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What's new at Gaja, the 156-year-old Italian winery

Gaia Gaja doesn't get to L.A. much, so when the daughter of one of Italy's most prominent winemakers came to town, we met to catch up on what was happening in Barbaresco.

Gaia Gaja of Gaja wine estate in Piedmont, Italy

Gaia Gaja of Gaja wine estate in Barbaresco (Piedmont, Italy. (S. Irene Virbila \ Los Angeles Times)

Her father is Angelo Gaja, who put Barbaresco, Piedmont and Italy on the world wine stage back in the ’70s and '80s. The distinctive black-and-white label is among the most recognizable in the world and Gaja Barbaresco and Barolo has a strong presence on top wine lists. In addition to Gaja winery in Piedmont, the family also owns the estates Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino and Ca’ Marcanda in Bolgheri, both in Tuscany.

 

After 44 years with Gaja winery, winemaker Guido Rivella retired last year. Alessandro Albarello, Rivella’s right-hand man for the past 17 years, has moved into the winemaker position, although he still acts as an advisor. For the first time in its 156-year history, the Gaja family has brought in consultants from outside — not in the cellar but in the vineyards.Concerned about the changes wrought by global warming, Gaia says she and her father are working with a French botanist who has urged them to stress the vines less.

 

 

The main lesson, she says, is that instead of stressing the vines by correcting the plant, they — Gaia, her father, and the consultant botanist — are learning to suggest what the plant should do by nourishing the soil. For example, young vines tend to be very vigorous and explode with leaves. So they have to cut back the canopy of leaves and perform a green harvest (cut away some of the still unripe grape bunches). By planting grains and cereals between the vine rows, they can also slow the plant's growth so it won’t develop such a huge canopy.

Another example: the single-vineyard Sori Tildin, which makes one of the winery's most celebrated reds, has very dry, compact soil. There, they've introduced a special grass between the densely planted rows which doesn’t take much water, yet has deep roots that break up that compact soil. 

 

The winery doesn't work with just one consultant, says Gaia, using an old Piedmontese expression, because “no one has the truth in his pocket.”

Corkage fee helps put a cap on wine expenses

The winery is also working with the University of Bologna to identify and understand new diseases that are affecting the vineyards due to global warming. To encourage beneficial insects, especially bees, in the vineyard, the family has called in a consulting entomologist. On his initiative, they've gone high into the hills where there are still meadows to collect seeds for native grasses and wildflowers. Now in the spring, you'll see wildflowers blooming between the rows of vines covering the steeply canted hillsides.

And on top of all that, this region's lovely landscape of vineyards, including both Barbaresco and Barolo, was officially added to UNESCO's World Heritage sites last year. 

by S. Irene Virbila/Los Angeles Times

 

 

S. Irene Virbila is a restaurant critic and wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her worldly perspective on the L.A. dining scene has won a James Beard Foundation Award in 1997 and the American Food Journalists Award in 2005. Before joining The Times in 1993, she wrote about food, wine and travel from Europe and Asia, trained as a sommelier in Paris, edited cookbooks and was part of the culinary scene in Berkeley when Chez Panisse changed everything.

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History

Gaja took over the reins of the family business, established by his great-grandfather Giovanni in 1859, 52 years ago. Thanks to his fine-quality wines, he has turned it into an internationally renowned company that produces top-rated wines. Gaja produces the classic Barbaresco D.O.C.G., as well as other wines made from Nebbiolo grapes grown in five separate vineyards. They are Sori San Lorenzo, Sori Tildin and Costa Russi from the Barbaresco area, and Sperss and Conteisa from the Barolo area. Wines from these areas are some of the most renowned and most expensive in the world. The American wine critic Robert M. Parker describes the Piedmontese Gaja estate as one of Italy’s most fascinating and revolutionary wine producers. The highly esteemed Wine Spectator chose Angelo Gaja as Man of the Year 2008, and no other Italian wine producer has received the top score from the Italian Gambero Rosso wine guide – tre bicchieri or three glasses – as often as he. Gaja has won the accolade 43 times.

 

“I have just been lucky!” exclaims the winemaker when the discussion turns to his global renown. Gaja emphasises the fact that he is still above all a craftsman. “I happen to live and work in a unique area. In Italy we have as many as 1,500 grape varieties, which is more than any other country in the world. Here in Piedmont, Nebbiolo is the queen of grapes. It is unique and its secret lies beneath its tough skin: the flesh is acidic with lots of tannins. I have been ambitious and have worked hard to tame these characteristics in order to bring out all the nuances of the wine.” Gaja smiles contemplatively but soon turns serious.

 

He continues his story and reminds us of his privileged position as the heir to a family with a long history in wine. He does not say a word about what an arduous journey he had to complete in developing the region’s typical Nebbiolo grape before the variety would produce a fine wine that has brought worldwide acclaim, not only to Gaja but to Italy as a whole. But it has been written about so much that I may be excused in skipping it now. More important is the estate’s anniversary: it is now 150 years since the Piedmontese Gaja family began making wine in contravention of all the traditional rules, turning themselves into pioneers and frontrunners.

 

Great-grandfather Giovanni ran a small trattoria and on the side he cultivated grapes in a two-hectare vineyard. That was in order to complement the good food that he offered his guests with his own wine. He would also sell the wine for willing patrons to take home in a large wicker-covered bottle. At that time most other wine growers sold their grapes only to negozianti, wholesalers. Until the 1960s, grapes were of secondary importance, and many families cultivated wheat or beans between the vines. These were valued more in farming, as they provided basic nourishment. While their neighbours were completely dependent on the pricing policies of the large-scale producers and therefore earned poorly from their wines, Giovanni’s wine had more and more buyers. Soon he gave up his restaurant entirely and bought more land with his savings, in order to start his own vineyard in 1859. He was one of the first producers in Italy to stop using only barrels and to begin bottling his wine. 

 

Thanks to his far-sighted, thoughtful actions, Giovanni turned Gaja into one of the leading vineyards in Italy. His Barbaresco, which he sold for the same price as his other wines, became as renowned as its older brother Barolo, which was cultivated in the most highly regarded areas – Brunatessa, Cerequiossa, Rocche di La Morrassa and Cannubissa. Gaja’s 1961 vintage is considered to be the best Barbaresco vintage so far from the area. It has received praise from wine critic Michael Broadbent, among others. “One of the best Italian wines I have ever tasted,” said Broadbent in 1984. Gaja’s flagship never spread beyond its native locality, however. “When the family vigneto underwent the latest generation change in 1961, it was in nearly perfect dimensions: we had about 21 hectares of cultivated land, producing approximately 60,000 bottles of wine per year. However, our customers were almost without fail from north-eastern Italy, Piedmont, Lombardy, Liguria or Rome,” Angelo recalls. So his father tasked him with getting the wines sold around the world.

 

Giovanni also designed a new label for the wine in 1937, to emphasise its uniqueness. Instead of the area of cultivation, the idea was to focus on the winery. The label had the name of the estate, GAJA, originally in red and later in white lettering on a black background. Although he label has been updated to follow the fashions of the passing decades – for instance adding silver stripes in the 1970s – the name of the estate has always remained the same. In the 1980s, Angelo made the label completely monochromatic. The black-and-white label is still used on D.O.C.G. bottles and the producer’s other fine wines. “The changes were not just a show of astute marketing; they were really revolutionary at the time,” Angelo says. He is full of admiration for his father’s labours: turning a Nebbiolo into a high-quality Barbaresco was not easy back then. “Neither steel vats nor controlled fermentation or small barrels were used yet in winemaking. The hygiene level in the cellars was also completely different than today, as running water and plumbing were not brought in until 1964.” Those changes were also thanks to his father’s position as mayor.

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Vineyards

The year in which Angelo Gaja inherited the estate from his parents was the last time that the estate bought grapes from other growers. Since then, Gaja has only used its own grapes. Angelo also radically changed the grape cultivation practices: “When I took over the lead of the estate, vegetables, beans and wheat were still grown in between the vines. Also, 24 or 25 branches were left on the vines,” Angelo says. He halved the number of branches to improve quality. “We were the first growers in Piedmont to do that and the others thought we were crazy. They were convinced that pruning was a mistake,” Angelo says with a boyish grin. But the end result was not bad. Still, even with half of the branches being cut back, the vines came up with too many buds in the spring, so in 1991 Angelo started a systematic spring pruning of his vines.

 

“Vineyards need innovation and enthusiasm. It is not always easy to explain to outsiders, however, and many consumers still have a rather romantic view of winemaking,” explains this pioneer. “People think that traditions are everything and expect to hear that we still make wine using the same techniques as our great-grandparents.” Naturally, not all modern methods have been successful, either. A wine craftsman must understand what it is that makes a good wine and what will only have a superficial effect. Angelo’s winemaker Guido Rivella, who also has an excellent reputation as a producer, always thinks very carefully about how to truly improve quality.

 

Harvesting of the three individual vineyards usually begins with Sori Tildin. Angelo bought the parcel in 1967 and named it after his grandmother, Clotilde Rey. The south-facing, sunny hill, sori in Italian, is always washed over by a light breeze. It is the highest of all the vineyards and, thanks to its location and inward-turned hill formation, it offers a very warm microclimate for the grapes. The eponymous wine has refined fruity notes and is the most open of the three single-vineyard wines. Also Sori San Lorenzo, which Angelo bought already in 1964, faces the south. It is one of the family’s most beautiful vineyards. The wine from that vineyard has an aging potential of over 40 years, and the characteristic properties of the Nebbiolo are at their best here.

Sori San Lorenzo is the strongest and most masculine wine of the three. It usually requires a bottle aging time of at least 10-15 years, whereas Sori Tildin is known for its more feminine, elegant quality. Costa Russi, located at a lower altitude than Sori Tildin, has a cooler microclimate. Bought at the same time as Sori Tildin, Costa Russi is only a stone’s throw away. All three single-vineyard Barbarescos share their grape blend: 95% Nebbiolo and 5% Barbera.

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Winemaking

Angelo Gaja is a trained oenologist and economist, who has a good grasp of the rules and customs of the wine world. Reputation and honourable mentions, entertainment and originality are important requirements for the successful sale of a whine. But in Angelo’s Piedmontese kingdom, hidden within number 18 Via Torino, the glamour of the Angelo nazionale is invisible. The horseshoe-shaped building complex is unfussy and painted a traditional shade of red. A concrete-paved courtyard with only a few plants dispels any final notions of the romance of the wine business. To the right of the house itself is a three-storey wine cellar, which reaches the opposite side of the road. To the left is the administrative building with offices and tasting rooms, which only business partners are allowed to enter. The reception displays publications showcasing the world-famous winery’s accomplishments. Angelo can be found on some of the magazine covers.

 

Ever since Gaia took over the management of the family business, she has travelled almost weekly to familiarise herself with the international market and to create new contacts. Next in line are Sweden and Finland. For her part, Rossana is off on the same day to the family’s Tuscan Ca’ Marcanda vineyard to produce her first own vintage. “I want my daughters to be open and willing to learn in order to uncover all the secrets of winemaking – whether it be in the cellar, the office, the planning desk or the sales room,” Angelo says, and adds: “Of course, in a business such as ours there may come a day when they say ‘No, papa!’, because they see something quite differently from me. That happened to my friend Robert Mondavi, for example. It may also be that my daughters will want to expand the business further.”

 

What does the esteemed wine-grower think of his latest vintage? 2009 will be a “quite unique year”, Angelo predicts. Statistically, last summer was the second-hottest for 250 years in Piedmont. “But we were lucky because from November to mid-April we had plenty of snow, it hardly rained until mid-June, and July and August were very hot, after which the weather cooled swiftly so that morning temperatures were only 16–17 degrees Centigrade,” the wine expert says. “The grapes look marvellous, even though there are 40 days left still.” Angelo does not believe that a great wine has to be perfect. Perfection “smacks of artificial manipulation taking place in the cellar”. A fine wine is allowed a small difetto: “A slight defect will give the wine its identity and make it unique and inimitable. It will also make it recognisable to people: ‘Hmm, I know this slight nuance, it’s a Gaja!’. There are many great wines that could be from anywhere in the world. Nebbiolo can only come from here, however.”

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16 different wines with 181 vintages

Winemaking since 1859

  • Angelo Gaja

    Owner
    Vineyards need innovation and enthusiasm
  • Gaia Gaja

    You might think that a man who is as good a public performer as our father would behave like a prima donna. But he is not at all like that.

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Wine Moments

Here you can see wine moments from tastingbook users.    or    to see wine moments from your world.

 Christer Byklum / Leading Scandinavian wine blogger, Wine Writer (Norway)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  25 wines 

Rinaldi Barolo 2007 / Served blind. Bright ruby with sediments. Scented, tar and roses, rich nose, tea, anise, leather and cherries nose. Fresh and high acidity, high of ripe tannins, fruity and lively, intense, cherries and red berries, little bit high alcohol making it a bit sweet, long. 90p

2m 21d ago

 Christoph Hons, Wine Blogger (United Kingdom)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  15 wines 

New tastingnotes. 

2m 27d ago

 Guo Ying / Sommelier, Pro (China)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  14 wines 

Château Lynch-Bages 2005 / Dark, purple colour. Very open and complex nose revealing, cassis, capsicum, coffee and mintiness. The very same aromas as Mouton has on the nose. Opulent medium-bodied wine with extraordinary concentration and a chewy texture. Ripe round tannins with a mouthwatering acidity and intense dark fruitiness. Flavour shows dark chocolate and hints of anise. Very intense and long finish. Absolutely gracious wine with a long life ahead. Further bottle ageing of 10-15 years will enhance the charm of the wine.

2m 29d ago

 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  23 wines 

Last evening was a real " Voyage autour du monde" along with the top 24 wines that wine countries can offer, and there was only four of us enjoying them...Unfortunately, quite a lot of bottles remained half empty, but not the Petrus 2003, Cheval Blanc 1947, Screaming Eagle 1999, Pingus 1995, Haut-Brion Blanc 1995, Lafleur 1996 etc.

3m 24d ago

 Anton Panasenko / Best Sommelier of Russia 2003, Pro (Russia)  tasted  16 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  16 wines 

Gaja Tasting part II - the last 16 vintages included some great ones like 1975, 1978, 1997 and 1999.

4m 12d ago

 Frank Smulders MW, Pro (Austria)  tasted  7 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  7 wines 

Sorì Tildin 2008 is a Langhe DOC wine from Barbaresco, as Gaja blends in some Barbera. Although, that is the official version, I always have a strong sensation of Cabernet in the wine, but maybe I am mistaken. A very intense color, a completely different aroma compared to the previous wine. Compact, solid tannins, thicker fruit, more fat, texture. A long finish, with plenty of oak, tannin and alcohol. A big wine compared to the elegant Barbaresco.

4m 14d ago

 Hannu Kytölä, Wine Collector (Finland)  tasted  14 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  15 wines 

Large Gaja vertical tasting from 1961 to 2013.

4m 22d ago

 Achim Becker / Wineterminator.com, Wine Writer (Germany)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  27 wines 

A Taste of Greatness -tasting with perfect wines like Martha's Vineyards 1974, Harlan 1994, Sassicaia 1985, Pingus 1995, Yquem 1899 etc.

4m 30d ago

 Juha Lihtonen, Sommelier (Finland)  tasted  7 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  7 wines 

If you want to understand biodynamic winegrowing, make appointment at Gaja with Gaia Gaja, pack your sneakers and prepre for a run around San Lorenzo vineyard. Thanks Gaia for being the first person who has explained to me in understandable manner about the biodiversity in vineyards. And from now on, I will not have my hair cut on full moon!

5m 1d ago

 Kaj Nahi, Wine Collector (Finland)  tasted  14 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  15 wines 

Gaja tasting from vintages 1964 to vintages 2013.

5m 7d ago

 Angelo Gaja  has updated producer and wine information

5m 8d ago

 Anton Panasenko / Best Sommelier of Russia 2003, Pro (Russia)  tasted  15 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  16 wines 

Touching ground back home, just time for some tea after a great Gaja tasting last week before heading off to Burgundy. Thank you for another brilliant evening in fantastic company!

5m 9d ago

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