1989 Vintage Ratings:
Médoc Rating: 95
Pessac-Léognan Rating: 96
Saint-Émilion & Pomerol Rating: 94
Sauternes & Barsac Rating: 95
Dry Whites Rating: 85
1989 Top Three Bordeaux Wines Today:
La Mission Haut-Brion
1989 was the hottest growing season since 1893, marking the beginning of a trend of at least one of these very hot, record-breaking vintages in every decade that has followed since, e.g., 1990, 2003, 2011, 2018, and 2022.
An early bud break in March 1989 was followed by a wet April before May turned warm and dry, causing growth to take off at a jackrabbit pace. The crop set for the reds was high, and the skins were thick from the abundant sun and heat early on. It would be a hefty harvest, portending yields that would be potentially too high to fully ripen without some green harvesting.
Hot, sunny conditions throughout June, July, and August meant the vintage continued to track early. The 1989 harvest was one of the earliest on record until then, beginning at the end of August for the Merlot at a few estates, but the majority started picking Merlot in the first week of September. Mid-September brought some rain, focused mainly on the right bank and to the south of the Médoc, although any deleterious effects are a moot point. A little dilution, given the sugar levels, was not necessarily a bad thing. More importantly, the growing season had been so hot and dry vines needed the precipitation to help push them through. The one indisputably negative outcome of the rain at this time was causing a few nervous growers to jump the gun on harvest. Although the Cabernets had enough sugar at this stage, the berries hadn’t quite achieved phenolic and flavor ripeness. This, as well as too high yields in some cases, accounts for the green characters and chewy tannins in the less successful wines.
The best 1989 reds are jaw-droppingly rich and opulent with firm tannic backbones, generally 13-14% alcohols (moderate by today’s standards), and decadently high pHs (low acidity). The lower acidity and ripeness of tannins combined with the fleshier fruit style made for seductively alluring wines even in youth. It has been interesting to see how many wines with such high pHs have aged so well. The 1989 Haut-Brion, one of the wines of the vintage, has a pH of 4 and is still drinking beautifully, boasting that robust core of multi-layered fruit perfectly framed by velvety tannins. The 1989 Montrose, tasted twice very recently, has held even its deep color very well, still maintaining a core of blackcurrant preserves with a myriad of floral and earthy nuances. Wines from humbler estates have equally held up well. A 1989 Cantemerle tasted recently was mind-blowingly delicious.
Merlot-based wines of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion are pure hedonism in a glass and not just the big names. Tasting a 1989 Bon Pasteur (Pomerol) blind recently, it was so youthful and fruity that I guessed it to be a new world wine from a more recent vintage.
It’s worth mentioning that the ripe fruit and high pHs allowed a good number of ’89 reds to succumb to Brettanomyces, even some of the most lauded and expensive names. So, if you’re a Brett-phobe, read tasting notes carefully before buying. This said, I have tended to see more Bretty and Brettier wines from 1990 than 1989.
While the 1989 dry whites were so-so and are pretty much past their best at this stage, 1989 was a very impressive year for Sauternes and Barsac. The more I taste these now, the more I love them. Rains in mid-October triggered a late onset of Botrytis, necessitating a stop-and-start harvest of multiple tries (harvest passes). Like the reds, the wines are of a concentrated, hedonic style and are similarly standing the test of time in the cellar. In most cases, I prefer the 1989 sweet wines to their 1988 counterparts.