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Italian Winemakers Expect High Quality in 1999 Wines

James Suckling
Posted: October 15, 1999

As this year's harvest winds down, Italian wine producers are expressing great optimism about the quality of the 1999 vintage in Tuscany and Piedmont. Nonetheless, many cautioned that certain conditions called for prudent winemaking to create the best wines.

While most of Italy battled intermittent rainstorms through much of the growing season, Tuscany remained hot and clear. The variable rains that lasted for about three weeks in mid-September revitalized many of the vines, which had suffered from drought conditions.

"I am very excited about the quality of this year's harvest," said Sean O'Callaghan, winemaker for Riecine, a small but high-quality Chianti Classico maker. "The ripeness I have in many of my grapes is amazing."

The impressive ripeness of this year's grapes may be the only drawback. Some winemakers are reporting ripeness levels nearer to Port than to table wines. Due to the hot growing season, wines with natural alcohol levels of more than 15 percent are not uncommon this year. (Normally, alcohol levels for Tuscan table wines fall between 12 percent and 13.5 percent alcohol.) This suggests that wine producers who were prudent as to how and when they picked their grapes will probably make the best wines.

"I am extremely happy with this year's harvest," said Niccolo Incisa della Rocchetta, the manager and one of the owners of Tenuta San Guido, producer of Sassicaia, the Cabernet-based Tuscan red. "It may not be as good as the exceptional 1997 or the even better 1998, but it is very good. We have to wait and see how the wines evolve."

Despite the Italian press's slightly pessimistic weather reports for the Piedmont region, key producers there said they expect to make outstanding wines from the 1999 harvest. "It's an excellent year," said Lucia Altare, wife of Elio Altare, a top producer of Barolo. "We think that the level of quality is the same as 1997 and 1998" -- two very good to excellent years.

Angelo Gaja, the most famous producer in Piedmont, called 1999 the fifth consecutive great vintage for the region. He said that the first half of September made up for any bad weather during the summer, particularly the rains at the end of August. "There is a global change in climatic conditions," he said. "It has helped us now. Maybe it will change, but 1999 is very good."

Not all of Piedmont was rejoicing in the quality of 1999, however. Michele Chiarlo, a respected producer of many types of wine from Piedmont, was much more reserved. He emphasized that only winemakers who were rigorous in the vineyards will produce outstanding wines. "There was an abundance of grapes, and those growers with high yields had more problems with mold," he said. "Those who cut back their crop had the opportunity to make serious wines. ... In the last 20 days, the weather has been excellent, which is very good news for the Barolo and Barbaresco, and results have been better than expected."

For more information on the 1999 harvest, read our harvest package.

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