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.


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.










Profile of Domenico Clerico

Judging from the appearance of the winery, a post-modern building with something of the appearance of a flying saucer dominating the intersection of roads leading to Monforte, Domenico Clerico should be an arch modernist. Construction was started in 2007 and the wine has been made here since 2011. The building at ground level has a spacious tasting room, and the cellar extends three storeys underground.

One of the Barolo Boys, Domenico had various work experiences, including a period with olive oil, before he decided to join his father, who was a grower selling grapes to the coop. “The first revolution was in the vineyard when he introduced green harvest, while his father was away on holiday, and his father was not so happy when he counted his grapes. The second revolution was introducing new barriques in the cellar. After a few vintages, his father felt the wines were better and handed over the operation,” is how they now tell the story at the winery. As well as inheriting vineyards, Domenico bought some in 1982, 1990, and 1992. In 2006 he rented a vineyard in Serralunga. “If you love Barolo you have to love Serralunga,” says winemaker Oscar Arrivabene.

Clerico1Domenico Clerico’s new winery dominates the surrounding area.

Today there are ten wines: Dolcetto, Barbera, Langhe Nebbiolo (from a single vineyard), a Nebbiolo-Barbera blend, and six Barolos, which include one blend and five single vineyard wines. The Barolo tout court is a blend, and is aged in a mixture of French barriques and Solvenian botti. It is based on selection. “We taste from barrel. Everything that is ready to drink goes into the blended Barolo. Anything that is too oaky is discarded. The rest go into the single vineyard wines,” says Oscar .

From different parts of Monforte, Ciabot Mentin and Pajana come from Ginestra, Bricotto comes from Bussia, and Percristina comes from Mosconi. Aeroplanservaj comes from the vineyard in Serralunga. The single vineyard wines are aged for 24-30 months in barriques, with around 80% new, except for Percristina which then has an extra 24 months in Slovenian botti. Two Langhe wines, Capsime-e and Arte and effectively declassified from Barolo, although Arte also includes a small proportion of Barbera.

The style here is strong (you would expect no less from Monforte). This is most evident with the Ciabot Mentin, then the Aeroplanservaj—”The Serralunga tannins are special Serralunga gives an impression that the fruit is rounder, but it isn’t—it’s just that the tannins are different.” There’s a definite masculine impression reflecting the area. The wines are a very fine example of a modernist who has stayed true to  modernism.

When Modernism Becomes Tradition in Barolo: A Visit to Chiara Boschis

Right in the center of Barolo, the building looks a residence, too small to house a winery, but inside there’s a long garden running back, with cellars underneath, extended to two levels. From the garden you can see out over the hills around Barolo.

Boschis1The winery is behind and underneath an old building in beautiful downtown Barolo

Chiara was one of the “Barolo Boys” who revolutionized winemaking in Barolo in the eighties. “My generation had to face the problem of whether to sell the vineyards and abandon winemaking or to take it back. I was lucky that I was in a group of people who decided to make wine here, I was the youngest, and I was lucky to be included in the group. I was regarded as their mascot because I was the only woman,” Chiara recollects.

Chiara comes from a winemaking family who owned Borgogno, a large traditional producer. After working there with her brothers, she purchased the tiny estate of E. Pira, following the death of Luigi Pira in 1980. With under 5 ha, production was very small, not much over a thousand cases. In 2010 her brother Giorgio left Borgogno and joined her, and that gave them the resources to buy more vineyards, more or less doubling the size of the estate.

She’s definitely a modern winemaker. She started fighting with her father, doing green harvest at night to pass unnoticed, but anyway her father heard from other winemakers—“do you know what your daughter is up to?” She remains dedicated to organic viticulture, to the point of persuading all her neighbors in Cannubi to make the whole Cru organic (no mean feat in Piedmont!). Fermentation is in rotary fermenters and also conventional stainless steel vats, but maceration time has been extended recently, and is now about two weeks. Chiara has moved away from exclusive dependence on barriques, and the cellar also contains botti. “You can get too much taste of oak, this is why I have reduced new oak, today it is one third new, one third one year, and one third older.”

Boschis9Chiara now uses Botti as well as Barriques

Presently there are six wines: Barbera and Dolcetto, Langhe Nebbiolo (from the Barolo area), and three three Barolos—via Nuova, Mosconi, and Cannubi.All the Barolos used to be from single vineyards, but things changed generally after 2010. “After we bought more vineyards, it was possible to go back to the tradition of assemblage from different vineyards.” Via Nuova used to come from a single plot but lost its name after the classification, so now it is a blend from six small plots in three villages.

One of the most famous vineyards in the Barolo commune, Cannubi has the delicacy that comes from sandy terroir, and is matured half in barriques and half in botti. Mosconi comes from the recent purchase in 2010 of a 4 ha vineyard in Monforte; this gives a more powerful wine and is matured in barriques.

Cannubi is my favorite of Chiara’s Barolos, and a recent experience with an older vintage, the 2001, cast some light for me on modernism. Half of the bottle tasted immediately after opening was like a different wine from the other half tasted the following day. On opening, it was clearly the work of an arch modernist, showing lots of new oak with aromas of vanillin hiding the fruits, although the steely backbone was clear underneath. A day later, the wine reverted to classic type, showing a linear purity of sour red cherry fruits, and a crystalline elegance supported by fresh acidity. It should become increasingly elegant with age.

A sign that the style has backed off a bit in the past decade is that the same experience with the 2011 vintage at the winery in 2016 showed taut precision and freshness on opening, but a rounder impression with more sense of viscosity for a bottle that had been open for a day, suggesting the path of future development. A silky sheen was clear for both, with a sense of underlying minerality. From the Mosconi vineyard, the 40-year-old vines (her oldest) give a warmer, richer wine, firmer and more powerful than Cannubi.

Profile of Luciano Sandrone

“I believe that Luciano straddles the divide between modern and traditional in a way that no one else does. He’s constantly experimenting,” says Alan Manley, who has been at the Sandrone winery since 2008. Built in 1998, the winery has a group of quite spacious modern buildings around a courtyard, with a workmanlike interior sunk into the hillside. Although there are vines immediately around the winery, “this is not our vineyard, this is a horrible place for Nebbiolo, but many people are planting Nebbiolo in north-facing vineyards where Dolcetto used to be grown.”

Sandrone1The Sandrone winey is located just off the main road north of Barolo

Luciano Sandrone does not come from a wine family, but went to agrarian school, then started working at traditional producers. In 1977 he put his life savings into buying a piece of land that he heard was for sale at Cannubi Boschis. The first vintage was made in 1978 in his mother’s garage, and was only 1473 bottles. Everything developed from the sale of these bottles, when he met a distributor in 1982 who bought them all, and continued to be his export agent for the next twenty years.

Additional vineyards were added every few years, and today Sandrone produces five wines, all from estate grapes (including a small proportion of rented vineyards): Dolcetto and Barbera d’Alba, the Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore (the vineyard is just north of Alba), Barolo le Vigne, and Barolo Cannubi Boschis. Le Vigne is a blend from four vineyards in Barolo (all the holdings except for Cannubi). “Luciano wanted to make a top blend in the classic tradition.” It’s been made since 1990, although at that time it came from only two vineyards, and sources have changed over the years.

Vinification is very particular here, in stainless steel, although Luciano is experimenting with two wood fermenters. Luciano is fanatical about ensuring not only that indigenous yeast are used, but that every lot is fermented specifically by its own yeast, so every piece of equipment is sterilized between loads of grapes. Fermentation is started by using a pied de cuve (some grapes are selected from the vineyard about a week before harvest and allowed to start fermentation to form a starter colony). Everything goes into 500 liter tonneaux, about 20% new—“we do not use barriques. Pumpover, punchdown, or delestage are used according to what Luciano decides is appropriate for the year; that’s why he straddles modernism and traditionalism.” About 20% of the oak is new for the Barolos. Every tonneau is tasted separately; there is no second wine, as anything not of sufficient quality is sold off in bulk.

Sandrone7Only 500 liter tonneaux are used for vinification

I suppose I would call Sandrone a modernist because the wines are so smooth and elegant, with tannins completely mastered. The hallmark of the house is the exceedingly fine structure of the wine. The Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore is light and fragrant, Le Vigne is slower to develop but makes an elegant, savory impression, and Cannubi Boschis has that silky sheen of the top Barolos with lovely aromatics.

Tradition Lives in Barolo

Following a day visiting three “modernists,” where the hallmark was elegance and delicacy, I set out to visit three “traditionalists,” to see if I could define their common distinguishing feature.

Vietti is located in the heart—well really one might say at the top of—the hilltop town of Castiglione Falletto. Set in two buildings around a charming courtyard, the only place to build the winery is below, so it extends for three storeys underground. The oldest part is right up against the medieval town walls. The modern era at Vietti started when Sabino Vietti returned from the States to take over in the early twentieth century. Known as the “crazy Americano,” he had strange ideas such as buying land in other communes.

“We have always been known as a Barolo producer,’ says Elena Vietti, but Barbera is very important to us—we try to make extraordinary wines from the ordinary.” Some of Vietti’s vineyard sites in the Barolo DOC area that could be planted with Nebbiolo are planted with Barbera. La Crena comes from vines planted in the 1930s, and Scarrone Vigna Vecchia comes from vines more than 85 years old. Far from the rustic reputation of Barbera, these offer a creamy sophistication with deep flavors.

Vietti7A stainless steel vat stands in front of a window in the old fourteenth century walls in the Vietti cellars.

“We consider ourselves one of the most traditional wineries,” says Elena, “for example, in using very long maceration times, but many things that are modern are normal now. It’s not just about botti and barriques.” She describes Vietti’s philosophy. “So long as you do not impose your personality, so long as you respect the soil, it’s traditional.” Vietti has vineyards in 15 different areas, but produces one blended Barolo and four single vineyard wines. “It would be very complex to produce 15 different Crus.” All the wines are vinified by parcel, but after two years of maturation in botti, all except the single vineyard wines are selected either for the Barolo blend (called Castiglione) or are deselected into the Langhe Nebbiolo, which is effectively a second wine. Going up the line, the Lange is quite restrained, Castiglione shows more aromatic life and delicacy, and the single vineyard wines are yet more refined. There’s a lovely contrast with the Barbaresco, which has a more savory, earthy character. No argument here that traditional winemaking is representing the differences in terroir.

From Vietti’s terrace on one side of the valley, you can see across to Serralunga d’Alba on the other side, where my next visit was to Massolino, which is in full flight of expansion, with a large extension to the cellar, just being completed, looking over the valley from the edge of the town. “All our Barolos are aged in traditional large botti, with very neutral oak,” says Franco Massolino. Neutrality of the oak, which comes from Slovenia and Austria, is a major concern here. Wines are vinified in cement vats. “We did experiments with stainless steel and cement, we always preferred the cement, although it’s a very fine detail,” Franco explains. Vinification for the single vineyard wines is always exactly the same in order to bring out the differences in terroir.

Massolimo6Massolino’s new cellar contains both traditional botti and modern barriques.

The Barolo makes a classical impression with relatively light color and delicacy of expression. Then Margheria shows a little more intensity, a sort of silky sheen covering the palate. Coming from older vines, Parafaoa is deeper and velvety, a lovely balance between concentration and delicacy. Then Parussi shows more power and a more savory inclination. There is simply no mistaking the fact the terroir is the driving force, as the wines show the full range of Barolo, from subtle delicacy to smooth elegance, and each is quite distinctive.

There could scarcely be a greater difference between the snazzy modern cellars at Massolino and the old cellars of Guiseppe Mascarello, located by the railway station in Monchiero. “We are 3 km out of the Barolo DOC,” explains Elena Mascarello, “but we are a historic cellar, so we are authorized to make the wine here.” The building, a slightly dilapidated looking warehouse, dates from the second half of the eighteenth century, and Mascarello has been making wine here since the 1920s. Concrete or fiberglass tanks are used for vinification; everything is matured in rather old botti—there isn’t a barrique in the place.

Mascarello1I had to move my car to make way for a huge truck arriving at Mascarello.

The famous Monprivato, coming from a vineyard in Castiglione Falletto, is the biggest production here. Tasting the 2010, I was startled by how approachable it is already. I quizzed Elena as to why Monprivato today should be more approachable than it was when first produced in the 1970s, but it seems that whatever changes are responsible lie more in viticulture than vinification. Purity of fruits shines out, the tannic structure is very fine but somewhat hidden behind the fruits, and there’s a silky finish. Coming from what is surely one of the most traditional producers, this has none of the toughness of youth that you might think is the marker of tradition, and perhaps shows the greatest purity of fruit in my tastings so far. Roll on tradition.



Modernism Redux in Barolo

What does modernism mean to you? International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon? Powerful wines with dark colors and lots of extraction? Lots of new oak exposure? Well that is not at all the significance of modernism in Barolo.

In the 1980s when the “Barolo Boys” revolutionized Barolo, infighting between modernists and traditionalists was vicious to the point of destroying family relationships. I started my week in Barolo with visits to three arch-modernists, but nobody feels that modernism versus tradition is much of an issue any more. In fact, it seems that modernism has a rather different meaning in Barolo from what you might expect casually elsewhere in the world of wine.

“You have to remember what wine making was like in the seventies,” says Silvia Altare, whio has just taken over the Elio Altare winery from her father, one of the original Barolo Boys. “When my grandfather was making wine, there was no running water, there were chickens running about in the cellar, there was no hygiene, everything was filthy.” When Elio came into the winery and introduced green pruning, there was outrage because he was wasting the grapes. “Yields were 20 tons per hectare then,” says Silvia, “today they are 2-3 tons.” When Elio introduced barriques it was a scandal, especially because the only way he could remove the old foudres, which had been purpose built in the cellar, was to cut them up with a chain saw. His father did not speak to him for the next ten years. And then the use of rotary fermenters to get softer tannins was another scandal. When I visited a few years ago, Elio said that, “Everyone recognized Barolo because of its barnyard smell, and basically the typicity of Barolo was of flawed wine. I just adapted the methods that were being used in France to make great wines.” Burgundy was, and remains, the inspiration at Altare, Silvia explains.

RotaryThese rotary fermenters and barriques created a scandal when Elio Altare introduced them into Barolo

Today the common feature to Altare’s style is a silky smoothness, which increases going from the Langhe Nebbiolo (called Giarborina, it does not identify Nebbiolo on the label), to the Barolo (a blend from several vineyards) to the Cerretto single vineyard wine. Fruits are cut by a savory edge, the tannins get finer and silkier, and the fragrancy of the variety comes out more clearly along the line. The ultimate is the Unoperuno, which comes from the Arborino vineyard, but where the berries are selected by cutting off the bunch, one by one, in order to get absolutely perfect ripeness. “The difference is enormous,” Silvia says, although she wonders whether it’s really economic to achieve perfection at a cost that can’t be recouped by the price of the bottle.

Silvio Grasso is emphatically a small family winery, where the cellar work is handled by only four people, Federico Grasso and his wine Marilena, and their sons Paulo and Silvio. I tasted through the range from 2012 with Paolo. Barolo is about half of production. “We have one traditional Barolo,” he says, “matured in a larger vat, and five Barolos matured in barriques.” New oak usage depends on the year, but can be up to 80%. The traditional cuvée is Turnè, which shows a savory, almost savage, edge, with firm tannins on the finish. The Barolo tout court is a blend from several vineyards, matured in old barriques for 24 months, with smoother tannins than Turnè. This is a halfway house to the single vineyard wines, where I tasted Luciani and Manzoni, both vinified the same way in a mix of old and new barriques. Manzoni is actually a slightly warmer vineyard and the vines are older (planted in 1968 compared to 1982 for Luciani). The difference between the wines is striking. Luciani is the more powerful, with a richer palate, fruits more evident, and the perfume of Nebbiolo coming in at the end. Manzoni is more fragrant, the height of elegance on the palate, with the savory fruits making a delicate impression. I see more of a continuum along the range than a break between tradition and modernism. Paulo surprised me by saying, “Manzoni is our most modern wine.” At Silvio Grasso, “modernism” means increasing refinement. I have the impression that Luciani is the more popular wine, but for me, Manzoni captures the quintessence of Nebbiolo,

Roberto Voerzio was one of the Barolo Boys but his son Davide doesn’t think the distinction between modernism, and tradition means much today. “It’s better to speak about good wines and bad wines. There are two ways of making wines: the result of the fruit or made in the cellar, the results are different. Even if people think we belong in the modern group, we work in a way that is very traditional, the only modern thing here is the barrique, but it’s a very soft use, we have never used 100% new oak, we have never been against using big casks. For us the kind of wood we use is not important. We’ve been making wine in the same style for thirty years, we like a pure expression of terroir and vintage.” In fact, five of the Barolo Crus are aged half in barriques and half in large casks; two are aged only in barriques because quantities are too small to use large casks. For all Voerzio’s reputation as an arch-modernist, I was under no doubt tasting the wines that they capture both terroir and vintage, with Rocche dell’Annunziato conveying a strong mineral impression of precision, Brunate showing as sleeker, and the latest cuvée, the Reserva 10 Anni from Fossatti Case Nere in 2004 showing a powerful character with breadth of flavors. Roll on modernism!