1999 Barolo: The Forgotten Vintage

Without exception every producer I spoke with commented on the highly favorable weather conditions during the growing season. The summer was hot, but never excessively so and temperatures remained very balanced into the fall. The cool nights offered the vines relief from the daytime heat and allowed the fruit to mature gradually, giving the wines their rich color, intense aromatics and ripe fruit. Most producers picked their Nebbiolos during the second half of October. Overall Barolo production was 7.9 million bottles, up significantly from 6.2 million in 1996. It is interesting to note that, for the most part, quality-minded producers reported that yields per plant were naturally lower than more abundant vintages such as 1998, 2001 and 2004, yet average yields per hectare throughout the region are on the rise, suggesting that some producers continue to emphasize quantity over quality. Stylistically the wines are bigger and more potent than the super-refined 2001s. Even today many wines remain incredibly youthful and closed, and my sense is that the wines will mature later than the 2001s. In time, though, I believe 1999 will be seen as part of a lineage of classic age-worthy vintages that includes 1978, 1982, 1989, 1996 and 2001.

I confess to having a long-standing love affair with the 1999 Barolos. My first extensive tasting of these wines from bottle was in the spring of 2003 at a tasting organized by Elio Altare’s non-profit organization L’Insieme. All nine participating producers were on hand pouring their wines for a small group of local restaurateurs, sommeliers and Barolo aficionados. It was a great event that left an indelible impression on my mind. As I tasted the wines I was amazed at how much difference there was between each producer’s single-vineyard bottlings. The tasting was 
also a great opportunity to directly compare different producers’ interpretations of the same La Morra sites such as Rocche, Giachini, and Arborina. Although I had already tasted many 2000 Barolos from barrel, there was something about the 1999s I found fascinating in a contemplative way. These were wines that demanded the full attention of the taster, asking more questions and
revealing precious little, in stark contrast to the open, already irresistible 2000s.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and unfortunately for the 1999s they came onto the market during a particularly challenging period. The market was saturated with wines from 1996, 1997, and 1998. To make matters worse, the US dollar had also begun to depreciate significantly, making the wines much less attractive from a financial perspective. But the real coup de grace came with the cool reception the vintage received in the American press. The early buzz about vintage 2000 was already in the air, and the 1999 Barolos were quickly forgotten. Given that the American press has for years set the worldwide demand for these wines, the 1999s proved to be a difficult sell. One well-known importer told me that even today roughly 40% of the vintage remains unsold. While there is little question the wines were hard to assess in their youths today there can be little doubt that 1999 is an outstanding vintage. 

In terms of putting the vintage into present-day context, I consider 1999 to be one of the most important vintages of the last 15 years, but with some caveats. Vintages 2000 and 2001 tended to raise the quality of all wines, something which was perhaps most noticeable among the more modest wines. In 1999, however, I note a wider range of quality. Because the Barolo normales are
generally intended for shorter-term consumption, I was not able to find and taste as many of those wines as I would have liked. Where I was able to taste the entire range there seemed to be a greater quality gap between the normales and the single-vineyard bottlings.  Based on what I have tasted the extra dollars needed to purchase the top single-vineyard wines will be well-spent
in vintage 1999.
As always, vintage generalizations are by nature broad impressions and there will be many exceptions, especially in a region rich in varied terroirs, micro-climates and single-vineyard wines like Piedmont. It is my belief that valuable insights can only be gained through an objective producer-by-producer and wine-by-wine analysis. Readers should also keep in mind that my personal taste tends to favor fresher vintages which I believe express the truest essence of Nebbiolo. These traits include lively color, rich aromatics, ripe fruit, structure and a level of overall complexity that is revealed as wines open up in the glass. Some of the wines in Issue 7 have previously appeared in Piedmont Report. Unless explicitly stated, all wines were specifically re-tasted for the purposes of this article.   

--Antonio Galloni