Homage to Gaja

After Brunello with Banfi, Barbaresco and much more with Angelo Gaja … where does one start?  This was simply one of the greatest experiences you can have in Italian or world wine, laid on by Decanter magazine as part of its Fine Wine Encounter.  But it was really two related experiences, with an underlying connection: Gaja the man and the Gaja wines. 

Angelo Gaja, the man

Now 69, Gaja has spent a lifetime promoting his wine, his village, Barbaresco, Piemonte, Italy, his family, in other words, all the things that have become the Gaja brand.  It’s now a bravura performance, delivered with utmost conviction and carries all before him.  On arrival he nearly looked his age.  We had met him briefly at his Bolgheri winery in the height of summer where he had looked immaculate, sun tanned, every inch the successful man on his own (expensively irrigated) turf. In London on a cold and windy day, he started quietly, if securely, apologizing for his English (which is excellent), going through the basics of his story which he has told hundreds of times before.  As he warmed to his theme the confidence grew visibly. He spoke lucidly and passionately for an hour and a half about the things he cares most about. By the end he had his large audience eating (drinking?) out of his hand and received a huge ovation. 

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And what is the secret of the Gaja magic? 

First and foremost the family: both personally and professionally.  This is the classic tale of the family business, with Angelo’s children (now mainly grown up) being the fifth generation in the wine business.  The company’s small brochure has an evocative photo from a hundred years ago of the second generation of commercial winemakers, the Angelo of 1866-1944 and his son, Giovanni, today’s Angelo’s father.   There is also a fine portrait of Clotilde Rey, the matriarch (1880-1961).  Gaja’s delivery is punctuated with great humour: Giovanni, he says, the less forceful of the couple, had only two choices with Clotilde – to kill her or to follow her! So Clothilde was the driving force, though Giovanni set a standard that the firm has lived by: poor vintages should not be bottled but sold for a song as open wine.  While hardly revolutionary in some circles, this was remarkable in Italy at the time, especially when the climate and the state of wine-making was only delivering 7 decent vintages out of 10.  But Giovanni compensated for this hard choice by charging the highest prices in Piemonte for the successful years – higher than the famous Barolo.  The Gajas don’t lack conviction or business sense. 

Today’s Angelo took that further, though of course he didn’t talk about his own contribution.  He studied the methods of the French fine wine trade and put them to good use in conservative, rural Piemonte:

  • experimenting with French barriques, even French grape varieties
  • working with the local star grape, Nebbiolo, utterly convinced that it could produce one of the world’s great wines
  • producing single vineyard ‘crus’ in an area that had never had them – and then charging unheard of prices for the rare bottles. 
  • finally, he put himself about and created single handedly a market for top quality Barbaresco.  Its easy to forget now that before him, Barbaresco was unknown. 

The full story is told in Edward Steinberg’s The vines of San Lorenzo (Slow Food Editore 1992, updated 2006), an outstanding book, to which I will return in another post. 

The story of the marketing is remarkable.   Gaja showed a slide of the labels of 1937 and 1978. On the

IMG_42181978 label not only has the fussiness of earlier times gone, what is prominent is the family name, not the appellation.  Once you have learnt to recognise the name Gaja, then you can ask about whether its Barbaresco or Barolo.   

He also attends to small things that make a difference.  The brochure is functional and factual but it consistently gives a pronunciation guide. ‘Guy-ah’ he has told English speakers to say. If you can pronounce the Italian or dialectic name on the bottle, that itself gives confidence. 

The Gaja discourse covers a multitude of topics:

  • the family history, especially if you include long time winemaker, Guido Rivella, as an honorary member; 
  • his philosophy of healthy living, eating and drinking: wine is like food, you need a partner or a friend to share it with, and then relax on the health issues;
  • his line on tackling the danger of alcohol: we must persuade governments to distinguish naturally made alcohols from spirits; if anyone can carry off this argument, he can;
  • when to visit Piemonte (after the truffle fair, ‘a disaster’, ie mid-November to December or spring);
  • why he didn’t enter a joint  venture with Robert Mondavi, who he praised as a great man.  It wasn’t just the presence lawyers at the initial meetingsIMG_4226.  Rather, to have  a good marriage you need complementary interests, companionship and … sex.  ‘And in size terms, you Mondavi are an elephant and I am a mosquito.  Sex between an elephant and a mosquito? Well, it would not give much pleasure to the elephant and could be worse for the mosquito!’

The Gaja wines

The one thing he didn’t talk about was the wines.  He flatters his audience – you people know about wine, you have a good wine culture, and I don’t need to try to explain the inexplicable.  The metaphors continue to flow.  Cabernet Sauvignon as John Wayne to Marcello Mastroianni’s Nebbiolo – one dominates the room while the one is beckons you over to the corner.  While he spoke the wines of his four production areas await our attention, completely un-introduced.  So while we are treated to Gaja the orator, in front of us are an array of great – and on this occasion I mean great – wines. 

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Gaia & Rey, Langhe DOC, 1994 – named after Gaja’s daughter (Gaia Gaja if you will) and the matriarch Clothilde Rey, this is 100% Chardonnay, planted back in 1978.  As he says, you will all be identify this wine, it’s white. But what a white: with 15 years of ageing, it’s between yellow and gold in colour, a complex blend of aromas from slight, residual oak, then melons and apples, dried fruit, nuttiness.  An hour later the nose is dominated by powerful caramel tones, remarkable. And that’s just wine number 1 of 12. 

Camarcanda, Bolgheri DOC, 2006 – the top wine of Gaja’s most recent estate of the same name, on the Tuscan coast.   Mostly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s very promising, with rich fruit, mainly blackcurrants and vanilla.  Highly drinkable now, many years ahead of it for IMG_3221development.   The care taken over the landscaping of this estate was remarkable – hiding most of the winery underground and and landscaping with old, transplanted olive trees – but that’s another story. 

There followed three wines, Brunellos, from the Gaja estate in Montalcino, Tuscany:  Pieve San Restituta, the property he bought after not having gone in with Mondavi.  First the multi-vineyard Rennina, 2004, a recent great vintage.  By comparison with the modern style of Banfi (see previous post), a subtle combination of dark cherries, cloves and tobacco, smooth in the mouth, characteristically high acidity, very good.  Then two vintages from the single vineyard, Sugarille (that’s Suh-gah-REE-lay):

Sugarille Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2001, followed by the 1996.  The latter is in its prime: powerful, complex, velvety, dark fruit, perfectly balanced and smooth.  In between these two vintages they declassified the whole of 20o2 (too wet) and 2003 (too hot) …

All these wines were really the grand warm-up act for the Nebbiolo based wines that followed.  Tasted in a slightly odd order, they went Barbaresco, single vineyard Barolo, single vineyard Barbaresco.  I suppose the point was: Barbaresco, where it all started; then Barolo; then back to the finest wines, the single vineyard Barbaresco. 

Barbaresco DOCG 2004, 1997, 1964 – after the Brunellos, the change of aromas was dramatic. With Nebbiolo you are now in the perfume department, rather than at the fruit counter or even in the garden centre.  The 2004 is perfumed but only slightly so, refreshing, with great acidity and really very young despite its five years.  The 1997 is more IMG_4221 like it – soaring aromas of roses, followed by liquorice and balsamic notes, silky, stunningly good.  And this is the ‘basic’ wine.   1964, pictured left, is anything but a museum piece.  In the mouth it is still lively, with a refreshing finish and very, very long.  The nose is remarkable: the obvious wood notes have long gone, replaced by truffles, roses and other flowers, forest floor.  Whether you prefer the 12 year old or the 45 year is really a matter of taste but they are both remarkable wines. 

Having put Barbaresco on the map, Gaja turned to the more famous Barolo region. The family bought in grapes until 1961, but then decided only to make wine from their own estates, establishing complete control.  They bought the vineyard in 1988 and named it Sperss (‘nostalgia’ in the dialect).  The two wines tasted were the 2004 and the 1995.  These immediately showed the effect of ageing, the former showing a very perfumed nose, small berries, some youngish wood, a rich texture, edgy but gorgeous.  By contrast the 14 year old no longer leads with fruit but with the classic ‘tar and roses’ combination, very complex, liquorish and mushrooms to the fore.  Rich and supple in the mouth, outstanding. 

And finally to the famous single vineyard Barbaresco, Sorì San Lorenzo, the young wine of 2004 and the mature 1989.  The ‘trouble’ with this sort of tasting is not so much the embarrassment of riches but just running out of words.   The 2004 is already scoring in the mushroom/truffle register but with elegant, red fruit.  1989 is darker in tone, rich and supremely elegant, but still lively and highly drinkable.  Sumptuous, life affirming wines. 

The lasting impression of these wines was of great perfume, lovely clear fruit, increasing complexity with age, balance, supreme poised and highly drinkable.  They never stop being real food wines, though it would have to be some feast to match this sublime quality. 

Decanter tasting

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