Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Winery tour and Tasting with Angelo and Gaia Gaja: Decanter's Great Piemonte Reader Weekend

On Saturday we boarded the bus in front of our hotel and headed north.  Our destination? The Barbaresco winery of Angelo Gaja, the Piemontese winemaker credited by Wine Spectator with "driving Italian wine to higher ground."  This was the second stop on our Decanter Great Piemonte Reader Weekend which had kicked-off with a Truffle hunt and a winery tour at G.D. Vajra.

We were scheduled for a tour and tasting at the Gaja winery, followed by lunch at a nearby restaurant. We were told that Mr. Gaja would be our host on this tour but we were also warned that, this being harvest time, there was a possibility that he would be unable to meet that commitment.  In the event that he could not make it, his daughter, Gaia Gaja, would stand in his stead.  We had steeled ourselves for this possibility and let out a collective sigh of relief when we rolled up to this imposing, walled enclosure and the electronic gate was being operated by a slight-of-stature, distinguished-looking gentleman: Angelo Gaja.  He was here and we would be spending the next 5 hours in his company.  Heavenly.

We disembarked and he welcomed each of us with a broad smile and an effusive handshake.  We initially toured the courtyard of the winery while Mr. Gaja described the improvements that had been made to the winery and the surrounding vineyards since 1982.  Sometime during this courtyard discussion we were joined by Gaia Gaja.  While in the courtyard, Mr. Gaja pointed up to the tower on the hill and said that that was our final destination.  The tower had been purchased by Gaja several years ago and had been connected by an underground tunnel which had been dug meter by meter over many winters.  We stepped into the winery to begin our journey to the tower.

The first room that we entered was devoted to a collection of "unique" pieces of art and larger pieces were sprinkled throughout the winery.  As we wended our way through rooms with casks and barrels, Angelo kept up a steady stream of conversation on the winery and winemaking operations.

After a fairly extensive walk underground, we debouched onto the ground floor of the castle and then made our way outdoors into a trellised garden.  The trellises were bare, the result of a plant-stripping storm which had recently passed through the area.

Used with permission of Decanter

Used with permission of Decanter
This was definitely not a wine geeky tour.  Mr. Gaja spent a lot of time on the tradition and history of the winery, his philosophy, and the challenges of getting his vision implemented in a culture which values inertia.  After completing a tour of the castle and grounds, we made our way to a room which was set up for our tasting.

Used with permission of Decanter

The table below shows the totality of the wines produced by Gaja.  The actual tasting was drawn from the subset pictured below.

We were led in the tasting by Gaia Gaja.  The first wine tasted was the 1998 Alteni di Brassica in magnum.  This 100% Sauvignon Blanc wine is classified Langhe DOC and is sourced from a vineyard attached to the famed Sori San Lorenzo as well as the Sauvignon Blanc grapes planted in Sperss after its purchase in 1988.  According to Mr. Gaja, the Alteni di Brassica gets its high acidity from Sori San Lorenzo and its sweetness from Sperss.  The wine was fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and aged in barriques for 6 months.  The wines from the two vineyards are blended after aging.  This wine exhibited petrol, rust, and green phenols on the nose.  On the palate a hint of tannin accompanying medium+ acidity, minerality, and a long, spicy finish.

Next up was the 2009 Barbaresco DOCG in magnum.  According to Angelo, rain during this vintage caused a collapse of the surrounding hills.  Unfortunately this rain happened to coincide with flowering resulting in "more stems than berries."  It was hot during the summertime and ripening proceeded "beautifully" but "there was more skin than juice." This wine had ripe rhubarb and pomegranate on the nose along with tar.  A lean structure accompanying drying tannins on the palate.

The Sori Tildin 2001 magnum is classified Nebbiolo DOC and is 95% Nebbiolo and 5% Barbera.  According to Angelo, Sori means top of the hill facing the sun and this vineyard was purchased in 1964 by his grandfather.  It has historically been considered one of the best locations in Barbaresco.  The Barberesco soil, according to Angelo, is older and softer and softer soil yields a softer wine.  The soil is comprised of compact clay and limestone below a sandy top layer.  The vineyard is at 300 meters altitude and is always windy.  Dark fruit and licorice on the nose.  Elegance, acidity, balance, and length on the palate.

The Costa Russi 1998 was sourced from 70- to 80-year-old vines in the Costa Russi vineyard.  The vines are planted horizontally with densities of 4200 vines/ha with higher spacing between vines to compensate for higher humidity.  This wine is 95% Nebbiolo and 5% Barbera and is classified Langhe Nebbiolo DOC.  Blackberry and red fruits on the nose along with tar and a florality.  Ripe fruit and spiciness on the palate.  Drying tannins on a long finish.

The Sperss 1989 magnum is classified Barolo DOCG.  This vineyard was bought in 1988 according to Angelo, and has a lot more iron in the soil than any of the other vineyards. Wet wood and blood character along with a blueing on the nose.  Slight bitterness and heavy iron content on the palate.  Metallic tannin.

The 1978 Barbaresco DOCG showed its age in the color and exhibited a piney characteristic along with white spice on the nose.  Great weight on the palate, rust, dried fruits and a spiciness to go along with a long finish.

At the conslusion of the tasting we repaired to a nearby restaurant for lunch.

Used with permission of Decanter
Used with permission of Decanter

Angelo Gaja is an inveterate and accomplished storyteller.  From the moment we stepped off the bus until we re-embarked 5 hours later, our ears were his.  He told stories about the expansion of the winery over the years, the procurement and incorporation of the Barbaresco castle into the Gaja winery holdings, how he got his daughter to come home and join the family business, the family history, how he had moved Gaja from a local player to a worldwide power, what it means to be an artisan winemaker, and about the greatest wine he had ever drunk.  And we listened captivated and open-mouthed.  Where did the time go?

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. How can i get na appointment to visit Gaja Winery?


    1. Dante, Gaja does not provide tours to the general public.