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Vintage Report 2023

The 2023 vintage has been showing common characteristics throughout all of our wine-growing areas in both Piedmont and Tuscany: initial growth production was abundant, then we experienced losses due to downy mildew and sunburn. We had a late harvest everywhere, and was completed without rush since we had summer-like days throughout October. Climactic conditions allowed us to leave the grapes on the vines until complete phenolic maturation. Fermentation was normal and quick for all varieties due to the lower presence of potassium and of higher nitrogen. The alcohol levels are low and the acidity is high, the ripe and thick skins require longer maceration times and promise good final complexity in the wines.

 

2023 is an outstanding vintage for Bolgheri with a very high quality average. We are also satisfied with the final production, 15% more abundant than in 2022, not because of a higher grape bunch per plant but due to larger grape bunch sizes. It’s not a vintage in the opulent classic style of Bolgheri, but it very much reflects our taste and style. The wines have a marked elegance and a positive, higher than expected acidity. The aromas are floral rather than fruity or spicy and there is excellent structure, low alcohol and sweet tannins, all of which maintain a very elegant profile of the wines. The frequent rains required a lot of work in the vineyards to protect the vines from fungal diseases but the results were excellent. The rains also caused a delay in ripening, but good weather in September and the late harvest brought each variety to a slow and excellent maturation.

The winter, mild and rainy from October to January, favored good soil vigor and softness. From mid-January to mid-February the temperatures dropped, reaching night lows of 2°C below zero, useful for slowing down both the grassing and the re-awakening of the vines. In March the temperatures rose back to the seasonal averages (lows of 6-7°C and highs of 22-23°C) and in the first ten days of April budding began, very homogeneous across all varieties, with the development of good quantities of grape bunches.

May 2nd it began raining with incredible diligence for 34 out of 40 days between May and June. The constantly moist soil and vine leaves were an ideal environment for the development of downy mildew, and managing the fungus was very difficult. Timeliness and team availability to operate at any given time and day was crucial. Despite the pressure of fungal diseases, we have not suffered any production losses, except for some leaf damage in the vineyards closest to the forest or in the lower valleys.
Yet thanks to the rains, the vines did not suffer any water stress and the canopies remained lush and green throughout the season.

July was dry and hot, August began with average temperatures with good diurnal ranges between day and night. Four extremely hot days at mid-month, with temperatures reaching 42°C degrees, inevitably caused sunburn on the exposed grapes that weren’t protected by the leaves. The damage was minimal and was removed by cleaning the grape bunches. Luckily, the heat ended with a storm that dropped 90 mm of water drastically lowering the temperatures to 22°C.
September was hot, with significant diurnal variations from 13°C at night to 27°C during the day. The sun continued to be very strong and temperatures remained high throughout the month.

The harvest of white grapes began on August 20th, first with Viognier and ended on September 10th with Fiano. For the red grapes, the first Merlot vineyard was harvested on September 6th, and on September 20th we started with Cabernet Franc. We waited until the beginning of October for the phenolic maturation to complete for Cabernet Sauvignon, and concluded the harvest within 10 days. It was a calm harvest, managed with good timing and without the usual concern of excess sugar accumulation or storms. The grapes had optimal ripeness levels and the quality of the fruit was excellent.

 

A first look at this year’s vintage in the Langhe

Between the initial drought and the assiduous rains from May to July, episodes of hail and sunburn, managing the vineyards was incredibly complex, long and tiring – but very satisfying.

​It was a late harvest with medium/abundant yields. The grapes showed high levels of malic acid and moderate sugar levels. In general, fermentation was normal and occurred quickly. The whites have exceptional freshness and aromas, the reds have delicate tannins, an elegant structure and a complexity developed over time because of prolonged macerations which were very important this year due to ripe and thick skins.

Vintage Report 2022

The 2022 vintage was characterized by a constant, wide drought and by an increase in heat in both Piedmont and in Tuscany: compared to the average, we recorded 80-95% lower winter rainfall and much higher temperatures from mid-April through the end of the harvest. In the last 40 years we have observed a constant rise in temperatures and irregular rainfall patterns demonstrating ever more drastic climatic changes.

These conditions also occurred during the 2022 vintage, confirming they are no longer an exception, instead they are becoming the new norm. Faced with factors that cause enormous stress for the vines, proper soil management plays an extraordinary role in compensating for water shortages and increasing plant resilience. Despite the extreme conditions, and beyond all expectations, we were positively surprised by the quality of the grapes.

Our vines have shown extraordinary adaptability. Paradoxically, the previous drought of 2021 seems to have strengthened vine resilience and has allowed them to better manage the stress throughout the year. The aromatic quality, acidity and ripeness of the grapes were not compromised; the grapes were perfectly healthy and were without burning or wrinkling, which occurs more frequently in very hot years. In general, the quality is unquestionably good. On the other hand, quantity was compromised: small clusters, thicker skins and limited grape must led to a 35% drop in production in the localities of Barolo and Barbaresco, 25% less in Bolgheri and 15% less in Montalcino.

 

 

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 273 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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