There is nothing like seeing a wine region to understand what it is all about. This fact was abundantly clear one bright Wednesday morning, as three of us stood on a Juliet balcony at the Gaja estate in Barbaresco, overlooking softly rolling hills.
My husband and I have come expecting to taste delicious wines from one of the world’s most iconic producers. We got the added bonus of a tour from Sara Cabrele, assistant to Angelo Gaja, who is deeply knowledgeable about the region, its grapes, and how the estate fits into this landscape.
We are looking down on a hillside lush with nebbiolo vines and bordered by a (currently rather low) river. Sara points out that this is what makes Barbaresco wines unique: the town is basically surrounded by water. It provides a moderating effect on the area’s vineyards, creating wines that are soft and elegant.
Nearby Barolo, on the other hand, doesn’t have this influence. Their wines are bigger and more robust, the “kings” to Barbaresco’s “queens.”
She also points out a vineyard one hill over that is planted vertically, not the typical horizontal style. It’s a Gaja innovation – the vines can be spaced closer together, Sara tells us, and the grapes are put at a different angle to the sun.
In addition, we see a few Cypress trees planted among the vineyards – a sight more common in Tuscany than Piedmont. Those, Sara says, are simply to provide nesting places for small birds – and a safe space from the larger, predatory ones!
The Gaja family settled in Piedmont in the mid-17th century, establishing the winery in 1859. They have long been a force in the region, focusing on quality, bottling only the best vintages, and putting Barbaresco on the map.
In the mid-1900s, the family purchased several vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco, and became one of the first to do single-vineyard bottling. By the end of the century, their holdings expanded to include vineyards in the Montalcino and Bolgheri regions of Tuscany. More recently (as in, earlier this year) they formed a joint venture to purchase vineyards in Sicily.
It’s quite the range, and we sit down with Sara to taste several of their offerings.
Gaia & Rey 2015 Chardonnay: It’s probably no surprise that Gaja was the first to plant chardonnay in Piedmont, in 1979. It follows that this was their first white wine, originally released in 1983.
The wine we taste is from a warm, dry vintage, barrel fermented and aged for just 7-8 months. It is full with notes of lemon, cream, salt and mineral, with a slightly almond finish.
Barbaresco 2013: This is the seminal Gaja wine, made with fruit from 14 different plots of grapes. The first sips were a little rough – there are a lot of tannins here – but everything smoothed out fairly quickly. There were notes of blackberry, bramble, and bright cherry. This wine also had a little bite at the end.
Darmagi 2005: In the Piedmont dialect, Darmagi means “too bad” or “what a pity.” The wine is 95% cabernet sauvignon, made from grapes planted by Angelo in 1978. However, the vines were planted on the sly, while his father Giovanni was away. So you can imagine his response upon returning to find prime nebbiolo land planted with…not nebbiolo.
At any rate, I found this wine to be a little tannic and closed; this is definitely a wine that needs time. (And it’s already 12 years old!!!)
Sugarille 2011: This wine took us on a detour to Tuscany: it’s 100% sangiovese from their Brunello de Montalcino site. It was lighter in feel than the two previous reds, with notes of tomato, red fruit and peppery spice. And yet, it was more tannic than I’d expected…the Gaja influence at work!
Sori San Lorenzo 1998: This glass brought us back to Barbaresco – and took us back in time. This was Gaja’s first foray into single vineyard wine – the first vintage was 1967.
For a long time, it was bottled as Barbaresco (i.e., 100% nebbiolo), but in recent years, they’ve decided to add a little barbera to the mix, so the wine today has a Lange appellation.
As such, this bottle is 5% barbera. Its aromas are dark and dusky – think purple fruit, minerals and spice notes that were mirrored on the palate. Husband and I disagreed if the wine was ready to drink, or needed more time. Hmmmm…
Time was actually what struck me about all these wines. That they need time after bottling, from a few months to a few years, to come together. That they will age beautifully over time – yes, even the white wines. And that these wines are reflective of Barbaresco, where wine is a way of life, and life moves at its own pace.
Yeah, that’s what it’s all about.