1997 was great because of the incredible fruit that so many of the wines possessed, the pundits told us. Yes, the warmth and drought of the vintage helped winemakers craft these opulent wines, but could the opulence really be all there is to a wine being great? Could a wine need something else to be “the best”?
If you ask me, and happen to catch me in a one of my usual moods, I’d be tempted to tell you quite the opposite. Vintages like 1997 in Tuscany are best at the bottom of the price scale. People are easily fooled by the charms of voluptuousness, but what happens when time takes its toll on these wines?
Among the traits I appreciate most in wine, those characteristics that really separate the best from the rest, are complexity and balance. 1997 had tons of fruit without a doubt, but there was little in the way of complexity in many of the wines. All the nuance and detail was essentially cooked out of the fruit, and thus out of the wine.
By that same token, the balance of many of these wines is fundamentally off. The acidity in the fruit is low and soft, resulting in wines that initially impressed with their volume and sweetness, but now that those fruits have faded, these offer just a meager frame from which to drape the dust folds of the fruit that does remain.
That was a bit florid, but you get the picture. The wines are soft. They may have been delicious once, but are a far cry from the best the region is capable of.
Just to show you how daft the world is, 1999 is another story entirely. It’s a vintage of precision, depth, balance, longevity and fruit. That is what the wines in the bottle always told me at least. But I missed something, I missed the weather reports. You see, 1997 was a glorious year with perfect fruit at harvest. 1999 on the other hand was problematic, rains at harvest caused concern, so the wines must have been dilute, solid but uninspiring. That is how early reports made the vintage sound, and to this day some writers have stuck to that story.
It’s time to come unglued from that story. 1999 is a fabulous vintage. It is ripe yet elegant, rich yet not overly weighty, and the wines will provide all the evidence we need. Recently, I compared four wines from these two vintages. While some of the results were surprising, yes - even I was surprised, the general conclusions just restated the obvious. 1999 is a great vintage.