"Everyone wants to taste the 1997s we have at our stand," said Neil Empson, the owner of Empson & Co., a global agent for some of Italy's most prestigious wine estates. "Let's face it, if you couldn't make a great wine in 1997, then you probably shouldn't be making wine."
Even before grapes were harvested in '97, Italians were celebrating the quality of the vintage. It could be Italy's greatest vintage ever, even better than the touted 1990. During the fair, the many '97 wines I tasted -- from just about every premium wine region in Italy -- showed impeccable fruit and structure. I have never encountered an Italian vintage in which the wines had such clarity and excitement across the board. In addition, many of the less-expensive wines, such as simple Chiantis or Sangioveses from Abruzzi, are deliciously fruity and satisfying.
Prices, however, were a major concern for many of the international wine trade members who visited the fair. The biggest increases this year are expected from the wines of northern Italy, particularly the top reds of Piedmont. Many of the big names will be charging close to $100 a bottle for their newly released Barolos and Barbarescos. "Prices are out of control in Piedmont," said Leonardo Lo Cascio, the president of Winebow, one of the largest U.S. importers of fine Italian wines. "For example, the 1995 Barolos are going up, on average, 50 percent in price. I don't see the situation changing with the three great vintages that follow that one."
Nevertheless, excellent values continue to surface from southern Italy, notably reds from Apulia. For example, Empson is releasing a dark, rich and delicious 1998 red called A-Mano, which is made from Primitivo (the same grape variety as Zinfandel). At $10 a bottle, it could give some higher-priced California Zinfandels a run for their money. "Making Primitivo is a dream down in Puglia [as Italian call Apulia]," said Mark Shannon, the transplanted young California winemaker who made A-Mano. "The vineyards are full of ancient vines producing wonderful fruit."
Southern Italy also made a splash with the Planeta winery in Sicily. Still relatively unknown in the U.S. market, it has become the sweetheart of the Italian media with its New World-styled Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots. "We wanted to make our names with international-styled wines and then make wines with the more traditional grape types in Sicily," said Francesca Planeta.
Planeta's single-variety wines, such as the Chardonnay, sell for more than $40 a bottle in the United States. During the fair, the winery launched a very good new red, 1997 Santa Cecilia, made from a local varietal called Nero d'Avola. Its price will push $50 a bottle. Francesca Planeta commented, "We know that we have competition from other wines of the world with our wines, and we know that they are not inexpensive, but for Sicily, these are very special wines."
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