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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. 


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. 


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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Two types of wine talk and two Super Tuscans

Can  we talk in a meaningful way about the difference in taste between wines which cost €70 and €35 ?  And why are there differences in taste?  The previous post (Talking about wine) throws some light on the general problem of communicating about tastes.  In this one, let’s focus on two types of speech about wine. 


To simplify matters, let’s talk about the two top wines, from the left, Ca’ Marcanda (named after the estate) and Magari.  They share quite a lot in common – they are made from the same grape varieties, the grapes are grown on the same estate and they are vinified in similar ways under the same wine maker.  But while they are both premium wines, one costs twice as much as the other. For most people price is very important.  If the top wine is going to cost twice as much as another pretty expensive premium wine, then it should taste different! And how do we talk about that?  When we talk about these wines we can either go by the knowledge route or by describing the flavours and sensations. 

The knowledge route goes something like this and does throw some light on the price difference:  

Ca’ Marcanda €70. 

  • Grape varieties:  50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc – ‘international’ grape varieties are more expensive in Tuscany than local ones, but that applies equally to Magari 
  • Site: all the grapes are grown on the one estate but the Ca’ Marcanda grapes are grown on the white soil (limestone, stones, pebbles), the stoniest areas
  • Usually there are lower yields for top wines to increase the concentration of the resulting grape juice.  Lower yields mean less return from your expensive piece of land in Bolgheri and therefore a higher price per bottle. But the leaflet about the wine doesn’t give any information so we only guess that this is a factor.
  • the top wine is the product of greater attention in the vineyards and in the winery and/or using only the best fruit at harvest time, again greater expense
  • the wine is matured in new oak barrels for 18 months and then at least 12 months in bottle before release.  Each new 225 litre barrel costs €600 which works out at €2 a bottle, plus of course the investment in the storage, the staff to look after them and cash flow which has to be financed.  Not releasing wine until three years after harvest is a costly business.

Magari €35

  • 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc. While the same grapes are used, in this wine there is rather more of the lusher, herbaceous Cab Franc and less Cab Sauvignon. So the wine is going to be ready to drink earlier. 
  • the vines for Margari are grown on a mixture of soils – white (limestone, stones, pebbles) and dark (loam and clay)
  • 18 months in new and second year oak barrels and at least 6 months in bottle before release – so again the wine is released a year earlier

All three factors mean that the wine is going to taste different to Ca’ Marcanda and that it costs less to produce. 

What did the wines taste like? 

Magari 2005 lovely nose of red and black fruit, velvety, even sumptuous and full in the mouth, the flavours derived from oak not very evident. 

Ca’ Marcanda 2005 had powerful aromas of black fruit (especially blackcurrant) and  tobacco;  dense fruit, high astringency and acidity, a wine of serious structure,  and great persistence

There are of course connections between the ‘knowledge’ and the attempt to talk about taste.  The luscious drinkability is due to the greater presence of Cab Franc in Magari and the relative absence of Cab Sauvignon, while the great backbone of Ca’ Marcanda reflects the amount of Cab Sauvignon in the latter, along with greater use of new oak with its tannins.  

And of course the great thing about wine is that there is always another level of interest. Which wine did I prefer?  Tasting the 2005s in the summer of 2009, the Magari, made for shorter term drinking, outshone the more much expensive Ca’ Marcanda.  But you might get a completely different outcome in ten years time when the Ca’ Marcanda will be fully mature.  Or it might be that you just prefer the smell and taste of either Cabernet or Merlot … and as Adrienne Lehrer showed, you will then talk up the qualities that you liked in the wine you preferred.  Let’s keep drinking and talking!

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Talking about wine

Most people get by without a developed language about wine.  ‘I know what I like’ is a fairly common response, with a laugh or smile, which probably means, ‘let’s face it, people drink for the pleasure, for the taste, for mild (or more) intoxication ’.  The further implication is that talking about wine is for wine buffs, sales talk or just sheer pretension.  Then there is the fear of being cheated.  ‘All wine is really the same’ – being asked to pay twice or ten times as much for some bottles is just a con, the fancy words being the cover of the cunning sales person.  Wine is difficult to evaluate in an objective way and talking about it seems to require either extraordinary tasting skills or secret knowledge.   

Thus, the challenge is, can we talk about the smell and the taste of wine in a way that will mean something to others?   

This was part of the challenge that the academic linguist Adrienne Lehrer set herself back in the early 1970s.  Do ordinary wine drinkers have a vocabulary for wine and can they communicate with one another about the qualities of individual wines? What language do wine professionals use and are they any more successful at communicating than ordinary wine drinkers? 


Lehrer’s findings are fascinating.  She has now updated her book in a much expanded edition, Wine and Conversation (Oxford, 2nd edition, 2009). 



In her studies she found:

  • contrary to what was thought, ordinary people have a rich vocabulary to draw on when they speak about what wine tastes like.  Most of their vocabulary was drawn from comparison with other fields (‘spicy’, ‘green apples’)
  • professionals did better than ordinary drinkers in describing wines – whew, those wine exams were worth it!
  • professionals did no better than ordinary drinkers in talking about wines in a way that others (even other professionals) could use.  Professionals were not significantly better in experiments in which person A tasted a wine and described it, person B tried to identify that wine from a series of wines on the basis of person A’s description.  This outcome is more difficult to evaluate:  it’s a frustration that more knowledge and experience of wine does not necessarily lead to better communication … but, on the other hand, the more you know, the more you will understand and benefit from others who talk about wine knowledgeably.
  • The only exceptions to the previous finding were when a professional talked about a wine they had studied in real depth or if they were allowed to refer to colour and appearance.  Thus, real in depth knowledge and experience helps, and colour and appearance are much easier to communicate than aroma or taste.
  • There is great potential for confusion over terms such as ‘dry’ or ‘sweet’ because there is no agreed scale for these terms. The same wine can be described as sweet or dry as the speakers have different presuppositions.
  • Value judgements constantly affect drinkers’ descriptions of wine – after all, much of the time we talk about how much we do or don’t enjoy a particular wine, rather than trying to describe it.

Lehrer’s overall conclusion is heartening for those who are struggling to communicate about wine and think there is more to wine talk than sheer pretension or sales patter.  Her conclusion from her experiments was that communicating about wine via language is extremely difficult.  We have plenty of words for taste and smell, but each speaker and each hearer has a different set of educational and personal experiences against which they use and interpret those words. As a result miscommunication is rife. 

Let’s illustrate this from Angelo Gaja’s Super Tuscan Ca’ Marcanda 2005, the subject of the next post (see Two types of wine talk).   If I describe this wine as ABC – say, (A) powerful aromas of black fruit (especially blackcurrant) and  tobacco, (B) dense fruit, high acidity and young tannins in the mouth and (C ) great persistence – this will only convey something meaningful to if you and I are in broad agreement about what the sensations ABC are like.  And the likelihood of that is only quite high if we have both tasted Super Tuscans before and established some common terminology to talk about them.   The solution is obvious:  we need to taste plenty of bottles together and, while we still have our wits about us, agree on some terminology and its meaning. 

A few other comments on Lehrer’s book:

  • this is a second edition of a book which first appeared in 1983.  It’s a shame that the tasting experiments with ordinary drinkers and with professionals, which are at the heart of the book, were not rerun for this new edition.  This might have thrown some light on the general level of wine education among ordinary drinkers.  And the wines used in the experiments have mercifully passed into history under legal challenge about wine names: Californian Chablis is a blast from the past!
  • Lehrer is a linguist and the book is mainly a contribution to that subject.  That makes it a tough read for non-linguists. 
  • In this pioneering study, Lehrer does not comment on the effect of culture on all this but presupposes it. All her tasters were Americans living in three cities with the trials being conducted separately in the three places.   In effect the subjects were presumed to share the same cultural experience.  We now know that tasters from different cultures use completely different comparators for describing wine, hardly surprisingly. 
  • The author’s surveys of more recent, mainly American studies, in this field are very useful.  The important point is that the more recent studies confirm or are consistent with Lehrer’s original findings.
  • The most important strand of the recent work reported is on the basic sense of taste and smell.  It is the case that some people can taste more than others and that some have a greater ability to taste or smell some substances but not others. 

Overall, Lehrer’s work repays attention. It’s not the easiest book in the world to read but it takes us forward in the tantalising business of trying to convey the smells and the tastes of wine in speech. 

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