very good 1989s. Most definitely, it is not a vintage for purchasing Bordeaux futures -- not that you're likely to see many offerings.
Still, 1990 is far from a poor vintage. Only a small percentage oexcellent wines were made, but quite a few are very good. Overall the quality exceeds that of a warm but botrytis-free year like 1985 or a cold, rainy vintage such as 1987. Right now, my guess is that it will fall about in the middle -- a little less successful than 1980, a shade better then 1981.
In a way, 1990 is a vintage of irony. Some prodigal producerreturned to grace, while some of the most consistent performers stumbled. One could speculate that such an atypically warm vintage actually favored some of the lesser growing sites.
Where the 1990s are disappointing, excessive alcohol aninsufficient acid seem to be the main culprits. That was the case at such normally excellent chateaux as Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Guiraud and Suduiraut, all of which made rather hot, heavy, flat wines despite a generous ration of sugar.
In general, the problems of the 1990 vintage are more apparent in Sauternes itself than in its associated appellation of Barsac, which normally produces slightly lighter, more racy wines. Here there were a number of smashing successes -- especially at chateaux Doisy-Daene, Nairac and perhaps Doisy-Vedrines (two inconsistent showings, one spectacular).
Close to Barsac in the town of Preignac, where the wines carrthe Sauternes appellation, one well-known underachiever has made what many regard as its best wine in decades. Chateau de Malle, one of the showpiece estates of Bordeaux, has not lived up to the beauty of its grounds in years, but the 1990 is a wine of impressive sweetness, spice and balance.
Despite the inconsistency in Sauternes itself, several chateauhave produced very good wines. They include a very pleasant, flowery Chateau La Tour Blanche and an exceptionally elegant, concentrated nectar from Rabaud-Promis, both properties on the upswing after years of declining reputation.
In spite of its pleasant surprises, 1990 appears overall to be mildly disappointing year in which the early harvest was a mixed blessing at best. Still, spectacular performances by some of the prestigious chateaux I was not able to taste -- Rieussec, Climens, de Fargues and the incomparable Yquem -- could tilt the balance the other way when these wines are released in several years.
Still unclear is what effect last weekend's devastating frosts ithe Bordeaux region could have on the market. If early reports are true, the 1991 crop of Sauternes and other wines could be dramatically reduced, pushing up the prices of the vintages now in the pipeline (1989, 1990 and to some extent 1988). This won't improve the quality of the 1990s at all, but it might amplify the hype.