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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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21 different wines with 233 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

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 Angelo Gaja  has updated producer and wine information

16d 18h ago

 Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  2 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  24 wines 

Gaja Sori Tildin 2017 / Coming from a warmer, south-facing site, the 2016 Barbaresco Sori Tildin is a more concentrated, vibrant wine compared to the straight Barbaresco and has vivid notes of bright cherry fruits, rose petals, road tar, violets and even a hint of orange blossom. Incredible on the palate, with medium to full body, an incredible, seamless texture, ultra-fine tannins, and a monster finish. The tannins here are unquestionably on another level and are perfectly ripe, and this just about off-the-charts 2016 has a Grand Cru Red Burgundy-like texture, elegance, and stature. This bottle didn't hit prime time until the second day, so either give bottles a healthy decant or, even better, 5-7 years in a cold cellar.

2m 1d ago

 Angelo Gaja  has updated producer and wine information

2m 2d ago

 Monica Larner, Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  5 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  29 wines 

The golden touch, that proverbial Gaja magic, is taken to a whole new level in the 2016 Barolo Sperss. Angelo Gaja has taught his children to follow their own path, and now that the generational switch is well underway at the family estate, we can see that Gaia, Rossana and Giovanni have done him proud. Very proud. This stunning expression from the 2016 vintage (with 16,000 bottles released) represents quite a few celebratory milestones. We are now in the fifth generation to protect the Gaja legacy in an unbroken family chain that has endured since 1859. This wine is 100% Nebbiolo, and since the 2013 vintage, it is part of the Barolo DOCG appellation. Winemaking has been tweaked to embrace a more elegant, ethereal and streamlined personality, instead of the bigger extraction we saw in the past. This upgraded identity is distinctly evident in this newest release of Sperss. Starting with appearance, the wine is luminous and bright with shiny ruby and garnet gemstone. Its aromatic reach is three-dimensional with width, height and depth. Delicate berry tones cede to pressed lilac, anise, sandalwood and cardamom spice. I double decanted and left the bottle open for a few hours before my tasting. The results are tight and gentle, and the wine shows beautiful vertical lift and intensity. To achieve this much power without the excess fruit weight is really quite an accomplishment. This is the magic of Nebbiolo, and the magic of Gaja. 100 points


I have almost always tasted new releases of Gaja in person at the winery in the company of Gaia Gaja or someone else from her family. Obviously, these on-site visits offer a better opportunity to report findings, ask questions, make vineyard visits and collect all kinds of interesting news, facts and quotes. Because of COVID-19, I tasted these samples at home under ideal circumstances that allowed for consistency of serving temperatures, stemware and decanting. I was also able to spend more time with each bottle in front of my laptop to muse and reflect, and I returned to many of these wines over multiple days to chart their evolution. Tasting at home allowed me more time to revisit my notes and tweak my comments. This relaxed approach made this year's tasting of Barolo and Barbaresco one of the most enjoyable of my career, and one of the most beautiful wines discovered in this tasting of 900-plus samples is Gaja's 2016 Barolo Sperss.

2m 3d ago

 James Suckling., Wine Writer (United States)  tasted  15 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  25 wines 

Château Angelus 2018 / The aromas are incredibly complex with dark berries, elderberries, bay leaves, cloves and tile, follow through to a full body with layers of creamy and lightly dusty tannins that deliver a lingering finish and great attention to detail. The flavors range from black fruit to earth and stones. It’s reserved and poised with great intensity and power, in a toned and formed mode. One for the cellar. Try after 2026.
 

2m 15d ago

 Christer Byklum , Wine Writer (Norway)  tasted  3 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  22 wines 

1964 Chateau Latour;Dark ruby, brick rim. B/C level fill, soaked cork. Liquorice, sweet tobacco, hay, some blackcurrants, gorgeous nose, some ripe tannins still, fresh acidity, quite intence, extremelly complex, almost at such a degree, that you can't decipher it all, perfect structure, truly impressive, and exceptionaly long finish. 96

3m 3d ago

 Angelo Gaja  has updated producer and wine information

3m 7d ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Wine Writer (South Korea)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  47 wines 

Domaine Etienne Sauzet Montrachet Grand Cru 2017
Incredible intensity and depth in this Montrachet in 2017. Focused, complex with layers of toasted nuts, white flowers and lots of minerals. Wonderful example of this grand cru vineyard. The wine stands out as clearly the most complex and intense from Sauzet. From 50-60 year old vines; only 4 barrels made.


99 points

5m 4d ago

 Angelo Gaja  has updated producer and wine information

8m 10d ago

 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  13 wines 

DRC La Tâche 1955 / Decanted for one hour. Deep colour, already mature at the edges. Immensely aromatic, wild meaty bouquet that reached all corners of the nose. Intensive and rich on the palate. Delicate flavours of coffee, truffles and violets. Not very robust or multi-dimensional wine but has a lovely sweetness of soft tannins and fruit at the end. A very satisfactory Burgundy from this ordinary vintage.

1y 24d ago

 Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Wine Writer (South Korea)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  28 wines 

Vega Sicilia Unico 1942 / Lovely silky texture on this 72-year-old wine under its original cork. Dried autumn leaves accented with sweet oak and vanilla. Incredibly fresh and lively; impressive. Drink 2014-2023 97 points

1y 3m ago

 Julia Harding MW, Wine Writer (United Kingdom)  tasted  1 wines  from  Angelo Gaja . In a tasting of  21 wines 

Niepoort Vintage Port 2017 / All from Cima Corgo. All field blends, including Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Francisca, Tinta Amarela, Sousão, Tinta Roriz, etc, oldest vines 80–100 years. Any overripe grapes removed. 100% foot trodden with 100% stems. Press wine very important – like 'gold', says Niepoort. Not from all the vineyards just from his four favourite, eg Pisca. To be bottled June 2019.
Black cherry colour with narrow purple rim. Gorgeous pure hedgerow black fruit and no sense of the alcohol on the nose – it has been completely integrated with the fruit already. Ripe blackberry, elderberry and blackcurrant and a touch of spice, wild fruit. Incredibly intense on the palate but not showy and the tannins make it taste almost dry. Wonderful texture, great freshness, the tannins ‘sweep the sweetness out of the mouth’, as Mondavi once said to Niepoort. Incredible purity, freshness, intensity and harmony. I’ve put a start date of 2025 but this is ridiculously delicious now even though it clearly has massive potential longevity. An incredible dark, rocky purity with a long savoury finish, the fruit is intense but not ultra-fruity. This reminds me of the rocky Douro from which the wines come. Sheer beauty with hidden power. Glorious, very long, totally moreish even now.

1y 5m ago

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