Coonawarra: 1990 versus 1991

Coonawarra’s 1990 and 1991 vintages brought nothing but good news for red-wine drinkers. From both vintages we’ve seen a steady progression of brilliant red releases from the rich, good value of Wynns Hermitage at $8, to the complex wonders of Majella and Rymill Shiraz at $15, to the sublime depths of John Riddoch and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignons at $40 — to name just a few. Most have come and gone. But a fair sprinkling of reds from these outstanding vintages still sits on retail shelves, and some high-quality wines are yet to be released.

Inevitably, the question of which is the greater vintage raises its head, especially after the huge dollops of praise lavished on the 1990 vintage, first by wine makers and later by other critics. What are consumers to believe, after being fired up on enthusiasm for the 1990, when told that the 1991 was another great vintage. Is it all hype? Which wine makers and critics are to be believed?

In truth, the only opinions to be wary of are those of the entrenched dogmatic variety. With wine there is no objective measure of quality. So each vintage has its merits and followers. Wine makers themselves tend to see the two not in black and white, but take a more parental approach: “These are two exceptional offspring. Each has its own character.” And, like parents, deep down each wine maker has a favourite.

I’ve visited Coonawarra six times in the last twelve months. All along the terra rossa strip, wine makers agree, both 1990 and 1991 were exceptional vintages — each with its own attractions.

Peter Douglas of Wynns says, “1990 was a great vintage, one that hit us out of the blue… it was unique. Fruit got very ripe and very rich. That means the wines are not distinctively Coonawarra. They are very big, rich and strong and have outstanding cellaring potential. The sweet fruit and high alcohol balances the tannin and makes them drinkable now and many will be drunk early, but they will cellar for a very long time.

The 1991s are more typical Coonawarra… very good Coonawarra, intensely varietal, and display more astringency than the 1990s. As a wine maker, stuck in Coonawarra working only with Coonawarra grapes, every year I look for grapes of the quality of the 1990 vintage, but it’s a pipe dream. 1990 John Riddoch is closer to what I want and I look more forward to tasting the 1990 in ten years than to the 1991.”

Even so, Douglas sees both years as outstanding, describing the 1990 as “sumptuous” and the 1991 as “varietal” (ie: with well-defined aroma and flavour of a particular grape variety).

Douglas’ colleague across the vineyards at Rouge Homme Winery, Greg Clayfield, believes, “… the 1991s are more classically correct Coonawarra, being elegant with strength. The 1990s are robust, good, rich reds, but atypical. Both have great ageing potential but 1990 will outlive 1991.”

In southern Coonawarra, small maker Doug Bowen of Bowen Estate is unequivocal: “ I prefer 1990. The wines have more depth of flavour. The 1991s have more structure, but the 1990s just have better fruit. Ripeness and high Baumé (a measure of sugar in grapes) are what matters, and that’s what we had in 1990. They have more complexity in the long run.”

Across the road at Leconfield, Ralph Fowler agrees that both were unusually good years, the 1990s showing opulent fruit and the 1991s backbone, or structure. But he believes, “… the 1991s are superior from our point of view, having complexity, depth and nuances not found in the 1990s. But 1990 was my first vintage here. I arrived a few weeks before vintage to a winery in chaos. So I did everything conservatively and safely. I had a safety-first attitude. In 1991, things were more settled and I made wine the way I wanted to.”

At Katnook Estate, Wayne Stehbens supports 1990 over 1991. “Both were definitely better than average. The 1991s have finer fruit flavours but they lag behind the 1990s which have a subtle richness of fruit and a wonderful mid-palate richness.”

My own tastings support the view of 1991 Coonawarras offering ripe-berry aromas and flavours with strong varietal definition, but with a lean astringency. From what I’ve tasted these are, as Greg Clayfield alliterated, “classically correct Coonawarras”. The best deliver a great concentration of flavour and will certainly cellar very well.

The 1990s in general are massively constructed for Coonawarras and in my view the unusual richness of fruit currently masking strong tannins might finally win the day. But whichever style you prefer, wines from both vintages strike me as amongst the best and most affordable Australia has yet produced. 1990 and 1991 Coonawarra reds are not just an exciting cellaring proposition, but safe ones as well.