I had met Gaia Gaja twice before. The first time she was working the Gaja table at a tasting event swamped with what seemed like half the attendees in the room. Still she found a way to make a connection. The second time was with a small group at Bosk – Shangri-La Hotel
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Gaja owns 250 acres of vineyards in Barbaresco and Barolo. In 1994 they acquired Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino, Tuscany and in 1996 they added Ca’Marcanda in Bolgheri, Tuscany on the coast. The significance of this acquisition lies in the Bordeaux varieties grown there; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and especially Cabernet Franc. There will come a day, not so far away, when that Cabernet Franc will make some truly exceptional wine.
The Gaja brand, while nearly 155 years young, has recently climbed into a league of its own. To consider the wines, the estates and the aura that surrounds, you might think there was a marketing team of hundreds blanketing the earth. On the contrary. There is Gaia Gaja.
The wines made famous and expensive by Angelo Gaja define much of what the world knows and thinks about Italy and yet Gaia can talk about nothing but antiquity, historical culture, economy and social structure. She is proud of the UNESCO heritage designation for Barolo, Barbareso and Langhe. Her nostalgic, her family’s connectivity with place and her knowledge of vines is astounding. Gaia Gaja knows everything about Piemonte.
To Gaja, it is not simply a matter of vines, it is about the land with vines growing upon it. For the wines, lees contact is essential. “Four fingers of lees,” Gaia holds up her hand, “like red mayonnaise, after half the time they become dry and bitter. They are protectors and emulsifiers of the wine.”
Gaia speaks of biodiversity in the vineyard. She is responsible for experimentation, like seaweed treatments, essences and extracts, from garlic and rosemary. She believes in using grasses to suppress disease and mildew. These are the practices of an estate that commands designer prices for their labels. This is not a contradiction, it is a way of life.
The vineyard management is what protected Gaja from the most challenging of vintages in 2014. August temperatures of 17 degrees celsius and so much water wreaked havoc. Swelled but not diluted berries remained pure, with clarity and surprisingly good tannic structure, not to mention decent yields. “It’s all about vineyard management,” reminds Gaia Gaja.
Thanks must be afforded Robert Tomé and Tony Macchione of Stem Wine Group for allowing me the one-on-one time with Gaia. It will always be one of those hours I’ll not want to give back. Here are the five wines we tasted together.
Beginning with the 2005 vintage, the Gaja family changed direction with the production of this coalesced Brunello, made from fruit grown at Sugarille and Rennina (Santo Pietro, Castagno, and Pian dei Cerri) and Torrenieri, in the northeastern subzone of the appellation. This fifth meld in stylistic vicissitude is more relucent than the monochromatic coquette that was 2007. More than fruit, this has spice, liqueur and fennel. So much aniseed a biscotti might pour from the bottle. Smoothly textured with a middle grain fostered by more spice, out of wood and into a promising slow-simmered future. That liqueur just needs to become an aperitif. Give it five years to do so. Drink 2019-2025. Tasted October 2014
A blend of Merlot (50 per cent), Cabernet Sauvignon (25) and Cabernet Franc (25) with a bright future, a modest, diffident and anything but arrogant Bolgheri. Loam and clay-rich terre brune strike mineral, goudron and tar for a distinct Tuscan, not Bordeaux expression. Displays more earthy funk than the other Ca’marcandas (Promis and Camarcanda) and a chalkier, grainer texture. In the middle realm there is cool mint and eucalyptus, followed by more yucca grain, so in that sense this Bolgheri is tropical and exotic. Gaja encourages this wine to follow a vinous Piemontese dialect and yet speak of Maremma, all the while without conceit. In that it succeeds. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted October 2014
The Chardonnay (85 per cent) comes from the Rossj and Bass vineyards in Barbaresco and much of the Sauvignon Blanc (15 per cent) from Alteni di Brassica in Serralunga. The latter’s “little walls of yellow springtime flowers” are more than just a thought. Along with tall wind-blown grasses, the stone mineral and honey-florals are a major part of this neoteric and iconic to be white from Piedmont. Must say that Chardonnay is not the first thing that comes to mind. In terms of flesh, full-flavour and intensity of excavation, the Rossj Bass is like white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at least in aura and attitude. This will have a long life. That much is sure. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted October 2014
Nearly 15 years after Angelo Gaja acquired two old (Serralunga next to Sperss and La Morra to Conteisa) Gromis family vineyards, the 2009 vintage takes the Nebbiolo to a new modernity. Rich, bright and so very vivid, no longer controlled by the iron-rich, Tortonian-era clay and marl. Don’t misunderstand, this is still a meaty, smoky red with massive tannins that will take years to assimilate, but the texture is more like kaolin meets terra cotta, rigid but malleable. Has a taste of fennel and a smack of sultry savour. Serious Dagromis, albeit with softer features and hands. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted October 2014
Typically sourced from 14 vineyards in and around the village of Barbaresco, the estate bottling may not be the kind of rare, single-confluence testimonies that are Sori San Lorenzo, Sori Tildin and Costa Russi but it is undoubtedly Gaja’s iconic rock. Made from 100 per cent Nebbiolo (others include a few points of Barbera), separate Barbaresco lots are aged for one year in barriques (approx. 20 per cent new, with a balance in one and two year old casks). The 14 lots are then blended and racked to large Slavonian oak casks ranging in age from five to fifteen years. The understated character, delicate perfume, kind acidity and red fruit floral flavours define the vintage. The previous year was not so kind, cooler and fuller in body. The bolstered acidity will elevate with more buoyancy than ’11 even and what makes Gaia Gaja smile is the thought that this ’10 “smells like Barbaresco in the spring.” The drifts are like stretching roots and tubers and shoots, in an ethereal way, unlike Barolo. At this juncture the wine is such a baby, contemplative, self-reflective. The Burgundy bottle with the Bordelaise neck houses a Gaja Barbaresco to stand the test of time with some of the estate’s greats; 1961, 1971, 1978, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1996, 1998 and 2005. It will be 2020 or later before the ’10 can be assessed in such terms. Drink 2020-2035. Tasted October 2014
Good to go!