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.










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!