Written by Kerin O'Keefe

Gaja Barbaresco over four decades: 1961-2003

Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most charismatic and successful  winemakers, is credited not only with drawing Barbaresco out of obscurity but with triggering the quality revolution that pulled the country’s wine scene out of the doldrums. Yet while aficionados and pundits automatically associate Gaja with Italy’s modern winemaking movement and sleek single-vineyard bottlings, the great

© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961-2003 Gaja

Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most charismatic and successful  winemakers, is credited not only with drawing Barbaresco out of obscurity but with triggering the quality revolution that pulled the country’s wine scene out of the doldrums. Yet while aficionados and pundits automatically associate Gaja with Italy’s modern winemaking movement and sleek single-vineyard bottlings, the great aging potential of his wines should also be remembered.

Tasting through four decades of Gaja’s Barbaresco at an informal private tasting held for this author by Angelo and his daughter Gaia on January 12, 2007, at their cellars in Barbaresco was a chance to experience Italy’s quality metamorphosis at first hand. Changes and improvements in viticulture and vinification were subtle but unmistakable, while Gaja’s hallmark elegance was evident in every bottling, like a family resemblance.

© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961 1964 1967 Gaja
© Paolo Tenti | Barbaresco 1961-1964-1967 Gaja

Founded in 1859, the house of Gaja is the oldest winery in the denomination. Angelo’s father had already done a lot to raise the bar, including buying many of Barbaresco’s best vineyards, before Angelo, the fourth generation, took the reins in 1961, at only 21.

The tasting began with the Barbaresco of that same vintage, made then, as today, with Nebbiolo from 14 of the estate’s vineyards. Angelo’s first vintage was a Angelo Gaja with a bottle of his Barbaresco stellar year, but the young winemaker’s debut proved problematic because the extreme heat resulted in an exasperatingly long fermentation. Thankfully, only a tiny amount had been bottled before he realized that the fermentation had been incomplete, and he left the rest in wood for very long aging before bottling. Still dissatisfied, he initially refused to release the wine but decades later discovered
that it had aged majestically into a quintessential Barbaresco.

Gaja has always been at the cutting edge, and many of his innovations that seemed outrageous were soon copied throughout Italy. One of the pioneers of single-vineyard bottlings, Gaja’s seductive Sorì wines first appeared in 1970 with the 1967 vintage, and prices soared. After nearly ten years of experimenting, Gaja released his first barrique-aged Barbaresco in 1978, the same year that he planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the sacred heart of Nebbiolo country. He was also among the first, back in the 1960s, to advocate replanting at higher densities and pruning short to lower yields. Since 1978, the winery has replanted in rows running up and down the slope, not only to facilitate tractors but also to allow sun exposure on both sides of the rows in his south-facing vineyards. Replanting has been gradual, and the average age of the vines is now between 30 and 40 years old. Although Gaja has employed temperature-controlled fermentation since 1982, he previously resorted to more artisanal methods. These included bussing in blocks of ice from Alba’s slaughterhouse amid the skyrocketing temperatures in 1971, then
pumping the must through a hose that had been laid between them. Although this certainly raised eyebrows at the time, the tactic worked, since the wine still shows very well today.

Gaia Gaja
© Paolo Tenti | Gaia Gaja

While Gaja’s fans applaud his world-class wines, cynics often claim that his modern winemaking methods have changed the tipicità of his Nebbiolo. Yet these same critics often fail to note that Gaja persists with more traditional techniques whenever he thinks them worthwhile. He is among the few top producers in Italy who still resist selected yeasts for the alcoholic fermentation, except in very difficult years when, as a last resort, he will add a small amount of nutrients to feed the native yeasts. Gaja’s use of barriques has also come under fire by advocates of traditional Nebbiolo. But it should be pointed out that all his Nebbiolo wines are aged one year in barriques of various ages and one year in giant, perfectly maintained Slavonian casks that are, on average, 100 years old, so the new-wood sensations are minimal.

Starting with the 1996 vintage, Gaja pulled his single-vineyard Barbarescos (Sorì San Lorenzo, Sorì Tildin, and Costa Russi) out of the Barbaresco DOCG and into the less prestigious Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. This sent shock waves rippling throughout the wine world, amid speculation that he wanted to blend his beloved crus with less traditional grape varieties—strictly prohibited under the DOCG. Many quickly bemoaned the demise of Barbaresco. “I know what journalists and others in the industry have said and continue to say,” acknowledges Gaja. “But my decision was actually to support Barbaresco. My family has always made Barbaresco, but as the single-vineyard bottlings grew in prestige, our flagship wine was suddenly referred to as basic, or normale, and was considered inferior to the crus, which I never intended. My family has been making wine and striving for excellence for more than 150 years, and I don’t want anything we make to be considered ‘regular.’ So now I have only one Barbaresco.”

Because it is the firm’s historical wine, the following tasting focuses on Barbaresco but also includes four vintages of Sorì San Lorenzo for comparative purposes. All the bottles were opened up at 8:30am and the tasting ran from 10am until 3pm, to allow the wines to be retasted after evolving in the glass. It should be noted that while extraordinary in their own right, the single-vineyard bottlings, whether as DOCG or DOC, had very little effect on the quality of the Barbaresco, which overall has aged magnificently.

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