There was a feeling of anticipation visiting Angelo Gaja in his home hill town of Barbaresco. Having admired his wines for over 30 years meant the final day. After all he is known as Mr Piedmont and Mr Barbaresco or this is how I would imagine it to be.
The company had also celebrated 150 years of establishment last year, yet the past three decades have really pasted the word GAJA on the foreheads of Italian wine lovers.
Harvest had just finished; no more nebbiolo for 2010, just long days of skin contact on the fermenting grapes and skins, malo-lactics and transfer to barrels underground (where it is now warmer) for the 2-3 year process to bottle.
Reflections of the 2010 vintage are positive. Except for the 30 percent loss of grapes from hail in June in Serrulunga vineyards, the crops have weathered the season well.
Some rains certainly fell during the ripening stages, but good grapes have resulted and the overall general result today is one of very good wine but not as concentrated as the highly pointed vintages of recent years. That was the impression Angelo Gaja gave me.
It seemed a bit surreal to talk about 2010 after 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 all so good, 2008 also outstanding, and 2009 not far behind. A stellar run for Piemonte, in part attributed to climate fluctuation.
During my drives around vineyards in the Barbaresco area most vineyards had harvested by the end of the first week of October; some vineyards were still exposing their fruit, but some light rain, the usual fog and lowering day temperatures curtailed any further delays.
“We first started to get an inkling about climate change with the 1997 harvest. There were four or five very hot days. By 2003 we had 10 very hot days during the harvest. Now by 2010 this confirms that we have to deal with this permanent change and understand what leads to concentration in our grapes. Vines dry grown can be both hungry and angry in these conditions,” Angelo explains.
He continues by describing the nebbiolo vine growing in Piemonte and the comparisons made with New World vineyards where applied irrigation becomes automatic.
“Water can have its problems, it’s important to be available. In 2010 we had good harmony, with grape colour well-formed, wines not highly concentrated but in balance. For over 200 years we have had the clay maintain the water supply in our soils, usual rain is 650-800 mm per year. In 2003 that fell to under 400 mm. With the slope of the hills the excess water runs off.” One by-product of global warming is a change in Gaja blends of nebbiolo to now include barbera, the grape carrying higher acidity than “neb”. The three single vineyard wines in Barbaresco now carry five percent barbera. In the La Morra, in the low part of the hill, in the Conteisa vineyard eight percent is used, and at Sperss high on the hill, six percent is blended.
I tasted three wines; one an international chardonnay, one Barbaresco, one Barolo.
Gaja Rossj Bass 2009 Langhe DOC is Chardonnay (90), USD 70, 14.5%, a monster chardonnay to smell from the charry oak intensity, though pale coloured, yet on palate great minerality and slatey acidity, a wine style to stand up to some time in bottle.
Gaja Barbaresco 2007, DOCG is Nebbiolo (93), USD 160,14%, really fine wine, usual cherry, brick colour, some flowers though not much, more an expression of aromatic nebbiolo, a background of oak cedar, then to the important part, the palate. This wine has great palate freshness for drinking now, long, fine tannins, fine acid and flavour sweetness. Drink now until 2012 as a young wine.
Gaja Sperss 1999, Langhe Nebbiolo DOC (96), USD 238, 14%, showing the tell-tale clear-orange edge of nebbiolo, brick and black at the depth; nose shows progressing maturity in the herbs, truffle, sweaty, still with aromatics and signs from barrel aging, palate superb, powdery and silky tannins, lovely maturity (drink 2015-2020 no trouble), yet very fresh, long final flavours, six per cent barbera.
Returning to the 1997 vintage, the first to herald that climate change was occurring, Angelo had some curt words for the scribes making predictions of vintages, 1997 in particular.
“1997 had concentration, from the hot and dry year, it was a small crop. The US writers were in conflict with the Europeans. The US scribes welcomed Sori San Lorenzo, the wine was bigger but approachable being the high points while the Europeans said it would not last. It was unusual but it did age well, and is looking very good now. The beauty of such a wine is that it is not aging quickly, unlike some Montalcino wine.”
Gaja has marvellous cellars; mainly under the Barbaresco town, and significant production from 100 hectares. The name was originally Spanish, from past conquistadores, and a slice of that bloodline has been retained in branding.
In 1977 Gaja established their own distribution in Italy, a very smart move. www.teraltowines.com/wines/italy/gaja
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