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Gaja: Why I’ve been underrating these wines for years

by Anneka Swann (Private & On Trade Sales)

I’ve always known the name Gaja, at least in my ‘wine life.’ The first ‘fine’ wines I remember tasting were a Sassicaia 1998 and a Gaja Sperss 1998, served by a restaurant owner, shortly after their release. I remember the black and white labels, the brightness of the wine that stood up to the iconic Sassicaia with brighter fruit and intense concentration. Years later, I found myself in Mayfair at Cecconi’s celebrating a trade with an insurance broker friend from the US. Again, the black and white-labelled Gaja came out. This time, far more engaged, I wondered why I only ever drank this wine in great restaurants, as I was still beguiled by its energy (and so we ordered our fourth bottle). When the opportunity arose for me to meet the Gaja family, I was first in the office to volunteer for the 6:30am flight to Milan and subsequent drive into the hills of the Langhe.

My questions: why don’t I drink Gaja all the time? Why don’t I fill my clients’ cellars and my own? Why isn’t it in my portfolio? In my collection? Filling my #finewine feed? My first thought when it comes to Italian wine? And of course – does it justify its price?

As I stepped out of the taxi, waiting to join the rest of the group, a middle aged man in multi-coloured plastic-framed glasses was introduced as Angelo Gaja by his charismatic daughter Gaia Gaja. I was taken aback to find these demi-gods walking on mortal pavements (albeit cobblestoned) in the small village of Barbaresco.

At lunch, Angelo explained a little about his history – the Gaia e Rey estate began in the 1850s, with a tavern to distribute their wines, and continued to be successful thanks in part to Angelo’s great-grandmother, who encouraged significant vineyard purchases after WWII, when most of the country was in poverty. She also believed in maintaining high quality wines, with prices they deserve. She is honoured with the Gaja e Rey cuvee, after her maiden name.

 However, it was in the reign of Angelo that Gaja became something truly special. It turns out in spite of the trendy glasses, Angelo isn’t middle aged at all, but rather 79! Before he began at Gaja in 1961, he studied wine in Alba and Montpellier, before travelling throughout France looking for ways to enhance Barbaresco’s reputation – always rather secondary to the fame of Barolo, lacking as it was the historic connection to nobility. Rather, Angelo’s father always told him how important it was to put his wines into restaurant lists to increase their fame – a tradition which remains important to the family to this day, and explains why so little is found in personal cellars.

 At this point in the story Angelo stopped to encourage us to eat our handmade pasta and to taste the 2016 Barbaresco, from the greatest vintage possibly yet, similar to the 2001 vintage, but as he explained with 15 years more experience.

Gaja Barbaresco 2016The wine had a youthful red colour, with a soft dusty bouquet of oxidative and wood notes, yet neither was overbearing. The fruit was sweet, and palate structured with high acidity, revealing a purity of fruit and fineness of tannins. The wine is elegant yet those tannins give structure, insinuating a long finish not just in the palate but also in the cellar. ***** AS

Angelo argued with his father over everything else: he began the process of green harvesting (making the yield smaller to increase concentration, in spite of a resulting smaller crop), introduced Malolactic fermentation to Piemonte (a process that softens acidity while stabilising the wine), and experimentation with new French barriques, though always moderated by the use of Botti, old oak, and Slovenian oak. However, it was his introduction of Single Vineyards, starting with Sori San Lorenzo in 1969, that changed Barbaresco’s landscape forever.

Single Vineyards, all 100% nebbiolo since 2013

Sori San Lorenzo – From vines located near the river, resulting in more heat, but also more fungal diseases. The diurnal range (wine speak for temperature difference between day and night) promotes aromatics, while the lighter soil with more limestone results in thicker skins for a wilder wine. This has the most personality and, according to Angelo, “taste of the trunk,” with tannins, intensity, and a citronella aroma.  The 2015 holds great structure even in a warm vintage such as this – the wines are sweet and astringent, with incredible concentration.

Sori Tildin – This is the top of the hill, where it faces sun, and is so exposed it does best in cooler vintages.  Less clay, and more sand, give riper, more perfumed aromas, with sweet vanilla and plum and Mediterranean bushes. This is the most rounded and fruity single vineyard. The 2015 also displayed notes of leather, wood and soil.

Costa Russi – Or the ‘slope of ashes’, is the oldest vineyard, with its southwest facing slopes creating more wood characteristics and riper fruit. The tannins are high, with crunchy bright red fruit, marjoram, thyme, herbal and earthy notes. This is the most elegant of the single vineyard sites.

Angelo’s introduction of French grape varieties was almost the last straw.

1986 Darmagi Langhe DOPCalled “Darmagi” or “Shame!” this Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Merlot and Cab Franc is planted on what could be a great Nebbiolo vineyard (what a shame, Angelo’s father said) – but instead produces a ripe, yet still herbaceous, and incredibly complex Cabernet Sauvignon more reminiscent of a Cabernet Sauvignon from France than Italy or the new world, thanks to its subtle cedar notes, combined with an incredible power. It is drinking incredibly well 33 years on.  **** AS

Angelo’s new temperature-controlled equipment not only made more dependable fermentations, but also allowed incredible white wines from international varieties, such as those from Burgundy and the Loire, which truly compete with those wines of origin.

Gaia e Rey Chardonnay 2017Always a favourite of mine because there are so few truly premium Chardonnays in Italy and Angelo’s was one of, if not the, first. Planted on north-facing slopes where nebbiolo is forbidden, the chardonnay maintains acidity while embracing the winemaker’s notes of cream and smoke, alongside peaches, white flowers, and citrus.

In the evening, we had dinner with today’s generation of the Gaja family – executor Gaia with her younger siblings and energetic little dog. Starters included mozzarella, made in front of us and served warm, while we sipped on a golden yellow white wine in the courtyard of the estate.

Gaja Rossj-Bass 2018, a peachy 95% Chardonnay grown since the 1980s. The 5% Sauvignon Blanc lends extra aromatic lift without any green notes. The wine is surprisingly easy to drink, considering its complexity, with honey and citrus notes adding to the stone fruit character. ***AS

Afterward began the excesses of Piemontese cuisine, courses after courses of beautifully barbecued meat. The first course began with the star of the night:

1986 Alteni di Brassica – On pouring, a bright lemon yellow. You may ask yourself, 88 not 2018? Isn’t this the Sauvignon Blanc? Yes, with herbaceous aromas now tamed by mild oxidative notes of smoke and hay, yet still fresh, with bright lemon citrus, notes of orange and honey, and herbs. Incredibly fresh, with refined acidity which has made this wine not just suitable, but incredible for drinking for 30 years. *****AS

And then pork chops served with the 2001 Barbaresco, no doubt to show us a possible evolutionary pattern of the 2016 – but with increased skills in both the vineyard and winemaking.

2001 Gaja BarbarescoConcentrated red cherries and strawberries, sweet spices, vanilla, cloves, star anise, cigar and smoke on the nose with a distinctly medicinal and herbal note. Subtle notes of leather, cedar, and tobacco only hint at its age. The palate is mineral-driven, elegant, with fine, yet softened tannins, and a racing acidity. This wine is a stiletto heel – it’s pretty yet incredibly powerful; elegance and grace with a sweet and sour vivacity. *****AS

Gaja grappa and gelato finished an exceptional night as Gaia told me about their work in other areas, including the Super Tuscan Ca’Marcanda, and a new property in Etna making mainly Caricante and a tiny amount of Nerello Mascalese with a local producer. One of Angelo’s biggest regrets is not agreeing to work with Robert Mondavi when approached decades ago - “Like an elephant having sex with a mosquito” he often quips. Yet today, it is clear they have the confidence they once lacked. In the 19th Century, studies of Nebbiolo by Domizio Cavazza, Founder of the Alba School of Oenology, concluded Barbaresco to have the most suitable microclimate to make great wines. The Gaja family embrace this today by focusing on biodiversity in the vineyards, growing hay and flowers between the vines, and use of the most fantastic, nutty, complex, earthy pungent manure to fertilise. While Angelo may have changed Barbaresco, do not underestimate the power that his charismatic, ambitious, and intelligent proteges will continue.

My conclusion: We do not really know the wines of Gaja simply because the family are a bit mad. They concentrated on restaurants for over a century. They are based in Barbaresco instead of the aristocratic but perhaps less suitable Barolo. They break the rules. They make changes. They respect the past. They are aware of climate change. They don’t have a website. They don’t have Instagram. They didn’t take visitors. They just want to make the best wines possible.

Good news: The new generation are ready to show off. They’ve got a new importer, have opened the winery to visitors for charity (and in doing so have raised over a million euro for a local children’s charity), and have sent me to you as messenger. The Gaja wines are damn good. And they are missing from all of our cellars.

Having followed COVID-19 Government advice, we have temporarily closed our London office until further notice, we are however operating as normal. Click here to read more