A Visit with the Rocca Family in Barbaresco

The Roccas have owned land in Barbaresco since 1834, but today’s winery is a story of the last three generations. The winery is a modest-looking group of buildings off the road about a kilometer from Barbaresco, in the Rabajà Cru. Built around a courtyard and larger than is apparent, there’s a splendid terrace behind the buildings with a view right across the vineyards. Standing on the terrace, you feel the microclimate of Rabajà in the wind that is channeled across the vineyard by two hills. Underneath the buildings, the modern cellar is in three storeys, built into the hillside in 2008 to allow wine to be moved by gravity. “The library is now where my father used to park the tractor,” says Luisa Rocca.

Rocca1The family dog was defending the Rocca winery when I arrived

The land here was bought in the fifties by Francesco Rocca. “The grapes were already known to be good, but 1 km at that time was a long way from the center. “Grandfather used to sell the grapes in Alba every year, and the first and easiest grapes to sell were always those from Rabajà,” says Luisa. The winery started in 1978 when Francesco’s son Bruno started estate bottling. His children, Francesco and Luisa are now involved, Francesco with winemaking and Luisa with marketing.

This is very much a family affair—”there is no consultant, the wines are made by Bruno and Francesco,” says Luisa. The wines include, Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, Chardonnay, Nebbiolo d’Alba, and several Barbarescos. The general Barbaresco blend comes from young vines (although not the youngest, from three vineyards in the Neive area). Coparosa comes from two vineyards (one in Neive and one in Treiso), but 2013 is the last vintage because the lease on one of the vintages expired. Maria Adelaide is a selection from several vineyards. Rabajà is the leading single vineyard wine. The Currà Riserva will be added with the 2012 vintage. “This is important because it’s different from Rabajà, which is powerful and rich, but Currà is elegant and feminine. It’s the first Riserva we will make and it’s Francesco’s project so it symbolizes the passing of the generations,” says Luisa.

Winemaking is very particular here, focused on a natural approach to highlight elegance. Fermentation uses yeast which were isolated from the Rabajà vineyard in a four year project. The grapes are broken very gently by using vibration in an interesting looking machine that also selects the berries. “I don’t want to crush the bunches, I would rather do more pump-over than crush, says Francesco. Carbon dioxide is used during sorting and crushing to minimize the need for SO2. “We use very gentle fermentation (in a mix of conventional vats and some rotary fermenters),  I’m looking for elegance and balance not power.” Barbera is matured entirely in barriques, the Barbarescos also in barriques, Rabajà spends one year in barrique and one year in cask, and the Currà Riserva spends three years in large casks,” because the barriques made it too fat, we were looking for elegance.” The minimum age for the oak is 14 years—”We prefer wood that doesn’t add anything to the wine. You need old wood with not too much toast.”

The Roccas do not consider themselves modern. “I consider modernists are people who make wine in the laboratory,” says Luisa, “traditionalists are people who make wine in the vineyard.” Yet the wines are very approachable. Bruno is not patient, say Francesco and Luisa, he has always made wines more on the approachable side. “We don’t believe that lots of tannins necessarily mean the wine will age well. When you use more extraction you have a wine that is more powerful and richer, but not elegant.” Bruno describes his approach as, “Our philosophy has become much more focused on the terroir. In the past we couldn’t do this because of the limitations of the winery. Now that the next generation are interested, we can make more investments, and we plan to move to 100% single vineyards.” The style here is very fine, from the lightest Barbaresco to the weighty Rabajà, there’s a sense of extremely finely textured tannins, silky, but always ending in an impression of finesse.

 

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A Visit with Gaia Gaja

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.

Gaja1

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.