Sunday, October 29, 2017

1990 Barolo & Barbaresco Retrospective

The Prelude to The Modern Vintage

Six years ago, a group of friends and collectors–myself included–assembled a 1990 Barolo retrospective tasting. I honestly didn’t know what to expect at the time because, only six years ago, the average Barolo collector looked down on the 1990 vintage, disregarding it as a warm, ripe year that wouldn’t deliver wines that could mature well in the cellar–boy, were we wrong.

The results of our tasting were positive nearly across the board, with only one wine showing poor development and with a few of them verging on epic. When the time came for me to write up my review and to begin to market it to my community of readers, I was met by a number of negative responses. Some people even went as far as calling my opinions incorrect, completely convinced that these wines couldn’t possibly be as good as I said. With time though, opinions began to change as more and more collectors re-tasted the wines themselves and found something they didn’t expect–something they liked a lot.

My opinion was that 1990 wasn’t a poor vintage. It was a ripe vintage, of that there is no doubt, but the wines maintained a freshness and liveliness through balanced acidity, and a purity of ripe fruit that is hard to resist. I mused that they would continue to age beautifully for many years in the cellar.

That brings us to September 27th at the North End Grill

The 1990 vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco started with an unusually turbulent winter, as weather patterns fluctuated between unusually cold to unusually warm through April. Yet the bigger issue was the lack of precipitation. The region was graced with neither rain nor snow until April, and warm weather that lasted into May. The flowering and crop set was variable across the region, yet, in the end, most producers found the set to be generous. With June came the lasting heat, which remained through most of the summer and sped the maturation of fruit. However, with September the weather became much more seasonal, and although the harvest was early by 10-15 days, it was done under optimal conditions. The fear was that the fruit lacked the necessary time on the vine to develop depth and ripe tannin.

Some people immediately disregarded the vintage as ripe and not worthy of the cellar. The funny part is that by today’s standards, it would have been considered a much better year.

From the start, the 1990s drank beautifully and continued to drink well for a decade. Many people thought of it as a restaurant vintage, meaning that a sommelier could buy the wines and open them for their customers upon arrival. Vintages that we might say the same for in the recent past include 2011, 2009, 2007 and 2003. This isn’t the best company to keep in a Barolo collector’s opinion, but 1990 has something very different from these vintages–balance.

There are many theories about why wines age in a positive manner, and with Barolo most people associate it with tannin alone. However, in the time that I’ve been collecting wine, the theory that I’ve come to believe more than any other is that a wine matures on its balance. Fruit, acid and tannin in balance will allow a wine to go the long haul. In my opinion, if the conditions of the 1990 vintage were repeated today, then the wines would have been much better-received in their youth. I see it as a prelude to our modern vintages.

When tasting through the 1990s on our table, balance was the repeating theme in nearly all of them. The fruit was ripe on the nose and palate, only verging on tart in some cases, and they were all carried gracefully across the senses by vibrant acidity. The tannin lurked in the background, only showing itself early in a small number of wines. However, in most of them, their tannin could be perceived only on the tail end of the finish. When you consider that these are 27 year-old wines, then you would expect the tannins to be taking a back seat.

The 1990s we tasted are defined by their consistency and the wide drinking window that they’ve enjoyed. Six years ago, they were gorgeous–maybe coming across as a touch riper. Today they are just as beautiful, a bit more refined, and in no danger of decline.

If you can find 1990 Barolo or Barbaresco from your favorite producer that has been well stored, then my advice is to buy it and enjoy.

On to the tasting notes:

1st Flight: Paolo Scavino Barolo

Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc 1990 – The ‘90 Bric del Fiasc provided a fantastic start to our tasting, being one of the first times that I’ve tasted this wine and found the development of more tertiary aromas and flavors. The nose was gorgeous, displaying crushed fall leaves, tar and undergrowth up front, as notes of black cherry, brown sugar and a hint of iodine developed in the glass. On the palate, I found silky textures offset by zesty acidity with mineral-drenched tart cherry fruit that saturated the senses. It finished long on dark red fruits, undergrowth and iron-borne minerality. (94 points)

Paolo Scavino Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 1990 – Upon serving, the ‘90 Rocche dell’Annunziata was much warmer (temperature-wise) than the Bric del Fiasc, which hurt its initial performance, but as the evening wore on, I was able to taste it again on its own with much better results. The nose was hauntingly dark and intense with baked cherries, exotic spice, marine-minerality and hints of sweet herbs. On the palate, I found medium-bodied textures yet still lighter than I expected, with dried black cherry and strawberry fruits. Hints of tobacco, sweet herbs and inner florals lingered on the palate long into the finish, with an earthy-mineral tinge. (91 points)

2nd Flight: Modern Leanings

Azienda Bricco Rocche (Ceretto) Barolo Brunate 1990 – The bouquet was gorgeous with spicy ripe cherry, cigar box, hints of orange citrus, and menthol. It entered juicy on the palate, with pretty ripe cherry and sweet spice tones, yet falling off toward the mid-palate, and ultimately becoming muddled with an odd note of rotten fruit. It finished with medium-length and hints of fine tannin, but it appears that the Ceretto Brunate may have already seen its day in the sun. (90 points)

Elio Altare Barolo Vigneto Arborina 1990 – The nose was dark and intense, showing black earth, minerals, hauntingly dark floral tones, dried black cherry, cedar, and savory herbs. On the palate, I found unbelievable silky textures and medium-to-full bodied weight, with vibrant red berry fruits, spices, minerals and vibrant acidity that added great energy to the mix. It was so easy to like that you could easily find yourself drinking it instead of tasting. The finish was long with a display of dark red fruit, saturating sweet spice, tobacco and dried roses. (93 points)

Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis 1990 – The ‘90 Cannubi Boschis was at first dark and brooding in the glass, taking time to unfurl, yet once it did–what a beautiful display it was. Here I found a dark and meaty bouquet with minty herbs and bright cherry adding freshness. As it sat in the glass, notes of dusty spice and dried rose appeared, yet there remained a note of beef blood, which grounded this in the earth. It was silky on the palate, yet structured and still youthful, showing tart cherry, orange peel and tobacco. The finish was long and saturating to the senses, with lively tannin and dried red berry tones. (96 points)

3rd Flight: Serralunga and Monforte

Gaja Barolo Sperss 1990 – The ‘90 Sperss was remarkably fresh for both the vintage and what I expected from the wine. Here I found a gorgeous bouquet of dried violets offset by dark earth, leather, red licorice, dusty old spice box and crushed stone. On the palate, soft textures were complemented by an undercurrent of ripe dark red fruits, with hints of dried citrus, minerals and brisk-energizing acidity. It finished long and floral with lingering hints of undergrowth, spice and dried red berry fruit. (97 points)

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 1990 – The nose displayed an overwhelming mineral, metal and sawdust note, lacking in fruit but also not showing any aromas that I associate with cork. On the palate, it was one dimensional, showing dark red fruit but without any energy or drive. I’m sure this was an off bottle, but I’m not exactly sure of how it arrived at such an odd state. I declined scoring it as a result. (NA)

Poderi Aldo Conterno Barolo Riserva Granbussia 1990 – This is further evidence that when an Aldo Conterno Barolo is on, that there is little else that can compare. The ‘90 Granbussia was Monforte-fruit personified. It was dark, viral, and brooding, with dried black cherry giving way to iron-like minerality, dusty florals and earth. On the palate, it was silky but with an underlying current of dark tannic structure and mineral earth tones, as black fruit saturated the senses. It was powerful and still tense, showing further potential for the cellar as it finished long on dried berries and tobacco. (94 points)

4th Flight: Barbaresco

Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Gallina di Neive 1990 – The bouquet was gorgeous with sweet florals and exotic spices, followed by dried strawberry, tobacco and hints of floral undergrowth. On the palate, I found a silky expression made vibrant through juicy acidity with mineral coated dark red fruits, and spices. It finished long and floral with hints of sweet herbs, lasting minerality and mouthwatering acidity. It’s amazing how juicy and fresh this 27 year-old barbaresco is, as well as how Giacosa could create so many consistently beautiful wines across so many vineyards and vintages. (95 points)

Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Pora 1990 – The Produttori Pora Riserva was so perfectly balanced and mature on this evening, showing a floral bouquet, yet rich with dried cherry, hints of olive, minerals and undergrowth. On the palate, I found saturating deep red berry fruit tones with zesty acidity providing freshness, and earth and tobacco adding depth. The finish was long and still lightly structured, and dried cherry and strawberry seemed to slowly melt from the senses. (94 points)

Gaja Barbaresco Costa Russi 1990 -The Costa Russi was a model of purity and nebbiolo refinement on the nose, as notes of pine and mint rose up from the glass, joined by hints of tar, dried rose, strawberry, potpourri and minerals. On the palate, I found zesty textures with nearly imperceptible weight, as the wine seemed to hover on the senses with lively notes of tart red berry, spice, citrus and fresh herbs. It’s amazing how youthful this felt, yet also perfectly mature, as it finished on dried berries, hints of cedar and inner floral tones. (93 points)

Also tasted in April 2017

Vietti Barolo Rocche 1990 – The ’90 Vietti Rocche is showing beautifully tonight. The bouquet was gorgeous and intense, with black cherry, mint, tobacco, sweet spice, dried flowers, and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found silky textures with a kick of acidity adding bite, while crunchy tannin added grip. Tart black cherry, dried citrus, wild herbs, and intense minerality saturated the senses. It finished fresh with biting acids and tannin, but oh so good and drinking wonderfully. (95 points)

Article, Photos and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido

For more impressions on our evening, visit: Wine Without Numbers


  1. Excellent Info. Is the 90 Giacosa Gallina worth seeking out? What would be a good pairing with the 90 G. Mascarello Monprivato? Thank You Greg Lovalenti.

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