Back In Review: 1990s Around the World Dinner in Beijing

Published on 11 February, 2020

© Linden Wilkie, 11th February 2020

Some vintages are particularly uneven in France. 1998, for instance, produced some pretty rich wines in the sun-baked Rhône, and the best Merlot-led blends in Bordeaux’s Right Bank since 1964. But rain scuppered the chances of the Médoc, and frost, hail, rot, and sunburn took their turn to wreck many prospects in Burgundy. Other vintages – like 1985 – are more universal, with lovely wines in most districts of France, and indeed in Port, much of Italy and elsewhere in Europe. 

1990 is another such vintage, but it is marked out for another reason in my memory: it was great almost everywhere that produced fine wine. And in the 1990 vintage wine publications were paying more attention globally. In 1995, Wine Spectator named Australia’s 1990 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage their #1 wine in that year’s Top 100 wines article. Accolades were given to wines from diverse regions. There was a sense with 1990, that it was a global fine wine year. 

We wine event organisers love anniversaries, and 30 years is a great stake in the ground for measuring fine wine. It’s a point at which any inherent weakness is easily apparent, but it is also often a point at which the wine is showing all its qualities too. It’s a moment to shine. 

Of course a curated selection of eleven wines does not a global survey make. But it is a fun way to spend an evening, and anytime you put wines together for comparison, something will come out of it. So here are some thoughts – in brief – from me on this evening’s wines.

  • Our two Bordeaux reds nicely bookend the style spectrum in a 1990 snapshot. Tertre Roteboeuf is all burlesque and part of the upcoming ‘90s and ‘00s trend toward that bigger style so favoured by the market on the rise then – the USA. Its acidity is lower than wine generally made that year, and it is voluptuously sweet and rich. Léoville Las-Cases on the other hand shows the tail end of a much older style. Its lighter style “claretiness”, its “digestibility” as Michael Broadbent MW is fond of saying (in praise) is quite different from the firmly Cabernet dominant and more intense wines made there today. It also shows a little weakness now – a lot of Cabernet Franc that is just ripe, and a lot of Merlot that feels a little weak at 30. For all that, I liked both of these two wines, both succeeded in what they wanted to do.
  • I began organising wine events in the 1990s while a student, and that significant ‘Top 100’ win for the 1990 Grange, and other accolades, left me a little in awe of that wine – it was an early ‘grail wine’ for me. It can be great, but I can’t get past the fact that it is still something of a monolith at 30. I’ve learned that I prefer Grange in the ‘off vintages’. Given less than 1% of the best resources available to Penfolds go into Grange, and that the vineyards chosen can vary to suit the vintage year on year, it’s perhaps a misnomer to talk about an ‘off vintage’ with Grange at all. But I like Grange that gives a little savouriness, because the incredible ripe fruit is always a given. 1981 – tasted a couple of times recently (see my recent Mini-Themes review), is more drinking pleasure than this 1990. In time, I think the ’90 will have its day.

Specially created dishes by the team at The Georg Beijing

  • The Faiveley left me with two somewhat competing thoughts. The first is that it is certainly in that old Faiveley style (before Bernard Hervet arrived in the mid-‘00s) – therefore a little bit firm, especially on the finish. On the other hand the fruit expression and quality was clearly fully grand cru, and so the price is actually very reasonable in the context of mature grand cru Burgundy. If I had bought this bottle I would have considered it a win. Fair value. 
  • Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses offered no surprises – it was simply great. It almost always is. I don’t know why this very special single vineyard wine does not cost more, but while it doesn’t I will continue to enjoy more than my fair share of it. It appeals, I know, to friends of mine who aren’t really into Champagne because it is so ‘winey’. A similar comment was made by a guest at this event.
  • Vega Sicilia ‘Unico’ will almost always give you a wow wine, and this was no exception.
  • The Dominus was a slight surprise. I think Dominus is greatly underrated anyway, but I hadn’t recalled the 1990 being as great as this bottle, which came close to the legendary 1994 in sheer class and depth. It blew the two Bordeaux reds off the table.
  • If you know me at all you know about my deep love for the fine Rieslings of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. This was one of the best Auslese experiences of my life. I could have written pages more as I tasted it but sometimes you just want to enjoy the moment! 

Below are my tasting notes from the evening. As usual I asked our guests to vote for their two favourite wines of the night. The results are noted below too.

Click here for the full list of all our 1990 wines. If you were born or got married in 1990 all I can say is ‘lucky you’. 

1990 Philipponnat Champagne ‘Clos des Goisses’ 95

Toasty and rich on the nose; a lovely sweet and intense flavour on the palate, this shows concentration, liveliness, a rich taste with notes of Cognac and a touch of butterscotch, while remaining sufficiently fresh, with good fruit expression. An element from the initial élevage in wood comes through. Long finish. 
No votes for wine of the night.

1990 Chambertin-Clos de Bèze Grand Cru, Domaine J. Faiveley 92

A fairly deep colour; lovely nose, sweet, perfumed and fine, really seductive and noble; relatively silky for Faiveley of this period, fleshy, fine and energetic, it finishes a touch oaky and ‘squeezed’ toward the finish. The aroma, velvetiness, and fruit depth of Chambertin-Clos de Bèze is here, while the length of finish is a little modest. 
No votes for wine of the night.

1990 Château Tertre Roteboeuf 91

Full colour; sweet, heady and opulent nose, spicy; fleshy and opulent on the palate, sweet fruit with low acidity – even by the standards of 1990, some oak glossiness in the texture, but the whole thing works, and is a pleasure. Some fade after 30 minutes in the glass and there is a sense now that the oak texture is pushing through. But this is still a lot of fun. 
Two votes for wine of the night.

1990 Château Léoville Las Cases 92

A fine fresh colour; lovely fragrance with notes of preserved ginger and leaf in the mix with sweetness, and what Michael Broadbent MW refers to as ‘hot tiles’, an earthiness; fine, quite elegant and precise on the palate, sweet, with lovely acid balance, biscuit notes, evolved now but with lovely fruit, a hint of a sharp less-ripe element (probably coming from the Franc – 21%), and less concentrated than modern Las Cases – the high yield and high proportion of Merlot (29%). This is an open, more relaxed sort of Las Cases – almost ‘light’. Drinks so easily, and where is the harm in that?! 
No votes for wine of the night.

Left: 1990 Dominus; Dominus Winery, © Linden Wilkie

1990 Dominus 97

Gorgeous! This has that Médocain sort of nose, but inimitably Dominus, with ginger, dark chocolate, spices and high detail in the aroma; fresh, very high quality on the palate. This is lovely. Such balance, clarity and precision, with a melting, truffly end. Fantastic wine. 
Five votes for wine of the night. 2nd equal place.

1990 Vega Sicilia ‘Unico’ 94

Fragrant, sweet, with ‘Xmas’ spices, American oak notes, this is lively and lifted on the nose; bright, concentrated and energetic on the palate, very supple in texture, wood notes on the long finish. 
Five votes for wine of the night. 2nd equal place.

1990 CVNE Rioja ‘Viña Real’ Gran Reserva 93

Added to the original line up by us as a backup for the 1990 Sassicaia, which was, unfortunately, showing poorly.
Light colour; sweet and very fine and elegant, this has an almost ethereal lightness, such elegance and fine expression with a very fragrant and long finish. 
No votes for wine of the night. 

1990 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’ 96

Dark and deep; opulent ripe dense pure fleshy nose, damsons; sweet, grand, and with lots of fruit on the palate, the complexity began to show after another 30 minutes in the glass, and the complexity and layers are there, but it (this bottle – as it varies) is still so young. 
Five votes for wine of the night. 2nd equal place.

1990 Penfolds Grange Hermitage 94

Dark; sweet but quite closed nose, spices come through; concentrated, highly structured with plenty of tannic grip, Xmasy, this has an extraordinary depth of terrific fruit. Powerful wine – it really needed the 5J pork with king oyster mushroom and black garlic that was served with it for it to find its flow. 
Two votes for wine of the night

1990 Château d’Yquem 94

Added to our line up by a generous guest who turned up with this bottle in hand on the night. 
Coppery old gold; sweet, quite mature nose; concentrated and unctuous on the palate, lively with a creamy texture, Seville oranges that carry through to the long finish. Hefty but balanced. 
No votes for wine of the night. 

1990 Wiltinger Braune Kupp Auslese Goldkapsel, Weingut Le Gallais (Egon Müller) 99

Coppery gold, bright and limpid in the glass; a lovely, lovely nose, fresh, forest-green, floral, a touch waxy, with candied peel elements, and clean botrytis – a great nose!; unctuous, sweet yet elegant on the palate. Fabulous, it deftly finishes “dry” – i.e. not dry at all (RS must be north of 100g/l), but super finely balanced between intensity of fruit, residual sugar, fine acidity, fine phenolics and a sense of fresh vivacity that leaves the palate clean, fresh and wishing for more. Pristine, poised, and perfectly balanced. This is exquisite. 
Six votes for wine of the night – 1st place.

1990 Recioto della Valpolicella Classico, Giuseppe Quintarelli 95

There’s a lovely balance here and complex maturity. That cherry-toned bittersweetness of Recioto is there, dark fruit, sesame and savoury notes, it is tangy, full of fruit, full Quintarelli quality, and drinking well.
One vote for wine of the night.