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’88, ’89 and ’90: a stellar Champagne trilogy that’s still shining brightly

Essi Avellan MW gets a unique opportunity to return to three famous Champagne vintages and assess how they’re drinking now – sharing standout selections from an exceptional tasting

Words by Essi Avellan MW

Champagne tasting
The Collection
35 wineries submitted Champagnes to a unique tasting of three exceptional vintages (Photo: ©A.Viller)

It’s one of the most hailed vintage trilogies of all time. But how are the Champagnes of 1988, 1989 and 1990 faring now? I was recently afforded the rare opportunity to delve into this tantalising topic. At Champagne’s glamorous five-star venue Royal Champagne, France’s Terre de Vins wine magazine gathered a panel of tasting experts and invited producers from Champagne houses, growers and cooperative alike to submit one entry each directly from their cellars. The idea was to explore these vintages upon maturity, some 35 years after harvest, with the mission of writing the ultimate testament to the quality of the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages and their best bottles.

It came as no surprise that 16 of the 35 participating wineries chose a 1990 to represent them: the vintage was initially rated the highest of the three. But what shuffled the performance in this tasting was the possibility for producers to send any bottle format with any chosen disgorgement. Thus, we had standard-size bottles competing against jeroboams and one-month-old disgorgements tasted next to original ones from the 1990s. There was a true richness of styles and qualities to savour.

This tasting certainly gave me food for thought regarding the recently hyped 2018, 2019 and 2020 trilogy and its projected future path

On paper, 1990 looks like the perfect vintage: it was one made by the long, hot and dry summer, and yet volumes were significant, the crop the third largest of its time (11,963kg/ha). It was also the ripest vintage since 1959, profoundly fruity but also showcasing exemplary freshness. However, the wines have developed more quickly than anticipated with oxidation having crept in unexpectedly early on. Luckily, Billecart-Salmon’s magnificent Cuvée Nicolas François 1990 showed none of that, even though the house presented it in an originally disgorged 75cl bottle. Extended lees-ageing, then again, had worked wonders for magnums of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame and Palmer & Co Collection Vintage.

The 1989 vintage is remembered for its difficult growing season, with warm and sunny conditions interspersed with showers throughout the summer. The 11,619kg/ha crop was a record at the time, surpassed only by the bumper crops of 1983 and 1982. The instantly charming wines were rich, luscious and soft. The slightly lazy acidity and plump fruitiness has meant that the 1989s matured early on. In our tasting, only four 1989s made it to the top 20. Charles Heidsieck’s recently disgorged and remarkably youthful La Collection Crayères triumphed, presented in jeroboam. Philipponnat sent its iconic Clos des Goisses in magnum: it’s a true testament to the potential of this pioneering single-vineyard, even in hot years.

There is ongoing debate about the role of ripeness and acidity for ageing. The cool and fresh profile 1988 spoke in favour of the latter, with seven out of the 10 entered cuvées from this vintage making it into the top 20. The variable weather conditions throughout the season led to a normal-sized but late-picked harvest. The wines didn’t reach great ripeness levels (9.2% potential alcohol) but, overall, the 1988s have been of excellent quality. These fresh, taut and linear wines have been maturing remarkably slowly and gracefully. We got to savour two impeccable blanc de blancs from grower-producers: the superbly youthful Legras & Haas Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Chouilly from a 1994 disgorged bottle and Gonet-Sulcova Brut Blanc de Blancs from a recently disgorged jeroboam.

Essi Avellan MW at the tasting held at the prestigious five-star venue Royal Champagne (Photo: ©A.Viller)

With so many variables to take into account, it isn’t viable to draw absolute conclusions from this tasting. Rather, it proved perplexing: it made one ponder over the complexities of Champagne as a wine. Age-worthy for sure, there is still so much left to understand of Champagne’s pre- and post-disgorgement ageing. This tasting certainly gave me food for thought regarding the recently hyped 2018, 2019 and 2020 trilogy and its projected future path. In the meantime, these wines must be appreciated for finesse over power, and the potential for complex reductive characters must be cherished.

Collectively, one winner was selected for each of the vintages: Perrier Jouet’s Belle Epoque Magnum 1988, Charles Heidsieck’s Collection Crayeres Jeroboam 1989 and Billecart-Salmon’s Nicolas François 1990. But you can read on for 20 top wines from across the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages.

Please note, the selection below is our own and does not implicate Terre de Vins. All wines are standard, 75cl bottles unless otherwise stated.

20 top Champagnes from the exceptional ’88, ’89 and ’90 vintages

Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François 1990

The wine greets you with is bright golden, healthy colour. It comes with a stunning, sweetly fruity nose with heaps of toast. Truly pure in aromatics with candied and dried fruits alongside fine pencil shaving nuances. Juicy and succulent on the beautifully silky, flowing palate with a perfectly creamy and seamless mousse. Impressive concentration and muscular structure. At the finish you feel a slight drying of the fruit, but the wine remains long and sweet. It’s evolution has only had a positive impact, and despite peaking now the wine has time ahead of it. Super impressive for a 75cl bottle. An original disgorgement from June 1999.

Charles Heidsieck La Collection Crayères 1989 (Jeroboam)

Bright and vibrant lemon-gold colour. The elegant nose is pristinely fruity and lined with beautifully toasty notes. The rich and expressive whole comes with a complex mélange of coffee with cream, lemon confit, poached pear and dried apricots. Superbly fresh with a detailed mousse invigorating the elegant, satiny palate. Airy and delightful overall, and at the peak of its performance. January 2022 disgorgement.

Legras & Haas Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Chouilly 1988

Fine, expressive nose that’s complex from age. Sweetly fruity with roasted pineapple, apricot and golden raisins and a beautiful coffee undernote on the refined nose. Mature but in pristine condition with evident fruit purity. Silky smooth and flowing with a beautiful acid line and a mellow yet refreshing mousse. Precise and airy with the crisp acidity well integrated to the elegant whole. January 1994 disgorgement.

Gonet-Sulcova Brut Blanc de Blancs 1988 (Jeroboam)

Bright lemon, with an elegant nose that comes with sweet and soft creamy tones. There is fine restraint to this cooling, fruity nose, plus lemon, peach, smoke and quince. Really brisk and energetic on the palate with fresh and feisty, perfectly energising bubbles. Rather acidity-driven and linear with a lovely laciness and airiness to it. There is real finesse on the palate. True to the vintage in its lightness and refinement. February 2024 disgorgement.

Mailly Grand Cru Les Échansons 1988

Deep golden hues. This fully mature wine comes with a gracefully evolved nose with a slight lift to it, all on tertiary aromatics. Coffee and cream meet dried and confected fruit. Viscous and flowing on the briskly acidic palate with a soft mousse. Texturally, this has mellowed with age, with an airy lightness to it. There is a nice, complex peppery and juniper/wood tone to the finish. Well preserved and highly enjoyable today. A January 1999 disgorgement.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque 1988 (Magnum)

Deep golden in colour, with a beautiful nose featuring both fresh and confected fruit, all in harmony. There is a charming creaminess to the aromas enhancing the suppleness and mature elegance of the wine. The gracefully aged palate it is viscous and smooth with a fine acid line carrying the wine. Plenty of fruit is left on a palate full of vivacity and freshness. A delightfully complex, fully mature Champagne.

Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1990 (Magnum)

Deep, radiant lemon colour. The wine’s ageing nose comes with fine coffee and gunpowder twists alongside fragrant juniper wood, spice, peach compote and apple jam nuances. Overall, pristinely aged with no negative evolution. It possesses a powerful palate with a fresh, perky mousse remaining. As the wine advances on the palate, the fine acidity cuts through the intense, almost chewy fruitiness, livening it considerably. Mature but in pristine condition. January 2020 disgorgement.

Franck Bonville Millésime 1988

Bright lemon-gold colour. The wine comes with a charmingly soft and elegant cream and coffee toned nose with evolved, sweet and candied fruitiness. There is a slight lift to the aromatics and a mushroom whiff speaking of its age. Really fresh and feisty on the palate. Silky, flowing and airy with energetic drive and stylish linearity. A novel January 2024 disgorgement.

Palmer & Co Collection Vintage 1990 (Magnum)

This developed wine has a deep, bright golden colour and comes with sweet, mature fruitiness with fine whiffs of toast, coffee, vanilla and apple pie. There are lots of fine elements here but also an emerging light mushroom nuance increasing over time in the glass. Fresh and feisty on the softly bubbling palate, with fine acid line and a detailed long finish. Fully mature but highly enjoyable, even impressive today. December 2023 disgorgement.

Deutz Cuvée William Deutz 1990 (Magnum)

The wine’s mild nose has a fine depth showing pretty fruitiness, both dried and fresh, featuring apple jam, peach compote and candied orange. There is also an emerging mushroomy whiff to it. It comes across perfectly fresh and joyously vivacious on a vibrant palate. A lively and impressively fruity bottle that has endured the test of time well. November 2009 disgorgement.

De Saint Gall Orpale 1990

With a deep and shiny lemon-gold colour. There is a lovely, complex coffee and cream nuance to the sweetly fruity nose. Yet, there is also a touch of fresh mushroom, apricot tart, apple jam, aromatic wood and spice to its complexities. It comes with ample volume on a structured and intense palate that shows excellent freshness. The mousse remains brisk and detailed. Stunning notes of pencil shavings and liquorice come through on a back palate with fine length. Somewhat on the decline already but nevertheless joyous. Great effort for a 75cl bottle. February 2000 disgorgement.

Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru 1989

A charred, dark-scented nose with coffee and cream tones. It comes with a ripe fruit profile all on tertiary aromatics. There is glossy peach and honey-toned fruit, with a faint mushroomy whiff. On the palate the fruit is showing some signs of withering, the acidity being accentuated and driving the wine. Yet there is a fine, soft mousse remaining. Somewhat past is peak but enjoyable. A recent March 2024 disgorgement.

Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 1989 (Magnum)

Bright lemon-gold colour. Beautifully fresh and pure nose with sweet fruitiness, a complex mélange of juniper, chalk, red apple and lemon drops. The feisty and intensely fruity, energetically bubbling palate starts to dry towards the finish. Lacey with a liquorice note at its dense and fresh finish. September 2016 disgorgement tasted.

Duval-Leroy Cuvée des Roys 1990 (Magnum)

This wine has a bright, evolved lemon-gold colour and a fine, sweet mature fruitiness on the nose where orange peel meets dried flowers, honey and dried apricots. Yet a touch of smoke and rubber deducts from its elegance. Brisk palate with oily texture and good concentration; a fine caressing mousse remains. Plenty of fruit is left on the palate. There’s a long intense finish with an appetising lemony bite to it. January 2024 disgorgement.

Canard-Duchêne Œnothèque Vintage 1989 (Magnum)

With an evolved, deep golden colour and a developed nose, which is little one-dimensional, leaning strongly on the appley side with supporting peach compote, wine gums and confit orange tones. Some savoury tea-like evolution is emerging over time in the glass. Linear and driven with lots of energy left. Also the bubbles feel perfectly perky and energising. It offers a long, rather dry-feeling, fresh finish. December 2023 disgorgement.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1988

The wine’s expressive nose comes with soft baking spices, candied fruits and dried raisins. Cardamom and mint aromas come through strongly in the aromatics, but the wine remains rather youthful and free of oxidative evolution. It has a smooth, silky-textured palate with well-integrated fresh acidity and a supple, age-mellowed mousse. July 2016 disgorgement tasted.

Paul Bara Comtesse Marie de France 1990

A rich and evolved nose with a slight lift to it. The wine comes with a sweet fruit profile all on dried fruit and honey. There is also a faint mushroomy note to the aromatics. Full, rich and sweet on the palate, with a feeling of ample dosage. Oily-rich and mouthcoating with a powerful finish. Not perfectly pure aromatically anymore, but the wine comes with an impressively solid structure and caressingly age-mellowed mousse. January 2000 disgorgement.

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Collection Les Cuvées de l’An 2000 1990 (Magnum)

Complex with age, and showing an evolved deep-golden colour, this wine is somewhat lifted on the expressive nose. There is a lot of fruit left: golden raisins, honey and apricot… Powerful, mouth-filling and fresh on the palate with plenty of energy and a brisk, fluffy mousse. Long, intense palate with a medium-long finish. Impressively youthful on the palate but the volatile characters deduct from the charm. July 2023 disgorgement.

Castelnau Collection Œnothèque 1990 (Magnum)

Deep golden colour and oxidative evolution on the nose, the fruit very much on the dried fruit and honey side. There is also a curious sous-bois and brie whiff to the wine. Good juicy and oily volume on the richly textured palate with great freshness. A fine, vibrant mousse is remaining and adding on to the the wine’s impressive feeling of freshness. December 2023 disgorgement tasted.

Collet Millésimé 1988

An amply evolved nose with lots of earthy-savoury notes, sous-bois, mushroom and oxidative impact. More impressive on the palate with bold fruitiness, good intensity and a fine, energetic mousse persisting. Slightly past its peak but still enjoyable and fresh. Original disgorgement from January 1992 tasted.