A Twenty-Year Retrospective

In my time of loving and collecting Barolo, I’ve been fortunate enough to have made close personal connections with some very special friends who share my passion. There have been many tasting groups and personalities over that time, and through it all, I can say without a doubt that the evolution from thirteen years ago to today has been a very positive one that has brought the enjoyment and caliber of wines at our tastings to a level that I never imagined possible.

What spurred this trip down memory lane?

In this case, it was our recent tasting of 1999 Barolo, a vintage that we have followed with high expectations for a number of years now. However, that wasn’t always so. There was a time when 1999 was largely misunderstood. It was squeezed between a number of years that received high critical acclaim at the time (1997 and 2000). And it followed a year that was easier to understand and enjoy earlier (1998). Plus, let’s not forget that most Barolo collectors looked to two other years surrounding it as being the best candidates for Classic Vintages that would last the ages (1996 and 2001).

So what changed?

The Fiasco vineyard looking out toward Brunella.

Over time, people realized that the hype over 1997 was misguided and the ripeness of 2000 would mark the wines throughout their lifespans. As for 1998, in many cases (but not all), the wines seem to have peaked, making it a good vintage to drink sooner than later. Then there’s 1996, which will hopefully surprise us one day, but at the moment remains austere and out of balance. What about 2001? Well, unfortunately the vintage has become something of a minefield, as there are many great wines to be found, yet also many that have matured unevenly. What’s more, as Antonio Galloni stated in his article, “Piedmont Report: Checking in on the 2001 Baroli (2012)”, there seems to be a large percent of cork taint found with Barolos from 2001, which makes it even more difficult to tell if the wine you’re tasting is a good representation of what it was intended to be.

Then there was 1999, a vintage that I didn’t have a chance to taste when they were in barrel or first put into bottle. In fact, the only ‘99s I was able to taste in the beginning of my journey had been in bottle for over three years, and were in a very stubborn phase, which is to be expected, but with my limited knowledge at the time, gave me pause. The best example I can think of is the 1999 Massolino Vigna Rionda Riserva, which is a wine that I purchased and tasted in 2009 and scored 90 points (good but far from great), and recently tasted again to find a wine that contended for the top placement of the event. It also didn’t help that most retailers were looking to clear out their old inventory of ‘99s to make way for vintages that had received much higher praise. If only I knew then what I know now.

I continued to go on, collecting ‘96s and ‘01s when I could, along with new vintages as they were released, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 that I saw the error of my ways. On a warm July evening, my tasting group gathered at Via Emilia in New York City to conduct our first organized blind tasting of 1999 Barolo. As a result, we all left feeling very happy about what we found, but also quite foolish for not having many more of these wines in our cellars.

The sad part is that I had been warned much earlier that ‘99 was a great vintage. I will reference Antonio Galloni once again, from his article, “1999 Barolo: The Forgotten Vintage (2006)”, where he stated, “I believe 1999 will be seen as part of a lineage of classic age-worthy vintages that includes 1978, 1982, 1989, 1996 and 2001.” Yet somehow, this had gone over my head at the time, and I wasn’t alone.

A recap of the 1999 Barolo vintage

The 1999 vintage started out with all the best raw materials, being a year that saw favorable conditions throughout the entire region. A warm summer with cool nights lent the grapes that much needed push and pull of heat and rest to ripen, with a break in temperatures at night that retained balance and added aromatics. The harvest was later than usual, but the grapes and tannins were perfectly ripe, presenting winemakers with juice rich in color, depth and complexity.

The 1999 vintage, then and now

Looking back at my notes from that 2012 tasting (which was conducted blind), I found the wines to be rich, yet polished, firm and structured, with impeccable balance. At the time, they were not pleasurable to drink (save for a few 1999 Barbarescos thrown into the mix), but what they did show was tremendous potential.

Now six years later, and at our most recent blind tasting, I can say without a doubt that 1999 is showing the promise of a great vintage in the making. In its current state, the ‘99s are showing at the very beginning of their drinking window. The structure is still there, yet the acidities are perfectly balanced, the tannins are starting to soften, and their fruit shows only the beginning of secondary evolution. What this means to me is that the majority of these wines will have a very long life ahead of them as they mature in the cellar. However, there’s no harm in checking in on them now with the proper decanting.

My advice is to buy what you can find, even at the current prices in the market. Because the truth is that today’s prices on the ‘99s will likely look like a steal compared to where they will be going for in only a short period of time. Granted, most of the wines from this tasting are very difficult to find today (I know, because I started looking as soon as our tasting ended), yet they are worth the hunt.

On to the Tasting Notes

Flight 1: Castiglione plus one Perno

Just the sight of these three bottles of Giuseppe Mascarello together was enough to get me excited. However, while the Monprivato showed much of the same promise of the past, the Santo Stefano came across as much more mature than expected, yet it was still quite good. As for the Villero, the balance of the wine simply seemed off. But then, the Vietti Rocche came in to save the day.

Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo Santo Stefano di Perno 1999 – The nose was dark and rich, showing a mix of brown spices, sweet tobacco, and crushed red berries, as earth tones and hints of balsamic developed in the glass. On the palate, I found soft, fleshy textures with dark red fruits and sweet spices offset by strong mouthwatering acidity with a twang of bitter herbs and hints of dried orange. The finish was long and zesty, resonating of tart red fruits, spice and lingering acidity. Although it seemed that this bottle was a bit past peak, it was still very enjoyable, and may have just been the result of poor storage conditions at one point of its evolution. (92 points)

Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo Villero 1999 – Here, I found mineral-infused black cherry fruit with dried florals, dusty soil tones, savory spices and lifting minerality. On the palate, soft enveloping textures were contrasted by a twang of zesty orange peel, along with bright strawberry, tart wild berries, brisk acidity and spice. The finish was medium in length, as lingering acidity and tart berry tones slowly faded. I found this to be one of the least interesting wines of the tasting, as its acid and structure seemed to have dominated its fruit, making it hard to image that the Villero will ever mature into a better expression than it was showing on this night. (90 points)

Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 1999 – At first, the bouquet on the ‘99 Monprivato was restrained, yet it quickly evolved in the glass to reveal a beautiful expression, as bright strawberry, dusty roses, hints of savory herbs, dried flowers, and crushed stone minerality filled the senses. With even more time, notes of savory meat and undergrowth added even more complexity. On the palate, I found a finessed and feminine display, with lifted textures giving way to notes of tart strawberry, with a mix of acid and minerality that saturated the senses, making them water and adding a sweet hard red candy note to the experience. The finish was long and very pretty, resonating on inner florals and minerals in a more savory than sweet expression. Beautiful. (95 points)

Vietti Barolo Rocche 1999 – The nose was gorgeous, showing an intense yet lifted display with sweet rosy perfumes, dark red fruits, plum, hard red candies, hints of violet, crushed stone minerality and dusty soil tones. On the palate, I found silky soft textures offset by lifting minerality and floral tones, with ripe black cherry infused with sweet spices yet enlivened by vibrant acidity, creating an expression that was lifted, vibrant and seductive, all at the same time. The finish was long, resonating on dark red berry tones with zesty acids lingering against inner roses and hints of fine tannin. Other tasters at the table were guessing Giacosa Riserva, but in the end, it was a wine that’s just as magical, the ‘99 Vietti Rocche. (97 points)

Flight 2: Paolo Scavino

What an opportunity, being able to taste all three of these wines together. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I really don’t mind the modern styling of the top producers of the ‘90s, with Paolo Scavino being one of my favorites. What’s more, you couldn’t ask for a more diverse communication of terroir through wine. Each showed so much character yet remained completely unique.

Paolo Scavino Barolo Cannubi 1999 – The nose showed dark, balsamic-infused black cherries, with sweet and savory herbs, menthol and dark chocolate. On the palate, I found velvety, weighty textures, just barely balanced by a core of mineral-infused acidity, which was nearly enveloped by the wine’s massive mix of plum sauce, brown sugar, black cherry and spiced orange. The finish was long, showing zesty black cherries dipped in liquor, wood spice and a hint of heat. It was incredibly big and tipping the scales but still enjoyable, especially if paired against a suitable meal. (89 points)

Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc 1999 – The nose was layered and gorgeous, with a display of mineral-infused cherry and strawberry, dusty sweet spices, pretty florals and cedar shavings, offset by savory herbs and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, I found silky textures, balanced by hints of orange citrus, minerals and acid, as ripe cherry filled the senses, leaving a coating of fine tannin and resonating inner florals. The finish was long and spicy, showing saturating red berries, a hint of bitter herbs and lingering fine tannin. (94 points)

Paolo Scavino Barolo Riserva Rocche dell’Annunziata 1999 – The bouquet was restrained at first, yet it blossomed in the glass, showing depths of black cherry, plum sauce, and hints of violets and rose, with rich zesty spices, crushed stone and sweet minerality. On the palate, I found velvety, refined textures in a pliant and truly caressing expression, giving way to notes of ripe plum, strawberry, dark spices, hints of licorice and dark chocolate, all kept in check by balanced acidity. The finish was long, displaying ripe black cherry with balsamic spice, a twang of zesty citrus and lingering dark inner floral tones. This was luxury in a glass. (93 points)

Flight 3: Serralunga

What was originally thought to be the most exciting flight of the evening turned out to be a mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong; each wine was beautiful, except for the faulty Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia. However, while the Massolino was off the charts, the Giacosa was strangely exotic, and the ‘99 Monfortino could have benefited from another day of Slow-O decanting.

Massolino Barolo Riserva Vigna Rionda 1999 – The nose was dark, rich and savory, as mineral-infused black cherry lifted from the glass, followed by dusty soil tones, sweet herbs and crushed stone. On the palate, I found soft textures, as a mix of cherry and strawberry were complemented with rosy inner-floral perfumes, giving way to a spicy mix of acid and still-youthful tannins. This remarkably pretty yet structured wine finished on a note of hard red candies, with hints of fine tannin and bright, zesty acids that made the mouth water. What a beautiful wine, and so much more approachable than the last time I tasted it. I wish I had a case. (96 points)

Bruno Giacosa Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba 1999 – The nose was exotic and sweetly spiced, showing ripe cherries, crushed strawberry, and hard red candies, followed by lifting hints of fresh mint, and an intriguing aroma that I can only describe as apple butter. On the palate, I found soft textures of endless depth, as dark fruits were energized by brisk acidity, giving way to a mineral thrust and resolving to show polished black fruits, hints of pepper and hauntingly beautiful blue and purple floral tones. The finish as long, with a sweet-and-sour red fruit persona, as lingering acids and adolescent tannins slowly dissolved. This was not quite the expression I’ve come to know from this wine, but it was certainly enjoyable. (95 points)

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 1999 – Flawed (N/A)

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino 1999 – The nose on the ‘99 Monfortino was gorgeous, displaying a mix of black earth, crushed strawberry, savory cherry sauce, dried roses, sweet herbal tea leaves and lifting minerality. On the palate, I found unbelievably soft textures for a young Monfortino, with zesty notes of cherry, spiced orange, and minerals, before its acids and tannin began to set in, slowly clenching the senses. The finish seemed to bring the wine back to life, as its acids made the mouth water, giving vibrancy to the wine’s spicy cherry, strawberry and citrus components, along with lingering inner-rose florals. It was so beautiful, but also still so young. (96 points)

Surprise Bonus

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Rare Wine Dinner hosted by Antonio Galloni and Vinous, the day after completing this article.  This event focused on the rare, hand labeled, magnums of Giuseppe Rinaldi Brunate Riserva, and wouldn’t you know it, the 1999 was present.  It was also one of the top wines of the night! And so, I decided to include it here.

Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Riserva 1999 – The unbelievably classic 1999 was a treat from the moment I put my nose to the glass. Here I found a mesmerizing display of crushed black fruits, stone dust, sage, balsamic spice, black tea and moist earth. On the palate, silky textures showed a balance of great depth versus finesse, as dark red fruits displayed a sweet-and-sour persona, with a mix of savory spices and dark inner florals. The finish was long with tart berries, a twang of lingering acidity and hints of tannin. This is a model of poise and refinement, balanced to age for many more years to come. (98 points)

In Closing, Resources and Credits

In the end, I would really love to organize another 1999 Barolo tasting after this remarkable bout, but I question how many of us would be willing to release yet another bottle from our precious stocks. As I mentioned above, this is a vintage to buy from any reliable source. I can’t recommend them highly enough, and will go out on a limb by saying that 1999 may end up being the best vintage sandwiched between 1989 and 2006 (or 2010), but the jury is still out on those.

From our tasting group, Mark Scudiery (Wine Without Numbers), Kan Vastola (The Fine Wine Geek) and Marc Dibella.

Article, Photos and Tasting Notes by Eric Guido

For more on Antonio Galloni and his writing about Barolo, visit: Vinous 

To read my previous retrospective report from 2012 visit, The V.I.P. Table

For other insights on 1999 Barolo, watch Mark Scudiery’s website: Wine Without Numbers

For other insights on 1999 Barolo, watch Ken Vastola’s Website: The Fine Wine Geek

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