Saturday, January 18, 2014

1989: Barolo Retrospective

By Eric Guido

The "Epic" '89 Cascina Francia
With no Monfortino in '89,
this wine turned out to be a
2004 was the year that I really got into wine, and from that moment forward it has been a continuous learning experience on a topic that is constantly evolving. In that time, there are specific “truths” that I’ve come understand. One is that price doesn’t always dictate quality. Another is that there will always be another “greatest vintage ever,” according to somebody, only a few years down the road. And then there’s 1989 Barolo; and the truth is that it’s the best, classic vintage of Barolo in the last 35 years.

Let’s call a spade a spade. I understand that farming practices have improved, that wineries work cleaner and more efficient, and that global warming has given producers more good vintages to work with. But here's another truth; because of all of these changes and improvements, the Barolo being made today will never become the wines of yesterday. Granted, they might become something totally different, which in retrospect may be considered better. But we won't see another 1974, '78 or '89. The fact is that all the technology today is simply trying to recreate what a great vintage provided us in years like 1989.

We're talking about a time when there were great vintages once a decade, and it was the result of what Mother Nature gave them. Green harvesting wasn't regularly practiced in 1989; instead a wet, cool spring resulted in irregular flowering. What's more, severe hail in June left its mark on many vineyards. The summer was warm, but not hot, and temperatures dropped near the end of the growing season with wide fluctuations between day and night. The result was a late harvest with perfectly ripe grapes.

Setting up our blind tasting at i Truli.  An amazing tasting
complimented by a Piedmonte inspired menu.
When I think back to the first time I tasted an '89 Barolo, even at an early point in my journey to understand wine, the quality struck me. All of the other vintages I had tasted, '95 through 2000, seemed to pale in comparison. They were rich in fruit and powerful, yet bright and focused with a structure that I can best describe as "noble". They weren't ready to drink yet, which at the time (2006) intrigued me greatly. However, even though the structure of these wines dominated, you could still sense the tension of fruit that was just waiting to bloom. So here we are, eight years later, and these wines are even closer to peaking, but not quite there yet. Enjoyable? Absolutely. Yet, you can still sense that there's something more waiting down the road, and I won't be surprised if we are still enjoying the best of them 40 years from now. God, I love '89 Barolo.

These 25-year old corks look fantastic, unfortunately
a few them work cork-taint time bombs.
The following notes are from a recent tasting, which included 14 bottles of Barolo and 2 of Barbaresco. One issue I witnessed was a problem with cork taint (3 out of 16 bottles), which is another issue on the decline these days. Also, out of all of these wines, one was obviously heat damaged, a concern when trying to procure these wines on the market today. My advice, if you have the means, is to buy '89 Barolo, because the prices will only go up as the wines continue to peak. However, if you are a buyer, make sure you are getting them from a reliable source. Many of these wines will cost a pretty penny (my Wine of The Night is retailing at $595), but that doesn't mean you can't find deals if you look hard enough. '89 Produttori Ovello is a perfect example.

On to the notes:

Flight #1 was something of a let-down, yet in no way the fault of the vintage. The unfortunate reality of older wine is the possibility of it being damaged from mistreatment or issues with cork. Thankfully corks have improved drastically in the last decade. However, there was a silver lining in the form of a Produttori Barbaresco that showed beautifully. What would a Barolo tasting be without a Barbaresco inserted as a ringer, which pans out to be a winner?

1989 Produttori del Barbaresco Riserva Ovello – What a pretty and feminine wine that may not have shown as well next to a larger-scaled Barolo or Barbaresco, yet on it’s own was magical. The nose was still youthful, showing dusty red fruits with minerals and rose petals. On the palate, it showed silky textures interlaced with veins of structure and acidity. Bright cherry was joined by notes of earth and inner floral tones, which lasted into a long, staying finish. The Ovello was elegant and finessed, showing the undeniable qualities of Produttori yet again. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Roagna Barbaresco Riserva – Sadly, the ’89 Roagna Barbaresco Riserva was slightly corked, and what a shame that was, because what I did find in the glass tempted my curiosity. Dried red fruits pushed forward on the nose with notes of soil, gravel and old parchment. On the palate, it was tart with red berry and herbal notes, yet turned muddled. Dried red berries lingered on the finish with a zing of acidity. (N/A) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – The nose was dark, showing roasted meat, mushroom, moist leaves and beef stock. On the palate, it was still youthful yet meaty, with red fruits and earth tones. The finish was long, yet the wines acidity seemed to dry out the wine, leaving only traces of citrus peel and minerals. (87 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Cavallotto Barolo Vigna San Giuseppe Riserva – You could sense the greatness in this wine, yet it was apparently mistreated at some point in its life. The nose was earth personified with porcini mushroom, soil, mineral, herbal tones and a hint of French onion soup. On the palate, it showed tart red fruits and citrus peel. The finish was dank and muddled with notes of earth and stewed fruit. (N/AFind it on Wine-Searcher!

Flight #2 really took things up a notch and relieved any fears that flight #1 may have stirred. Monforte d’Alba was the theme of the flight, and these wines came through in spades. What really impressed me was how impossibly young they all seemed.

1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala – The nose was classic, showing dusty red fruits, dried flowers, sandy soil, minerals and beef broth. It showed great depth on the palate, with tart red berries saturating the senses in waves of velvety texture, followed by notes of herbal tea and minerals. The finish was staying and seemed to wrap the palate in warm, radiant fruit. Other tasters seemed to prefer the Colonnello, but for me it was the Cicala that showed best. (94 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini – The nose was earthy and complex with dark red fruit, mushrooms, dried flowers, hints of citrus rind and dusty, dried cranberries. On the palate, it was still young and structured with tart red fruit, inner floral tones and hints of citrus. The medium-long finish lent a sweet and sour effect as red berry and citrus intermingled. (93 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Colonnello – The nose was wonderfully expressive with dark red fruits, dried flowers, spices and beef stock. On the palate, it was smaller-scaled, yet silky smooth and juicy with round red fruits and herbal tones. The finish turned darker and lingered. Other tasters found this to be much more interesting than I did. It’s a beautiful wine that’s drinking well now, but it was lack of depth on the palate that soured my view. (92 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Riserva – The nose was modern and forward, showing ripe black cherry with balsamic tones, spice, licorice and a whiff of vanilla oak. On the palate, it was surprisingly clean, focused and finessed with cherry, sweet spice, dark chocolate and earth tones. The finish was soft and juicy with dried red berry notes lingering long. (88 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

Flight #3 was marked by the biggest disappointment of the evening, a completely corked Brovia Rocche and Bruno Giacosa Villero. Luckily, the two wines that did show were incredible! So began the battle of the two ’89 Vietti…

1989 Brovia Barolo RoccheCorked

1989 Vietti Barolo Rocche – The ’89 Vietti Rocche was stunning. The nose was forward, yet elegant and finessed, showing beautiful floral tones, cherry, potpourri, roses, balsamic hints and spice. On the palate, it was still youthful and structured; yet even still, the most focused red fruit ran deep, enveloping the senses and contrasted by inner floral notes. The finishes lingered on and on with hints of structure tugging at the senses while crystalline red fruit slowly faded away. This wine was seamless. (96 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Vietti Barolo Villero Riserva – The nose was bright and explosive with sweet red fruits, spice, rose petal, potpourri and hints of menthol. On the palate, it was round with velvety red fruits, yet persistent and focused, as sweet spice and hints of citrus danced across the senses. It finished focused and clean with dried red berries and hints of spice, which lingered on and on. It was gorgeous. (95 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo VilleroCorked

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, along came Flight #4. Out of the 16 bottles we originally assembled, what wasn’t revealed to the tasters was that a 1989 Giacomo Conterno Cascina Frania had been entered into the tasting. It was great listening to the chatter around the table as everyone put their nose to the glass.

1989 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia – The nose was deep, rooted in the earth with iron and minerals, yet dark and imposing as rich black cherry, licorice and dried roses gave contrast to rock dust and black soil tones. You could sense that as much as this wine was willing to give, there was still so much more being held in reserve. On the palate, balsamic notes gave way to dark fruit and inner floral perfumes, yet the wine’s muscle and girth seemed to be working hard (yet in a futile manner) to try and keep it all concealed. The finish was filled with strawberry, tar and tobacco notes in a long, youthful expression. This is a wine that anyone who considers themselves a fan of Barolo must taste at one point in their lives. (97 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Cascina Bruni Barolo Vigna Batistot – The nose was beautiful and quite unique, with spicy, candied tones leading to Bing cherry, celery seed and candle wax. On the palate, it showed velvety textures with dark red fruit and a hint of bitters. The finish was staying with red berry and licorice lingering on the palate. (90 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Prunotto Barolo Cannubi – The nose was dark, and at first reticent; yet as it opened in the glass, a bouquet of red berry, floral perfumes, herbs, minerals and a hint of spice came forward. On the palate, focused red fruits gave way to earth, minerals and stone with a still lively structure. The finish was clean and refreshing with a note of dried cherries. (93 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

1989 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Riserva – The nose showed red fruit, which was a bit stewy, with mushroom, herbs, tar and parchment. On the palate, dried red berries, spice and fall leaves coated the senses, yet the sense that this wine was holding back edged on my thoughts. The finish showed notes of red fruit and old cedar with a drying structure, which cut it short. (92 pointsFind it on Wine-Searcher!

Related Links: 
Words from fellow wine writers and bloggers who attended this tasting. The following links are a great way to get an in-depth understanding of these wines and the vintages.
Ken Vastola of "The Fine Wine Geek": 1989 Barolo and Barbaresco


  1. Great accounting Eric and great photos. My notes are similar with the only major difference being the Bartolo. I had this wine a few weeks before and it was stunning. The only difference was that it was not opened early and decanted. I wonder if the opening and decanting had anything to do with it on this occasion.

    As for your comment regarding the Produttori "What a pretty and feminine wine that may not have shown as well next to a larger-scaled Barolo or Barbaresco, yet on it’s own was magical." This is why I am not a fan of blind tastings. A wine, IMO, should be experienced on its own and in the context of the food and company, not against another wine. The wine was superb as you said. Thanks again for the notes and organizing such a great event. BTW just pick up some '58 and '64 so I will be ready.


  2. I think it's more likely that it's bottle variation. I'm hearing from a lot of people that the '89 Bartolo's are great (when they're great) but that it's not rare to get an off bottle. Let's also keep in mind that we are talking about a producer that was known to keep his wines open for up to two weeks at the cantina and then serve them to prized guests. Trust me, I agree with you, the wines can be amazing. I'll keep you posted about our next tasting. We'll probably start planning in a week or two.

    1. Yes I think you are right about bottle variation. I had forgotten about how long he kept his wines open. Great point. I will let you know when I open my next bottle. Looking forward to next event.

  3. Incredible tasting... I look forward to the day I will have the chance to try a Giacomo Conterno wine !

  4. Great accounting Eric. Thanks for the insight. The corked wines are such a shame in a line-up of this age and stature. I think I may have made an audible groan when I read of it.

    1. Tell me about it. It's one thing when you get a $25 bottle that's corked. It's something totally different when it's a wine you cellared for 20 years or paid $250+ for. That Giacosa Villero retails around $500.

  5. Yes, how unfortunate and weeping said with the Mascarello and even more so with the Giacosa. The 1989 is great aromatics and complexity when you find an affordable bottle, so I can agree that the 1989 probably is the best vintage in your time frame competing with 1978 and on my scale in its heals I think in ten years the sensationally balanced and complete 2004 will be put there too. The 2010 is really unusual late on the ripening but way too early to tell of course..

    Thanks for a very broad vintage tasting of a fantastic vintage.

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