The drive from Milan to Piedmont, is one landscaped by kiwi fields and the region’s famous hazelnuts. Castles loom with quiet grandeur in the distance, juxtaposed by gradations of industrial activity. The factories slowly fade out, giving way to the surreal sight of snowcapped vineyards speckled across the hillsides of Langhe. The anticipation builds, as we whiz along the winding roads to arrive at our final destination: Barbaresco, home of Gaja’s elusive winery.
For oenophiles and connoisseurs, Gaja is a name which needs little introduction, synonymous with the grandest wines in the world, chief among them – Barbaresco.
The entrance to Gaja’s winery – situated along the main street of Barbaresco – is rather unassuming in comparison. It’s a subtle nod to the more humble beginnings of – what remains at heart – a family business founded in 1859, when Giovanni Gaja turned his tavern into a winery. In doing so, he sparked a series of events which would elevate Barbaresco, lifting it from the shadows of neighbouring Barolo.
While both areas have long-since produced potent red wines made from tannic nebbiolo grapes, Barolo has historically had a richer reputation courtesy of royal patronage. Gaja coming into the picture finally shone a light on the ethereal elegance of Barbaresco wine, with the winery gradually gaining prominence for its three “crus” from single-vineyard Barbarescos – Sorì San Lorenzo, Sorì Tildìn and Costa Russi.
In an iconic move, GAJA was lettered onto the winery’s labels in 1937. In time, the emboldened typeface would become symbolic of the stature of Gaja’s wines, steeped in pricing reflective of an unequivocal focus on quality. In the past, the winery has even declassified and sold off bulk vintages which fell short of its high standards!
Over the decades, the family has also underwritten pivotal shifts in the cultivation, production and even distribution of Italian wines.
The trailblazing vision of fourth-generation Angelo Gaja has been particularly instrumental in channelling modern practices to both the vineyards and cellars – from higher-density planting, malolactic fermentation and green harvesting, to planting international grapes (such as cabarnet sauvignon and chardonnay) in Piedmont – a controversial move at the time!
Angelo’s bullish vision has also led to the family expanding beyond Piedmont. Gaja now produces the four great Italian red wines – Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Bolgheri (the region of the Super Tuscans) and yes, even Barolo! In a pioneering move, the family will soon be making volcanic wine on the southwest slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily, too.
We walk through the Barbaresco vineyards on a surprisingly sunny February morning. While climate change has perversely facilitated more consistent vintages relative to before, it’s meant that pests and risk of disease are greater. The winery is meeting these challenges head on, with a shift towards natural vegetation and sustainable practices built on giving back to the soil.
Back at Gaja’s bucolic HQ, housed within a 16th century castle, we indulge in an elevated wine tasting, including samples of the 2016 vintage of Barbaresco and Barolo (unreleased at the time of writing).
If you’re wondering about the nuanced differences between the two wines (given their close proximity and shared use of the nebbiolo grape), Barbaresco is less tannic than Barolo as it has more nutrient-rich soils. Barbaresco is aged for twelve months in barrels before undergoing blending and maturing for an another twelve months in large oak casks. Meanwhile, Barolo has a longer ageing process, spanning 30 months and culminating in fermentation in large steel tanks.
Both wines are magnificent – eminently-elegant, suffused with a sybaritic softness that delivers a lingering finish. Each also has its own complexity of character.
Barbaresco is a touch sweeter with fragrant, almost balsamic hints of rose petals and violets balanced by a scintilla of spice. Produced from two single vineyards, Gaja’s Barolo has a more potent depth, manifesting in an intensely-red colour matched by vivid aromas of cherries, red fruit and wild berries; and tempered by notes of truffle, mushrooms and wood!
I should mention that we are in the congenial company of the fifth-generation Giovanni Gaja, whom I first met while he was doing an apprenticeship with a wine distributor in London. Having worked in the cosmopolitan cities of New York and Milan as well, he is now back in the family fold to carry on the torch with his two elder sisters, Gaia and Rosella.
Conversation is as free-flowing as the wine and it’s but natural that at some point, we find ourselves picking up our wine bottles and walking over to the neighbouring trattoria, Antica Torre (named after the medieval tower standing guard over Barbaresco) to continue swapping stories and foodie recommendations over a languorous lunch. As it turns out- the only thing better than a glass of Gaja’s Dagromis Barolo, is a glass paired with a plate of tajarin – long, thin strands of Piemontese pasta, rich in its use of egg yolks!
It’s been an afternoon contentedly well spent indeed.
More from our Italy diaries, here.