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Profile: Angelo Gaja
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 29, 2016
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During a recent short trip to Piedmont in northwest Italy, I visited four of my favorite wineries.  I was going to write about them together, but decided that each of these Italian wine icons deserves his own column, and undoubtedly Angelo Gaja needs a book to tell his full story.   

I could have entitled this column “Mr. Barbaresco,” because I can think of no other wine region in which one man has singlehandedly popularized a great wine and its entire wine region.  (Robert Mondavi comes closest with Napa Valley.)

Angelo Gaja, always a leader in the Barbaresco region, also makes two Barolos, both very fine, in my opinion, but not quite up to the majesty of his four Barbaresco wines.   Gaja also produces wines in Tuscany’s Bolgheri region and makes a Brunello di Montalcino--but his reputation rests on his superb Barbaresco wines.
As many Italian wine aficionados know, both Barolo and Barbaresco are made exclusively from Nebbiolo, my favorite red grape variety.  A unique aspect of Nebbiolo is that it shows its true greatness only in the Langhe district, located around the town of Alba in southeast Piedmont.  

Nebbiolo makes a medium-colored red wine that is typically high in acid and tannin.  The aromas are truly amazing, ranging from camphor, mint, and anise to red berry, especially strawberry, mushrooms, white truffles, and tar.  Most of the great Barolos and Barbarescos from good vintages take many years to fully mature, and can last for decades.  Angelo Gaja’s wines are good examples of this ability to age.  I have been drinking Gaja’s wines since I first tasted his 1971 Barbaresco several decades ago, and I have never tasted one that was showing too much age or was tired.

I discovered the existence of Barbaresco in the late 1970s in a wine shop. You couldn’t miss the huge name, Gaja, on the shelf. It was the only Barbaresco in the shop.  A few years later, in a restaurant in Genoa, Italy, I was dismayed that all the wines were standing up on a shelf in a rather warm place (not unusual in Italy at that time).  I tried three different Barolos, all of which were oxidized, and I returned them.  Then I tried a 1971 Gaja Barbaresco, and had an epiphany.  The wine was magnificent, perfectly balanced, and full of fruit.  The poor storage might have caused the wine to reach its peak sooner, I later realized.  The cork in the wine was very long, an indication of Gaja’s impeccable attention to detail.  I became a Gaja fan that night.  When I later met Angelo Gaja, I realized that he was a fanatical perfectionist in every aspect of his winemaking.

Now Angelo Gaja is 77, nearing 78, he told me (although the internet lists him a year younger).  He has not retired; nor has 87-year-old Bruno Giacosa, another great Barbaresco producer, despite his suffering a debilitating stroke about ten years ago. 

All of Angelo Gaja’s family, his wife Lucia, two daughters and a 23 year-old son, Giovanni, are working for the winery.  Angelo’s oldest daughter, Gaia Gaja, 37, has become the face and voice of the brand.  She does the extensive traveling throughout the world that her father used to do, and does the speaking for the winery most of the time.  And she is an outstanding speaker.  Rossana, the younger daughter, 35, the mother of a young son, also works in the winery.

Angelo Gaja has also been blessed with a great winemaker, Guido Ravella, who has been with him for 35 years.  Gaja has the reputation of being a modern producer, as opposed to Bruno Giacosa, a very traditional producer.  From my point of view, I would call Gaja an innovator, which I believe to be a more accurate term.  One of the first things Gaja did when he joined the winery in 1961 was to reduce crop size aggressively, something not practiced in Italy then.  The resulting wines had more intensity and concentration.

True, Gaja was the first winemaker in Piedmont to use French barriques for aging his wine, but he does not use new barriques.  Just 25 percent of the wine is placed in used barriques, and aged for one year only.  It is then transferred to traditional large Slavonian barrels (called botte) for one more year.  Gaja’s wines never taste of oak.  Their primary characteristics are those of elegance and balance.  Tannins are always present, but they do not overwhelm his wines.  Gaja continues the very traditional practice of allowing his wines to remain in contact with the skins for up to 30 days, whereas some modernist winemakers practice much shorter maceration, for only 5 or 6 days.  He is one of the few winemakers in the region to use only ambient (or “native”) yeasts, avoiding commercial yeasts.

Gaja was one of the first winemakers to make single-vineyard wines in the region.  Three of his four Barbarescos are single-vineyard wines.

It is sometimes said that Gaja’s wines are too expensive.  Yes, he was the first winemaker in Piedmont to charge prices that we had only seen previously in Bordeaux and Burgundy.  But Gaja’s point was that his wines are as good as the finest wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Gaja not only did Piedmont wineries a service, but also he did all of Italy’s winemakers a service for the increased prices, because it brought more respect to Italy’s wines.  Until Gaja came along, the Italian wine industry was treated as the poor stepchild of France’s wines.

Now some of the great wines of Bruno Giacosa and Barolo’s Giacomo Conterno are even more expensive than Gaja’s wines.  And of course some Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are prohibitively expensive, without the accompanying quality, as I see it.

I had a brief tasting of Gaja’s wines during my visit:

I loved Gaja’s Sauvignon Blanc, the 2014 Alteni di Brassica.  It was unlike any Sauvignon Blanc wine from France or California. The wine has an Italian feel, with its high acidity and firm body. This is a Sauvignon that will age and improve with five years or more of aging.  I rated it a 93.

Gaja’s Chardonnay, the 2014 Gaja & Rey, was also Italian in spirit; it’s a big, full-bodied Chardonnay, lacking perhaps the uniqueness of the Alteni di Brassica.  90

I tasted Gaja’s four Barbarescos, from the 2013 vintage:

Barbaresco 2013:  So elegant, and approachable enough to be enjoyed now. No intrusive tannins; round and velvety.  92

Costa Russi 2013:  Always the readiest to drink of Gaja’s three single-vineyard Barbarescos.  The perfect Barbaresco for those tasters who don’t want too much tannin in their wines.  93

Sori Tildin 2013:  The first of the two “big bruisers”of Gaja Barbarescos.  Simply magnificent; power, intensity and fruit; it will last for decades.  In its youth, Sori Tildin always shows the best.  My favorite of the tasting.  98

Sori San Lorenzo 2013:  Very tannic now and the darkest in color.  From my experience with the San Lorenzo, I know that it will mature beautifully after many years of aging.  A huge wine.  96

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A Gaja wine tasting is always a great experience.  The wines are so meticulously made, and always showcasing their origin. They reflect their perfectionist winemaker, Angelo Gaja, one of the greatest winemakers of the world.