Under the leadership of Angelo Gaja, the wines of his family-owned winery in the tiny Piedmont village of Barbaresco have proved to be innovative and, at times, downright revolutionary. For most of his life he has been a visionary man on a mission: To do what it takes to explore ways improve the quality of his wines. As his daughter Gaia Gaja said at a recent tasting in Dallas, “My father never follows any others’ rules.”
I’ve never meet Angelo Gaja, but if he is half as charming, energetic, passionate and eloquent as his oldest daughter, I can see why he is revered for his visionary role in modernizing Italian wines. My WRO colleague, Ed McCarthy, who has far more experience than I with Piedmont’s wines, says he “…can think of no other wine region in which one man has singlehandedly popularized a great wine and its entire wine region.” For sure, Gaja has lead the way in setting Italian wine quality and prices to compete on the world stage.
Angelo Gaja followed his father Giovanni as head of the family enterprise in the early 1960s. At the time, Gaia explained, blending grapes from different vineyards and villages was the practice in Piedmont. Some wineries may have even used grapes from outside the region. A few winemakers, including her father, as well as Bruno Giacosa, Beppe Colla of Prunotto and Alfredo Currado at Vietti started making wines from a single vineyard.
She noted also that, in those earlier years, while a Barbaresco or Barolo might have been close to 100 percent Nebbiolo, “mostly there was nearly always a little bit of something else, including white grapes.” However, when the regulations or appellation laws for wine production were firmed up in the mid 1960s, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata regulations required 100 percent Nebbiolo.
While Gaja’s quest for quality led him to single vineyard wines, he wasn’t convinced that 100 percent Nebbiolo was the best way to get there. In the mid-1990s, he started blending as much as 15 percent of Barbera to his single vineyard wines. That meant that, according to the appellation laws, these wines could not carry the label of the Barbaresco or Barolo where the grapes were grown. They had to be labeled with the Langhe DOC appellation.
Like 90 percent of Italian wineries, Gaja is family owned. In her family, Gaia described her father as the visionary, a bullet shot into the future. Her mother, Lucia, is his partner in life as well as in business, administrating the family wine business while simultaneously taking care of all the duties of a wife and mother. In 2004, her father stopped traveling for the business, and Gaia took over his role as international ambassador for Gaja wines. “I love the travel,” she said. “Travel is a great source for ideas.” Starting next week, her brother Giovanni will start making those trips while Gaia will become more involved at the winery. Her sister, Rossana oversees production.
In 1979, they planted their first vineyard with Chardonnay, even though the two white grape varieties of Piedmont are Arneis and Moscato. “We make acidic wines. We wanted to change the concept [of Piedmont white wines] with a white wine that ages like a Barolo: Sweet aromas but linear and lean,” she said. “We make red wines that age, and we wanted to make a white that will age.” The result in 1983 was the first bottling of Gaja Lange DOC “Gaia & Rey,” named for Gaia and her paternal grandmother, Clotilde Rey. We tasted the 2015, ($242) which was a delightfully fresh and lively wine with aromas of lemon zest and salty mineral notes. On the palate, it was tightly structured, yet the mouthfeel was round and creamy.
The family also has a new project: A vineyard at 600 to 800 meters in altitude, above the Alta Langa. They acquired 86.6 acres (35 hectares) of land suitable for the production of white grapes located six miles from Barbaresco. They plan to plant Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Gaia said that their dream is to create a Piedmont Côte Blanc. The soil is limestone and clay and the temperatures are cooler at this height to make more supple whites.
The search for cooler sites was prompted by the effects of climate change that they are seeing. “The pH is getting higher,” she said. “When we first started making Chardonnay, we had to do a ML” (malo-lactic fermentation which converts malic acid like that in green apples to lactic acid like that in butter and softens the effect of acidity). “We cannot do ML today because the pH is higher. To get a creamy mouthfeel, we work with the lees” (the expired yeasts from fermentation). She noted that the lees are also an antioxidant, so the wine is protected from oxygen.
As we tasted a few reds from the 2013 and 2014 vintages, Gaia briefly discussed the Piedmont growing seasons of those years. She described 2014 as the coldest and rainiest year they had ever had. June brought rain and cold temperatures. “In July we had 20 plus days of rain,” she said. Fortunately, In September, October and November the rain stopped, and though it remained cold, the grapes ripened. “This wine is keeping the memory of a tough childhood,” she said. 2013 was also a cool year, but without the rain. She said that they are very confident of the age-ability of these two vintages.
“Nebbiolo is a good terroir wine because it lets the soil of the vineyard speak,” said Gaia. While some may describe a Nebbiolo wine as “elegant,” she prefers the term “restraint,” since elegance is subjective. “Nebbiolo’s nose is discreet, a minimalist of wine, but you can see the soul.” She believes that, “A fine wine is more than a beverage, it keeps the memory of the soil or of the season.” As we tasted the 2014 Barbaresco, she explained that, unlike many wines, Nebbiolo first shows its great texture and great structure. “You get the flavors, the taste, in the back of your mouth.”
I was grateful for her description as we tasted the 2014 Barbaresco DOP ($182), because I do find myself puzzling over how to express what I experience when I get caught up in the sensations in my mouth rather than what flavors I might be tasting. Initially, the wine was subdued in aromas and flavors while the taut structure of vivid acidity and polished tannins was on full display. As the wine opened, the floral, red fruit (laced with anise) showed itself. Grapes for this wine come from 14 vineyards around the village of Barbaresco.
The Sperss vineyard located in Serralunga d’Alba was the first Barolo property added to the Gaja portfolio in 1988. The 2013 Barolo DOP Sperss ($247) is the definition of restraint, with dark, earthy, fruit and dense tannins. The single vineyard 2013 Barolo DOP, Conteisa ($221) mostly within the cru of Cerequio, is a more delicate style with graceful floral fruit laced with anise, mouthwatering acidity and refined tannins.
Gaja, Langhe DOP, Darmagi 2012 ($204) is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It was distinctive in its dark color after the Nebbiolo wines. Ripe cassis fruit with an herbal note and smooth tannins will appeal to those who prefer more generous fruit.
As if Piedmont was not enough of a challenge, in the mid-1990s Gaja acquired two properties in Tuscany, one in Montalcino and another in Bolgheri. You can taste the sunshine in Ca Marcanda, Bolgheri DOP 2013 ($117). It is luscious with rich, round, dark fruit, lovely balancing acidity and smooth as silk, ripe tannins.
The Gaja, Pieve Santa Restitute, Brunello di Montalcino DOP, Sugarille 2000 ($120) was a rare treat, drinking very well in its maturity with savory aromas and flavors of tobacco and sandalwood mingling with dark cherry. The fruit, acidity and ripe tannins have all merged into a single, seamless whole.
The Gaja’s latest venture is in the south, in Italy’s hottest new spot for wine, the active Sicilian volcano, Mount Etna. Her father considered Etna for many years but did not want to go it alone. He wanted to partner with someone who knew the area. He found that someone in Alberto Graci, a young winemaker who has been making a name for himself on Etna. In 2017, they acquired property in Biancavilla, on Etna’s southwest face, a lesser known area for wine grapes, since most plantings are on the north face. They planted some of the native red variety, Nerello Mascalese, but Gaia is excited by the Carricante and Cattarato vines they have planted. “We want to focus on whites from Etna. We can learn and have something new to talk about,” she said.
By the way, did you notice in the list of wines noted above that the single vineyard Barbaresco and Barolo wines now bear those appellations? That’s because Gaia, Rossana and Giovanni, the new generation, decided as of the 2013 vintage that it was time to toss the Barbera and have only Nebbiolo in those wines.
Angelo Gaja is a great man of wine whose many accomplishments cannot be recounted in these few words. He has been a driver behind many of the changes in viticulture and winemaking that have helped to improve the quality of Italian wines. He has not been timid about exploring new areas or planting nontraditional grape varieties in a very traditional area. His greatest contribution to the world of wine, however, is undoubtedly the new generation, exemplified by the first-born daughter that he and his wife have nurtured, educated and encouraged…and now unleashed upon the world.