My first call in Barbaresco was to Gaja, hidden behind an extremely discreet entrance in the main street of the village. Through the door is a vast courtyard with the winery all around, and some years ago Angelo Gaja bought the old castle across the street, so he appropriately bestrides Barbaresco like a colossus. Last time I visited, I spent the morning with Angelo; this time I met with Gaia Gaja.
The unobtrusive entrance hides the presence of Piedmont’s top producer behind the doors.
She is just as enthusiastic about the Langhe as her father. “Finally winemaking in Italy is becoming unchained, today producers are making wine completely differently from the past. There is no other region like Langhe, with such consistent high quality. I think Piedmont is like it is because we had the confrontation between modernism and tradition, so we moved to cleanness, producers have a proper style, and now there is a new way of pushing the boundaries, to be more natural. Modernism helped the traditionalists even more than the modernists.”
How has the region been affected by climate change? “In the last fifteen years we have been changing a lot of things in the way we manage our vineyards and make our wine in the cellars. Each time we make a decision we think about climate change. Climate change is why we have more reliability today. In the seventies and eighties we were fighting to get alcohol, there was chaptalization even into the nineties. In the last ten years we’ve focused more on the vineyard, less on the oak.”
“Langhe farmers are very precise, grass has to be cut, the vines have to be without a leaf out of place, we have had to learn to be a bit wild. We let the grass grow and we don’t top the canopy any more. Now we twist the leaves at the top instead of cutting, so the plant stops making leaves. If we keep cutting, the plant keeps pushing back by making more leaves. We have been bringing down the height of the canopy because with extra brightness we don’t need so much canopy. In 2004 we changed the pruning system in all our vineyards to a modified Guyot. The transition caused a drop in yield while the plants adapted.”
“We don’t get any proper winters any more. We had 105 days without rain in the last winter. We always had to try to keep water out, but now we have to try to keep humidity in the soil. We have to switch. All the hot vintages in the past we thought to be the best. Today we can’t continue with this mindset. I feel that the cool vintages today are when we get the best balanced wines.”
Winemaking has also changed. “In the traditional way there was a lot of racking, the wine needed a lot of oxygen. Today we don’t need so much. We are changing everything in order to make the same wines.”
The big news of the week was that Gaja is returning to the Barbaresco DOC (with effect from the 2013 vintage). “When the Consorzio defined the regulations, Angelo wanted them to allow 5% of another indigenous variety; this was based on the history, and the view that it could not reduce quality.” When the Consorzio decreed that Barbaresco had to be 100% Nebbiolo, he simply labeled his wines as Langhe. “The news about our return to the Barbaresco DOC was read as a sign of generational change. I and my sister have a different perspective. We will never own his memories. We decided to go back to Nebbiolo at 100% because we would like to express things the way they are today in the Langhe. It’s true that Barbera gives density and juiciness as well as acidity—but Nebbiolo is more juicy today, it has sweeter and softer tannins; Barbera used to cut the tannins.”
“So the wines will taste a little different. What changes for me when there is a little Barbera is that you see it first and then at the end: first there’s a sense of freshness from the acidity, and then there’s more roundness. When it’s only Nebbiolo, it’s a purer expression, the wine gains in purity, it will be more vertical. Nebbiolo for me is a very discrete taste, that’s the beauty of Nebbiolo, you get a sense of cleanness.” What will you do with the unused Barbera grapes? “They’ve been sold in bulk so far, but we haven’t decided. I have already calculated the Barbera could make 7,000 bottles…”
Are your wines now more approachable earlier? “Some of our young wines are more approachable now than the wines of the eighties are today. We work to ensure the wines will age as long as they used to. Our objective is to make long lived wines. That’s been with Nebbiolo, but we can also express the personality of the Langhe in whites. No one knows, it is a pity, but there is an opportunity here for making very long aging white wine.”
Gaja is simply sui generis, not to be pigeonholed as modernist or traditionalist or any sort of –ist, but simply standing alone in the independence of his style. It seems that will continue under the next generation.