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The 50 hectares of Léoville and 17 hectares of Langoa, planted in gravelly soil with a clay sub-soil, include large proportions of old vines in order to obtain the best possible quality. The grape varieties is 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc for Léoville Barton, while Langoa Barton’s terroir is shared as follows 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 9% Cabernet Franc. Both properties have the same vinification methods.
The wines are typical of the Saint-Julien area, well balanced wines with subtle bouquets and flavours; the emphasis being on elegance and finesse rather than on power and extraction. This is achieved by picking the grapes at their maximum ripeness and allowing the fermentation to take place at a controlled temperature of 30/32°C. Although excessive extraction is avoided by removing the juice from the skins at the appropriate time, the wines have a lovely deep colour, excellent structure and sufficient tannins to ensure good ageing potential.
An early, even flowering, a warm but unspectacular summer and an exceptionally hot period during the end of August and the first half of September. It was this heat that made it possible for the record harvest to not only to fully ripen, but also to concentrate the fruit. The harvest started on September 14 and was finished before heavy rains commenced on October 2. Another reason for the success of the vintage was that most châteaux had invested in their cellars and were able to work such a large and hot harvest. It was now possible to control the fermentation temperatures better than in earlier hot vintages, such as 1947. The grapes produced wines with such high natural alcohol that chaptalization became unnecessary. They showed deep colour, high and unusually soft tannin levels and a better acidity than first thought, as well as great fruit concentration. The media hype was great, particularly thanks to the advent of new wine magazines - this was the vintage that cemented Robert Parker’s reputation. The prices rose rapidly and have not looked back since. I remember all Premier Crus (including Pétrus) being offered to end consumers for around 50 euros en-primeur in 1983.
The scene when the 1990 vintage came along was quite different. There was a surplus of very good to great wine on the market – for the first time there was talk of three great vintages following one another. This lead to most châteaux lowering their prices by about 20 per cent compared to their 1989 prices, even though the quality was outstanding. There had been a steady increase in prices during the 1980s, but they were now more or less back to the opening prices of the 1982s. It was again a record harvest, but because most châteaux had by now introduced a ‘second wine’ and due to the fact they were more selective with regards to quality, there was actually less wine being bottled as ‘Grand Vin’ than in 1982.
We have been following both these vintages from a comparatively early age, as they were both precocious and easy to drink from the start. The top wines from both vintages are spectacular, but the overall quality is much higher in 1990. Here the wines were equally successful on both sides of the river, and even minor châteaux produced something special. We have always found most 1982s from the right bank to be too alcoholic and lacking in structure; indeed many are now ageing rapidly.