Decanter’s Andrew Jefford: Forward in Doubt
Andrew Jefford joins Gaia Gaja plus dog on a tour of the company’s vineyards – and discovers the Gaja way of thinking en route.
Gaia Gaja in the vineyards. Credit: Andrew Jefford
Back in mid-June, on a typically warm and humid Langhe morning, I visited the key Gaja vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco with Gaia Gaja – and Bris, her small, inquisitive lap dog. Gaja vineyard practices have changed radically over the last decade, but Gaia’s insights also helped me understand the challenges presented by a change of generation – in this case, as two daughters (Gaia and her younger sister Rossana) and their younger brother Giovanni slowly take over from their dauntingly successful and innovative father. Giovanni is working in New York at present, while Gaia describes herself as “the ministry of external affairs” and her sister as “the ministry of internal affairs”.
Around 1997, Gaia says, the family realised that global warming meant that “we had to change something in the vineyard.” The traditional Langhe quest for ripeness was no longer an imperative: it was coming more easily, even (on occasion) to the point of jamminess. “Weird things were happening in the vineyards. Suddenly we realised we had to protect the acidity and the drinkability, which meant reconsidering all our way of working.”
High inter-row plantings in Gaja vineyards. Credit: Andrew Jefford
There were three main challenges: the first was to moderate plant vigour, the second to prevent erosion, and the third to work on improving the organic matter in the soil. In quest of these goals, Gaia wanted the company to switch to biodynamic cultivation. She suggested this to her father. “He thought about it. He said ‘No. That’s not the way to go.’ I was disappointed; he crushed my dream. ‘You have to do something different,’ he said, ‘something that is yours. If we do biodynamics, we do what everyone else is doing.’”
This approach, it emerged in talking to Gaia, is fundamental to her father’s life’s work — and chimes with the Piemontese way of thinking. “Like most of the people in Piemonte, we’re not naturally people who open the door and sit around a bit table and discuss. We’re all quite closed. We do things in our own way.”
Angelo Gaja, it would seem, almost obsessively so. “I have been working with my father for 12 years now. He has always been very proud and protected the dream of being different. That’s the one thing he is telling me every day: ‘Be different’. I admire this instinctive attitude of believing in yourself and doing things in your own way, but I don’t know if I’ll ever learn it.”
Self-belief, though, doesn’t go with complacency. “He’s never dogmatic. He says you always have to keep 30 per cent of doubt. If you think you’re right, there’s no room for improvement. My father is always looking for the bad side of a good thing; he’s always keeping doubt. This is his way of being.”
After the impasse over biodynamics, Gaia suggested to her father that they should work with consultants. “The reaction of my father was – No. He didn’t like consultants. He said they were strangers who come to your house bringing knowledge, but they also take it away, they spread it.” Father and daughter had “a long conversation. Eventually he said, ok, we can work with consultants, but they must be consultants who don’t work for other wineries. Actually that became the beginning of a very fun new period for us, because we started working with consultants who were experts in other forms of life.”
Insect hotels in the Gaja vineyards, to encourage biodiversity. Credit: Andrew Jefford.
Most of the vineyard changes have come out of these seven collaborations. Biodiversity was the first priority, especially the creation of distinctive composts based on cow manure and Californian worms. Then came the use of high grass in the inter-rows, and of different cereal crops to control the vigour of the various parcels; of minimum vine trimming during summer; of the planting of cypresses to act, when fully grown, as ‘hotels for birds’; and the use of fungi and plant extracts as treatments in place of synthetic chemicals. The company has also adopted a new approach to plant selection based on the notion of using not the strongest plants, but those which can best recover unaided from disease outbreaks.
Gaia Gaja’s conversations with her father also, it turns out, take a singular form. “We communicate by writing. One day I should publish the letters between my father and myself. The problem is that he is very impatient. If I go into his office and I can’t tell him what I have to tell him in three minutes, his legs start shaking up and down and he is thinking about something else. So I write him long letters which I circulate to my mother and sister. He then reads it and he writes all over it with underlinings and exclamation marks and we discuss it all at a meeting three days later.” They also have a family chat room (with “no specific rules”) and write each other lots of little notes.
The new generation, though, is beginning to steer the ship in its own way – and perhaps the most prominent sign of this so far is the return of the Barbaresco wines, crus included, to the Barbaresco DOP. According to Gaia, her father’s decision (back in 1996) to market the wines under the Langhe name alone was another example of his drive to be different – and his celebration of doubt. He began to question, at that point, that the greatest site expression was possible with Nebbiolo alone. Would it not come, rather, with a blend of varieties? Such, after all, were the most ancient regional traditions (some might see a kinship here with Jean-Michel Deiss’s theories about terroir expression in Alsace).
“When we bought Cerequio in Barolo,” Gaia pointed out, “where the hill dipped suddenly and there was more water, it was planted with Barbera, and up on the highest part where it was more windy, there was Dolcetto. It was my father’s idea that we should consider bringing back these minor varieties into the blends. He talked to the Consorzio but they didn’t agree.” He carried on regardless – allowing, of course, that even this course might be wrong (only Barbera, in fact, was used in the blends). The fact that the Barbaresco wines are once again back in the DOP means that doubt has redoubled back on itself.
In the winery, too, evolution continues. Delicacy of grape handling is the watchword; there is now a longer period on lees and less racking; milder oak toasts are used than formerly. These are not oaky wines: just 20 per cent new oak for Barbaresco, and between 30 and 35 per cent for the single vineyards, with two years’ ageing of which the second is in bottle.
As I was tasting the 2013 and 2014 Barbaresco wines, Angelo marched in: a sprightly 77 years old, bright-eyed, faintly combative, and still involved in new projects (“Etna,” said Gaia, “was my father’s idea, his optimism”, referring to news in April 2017 of a Gaja joint venture with Alberto Graci). “I believe,” Angelo stated, “that we are reaching new knowledge in trying to improve the quality of the vineyard and the grapes. But did she explain,” he immediately added, “that we are sure of nothing?”
Tasting Gaia 2013 and 2014 Barbaresco
A genuine summary of the zone, in that Gaja’s 100 ha of Langhe vineyards include at least 10 different sites scattered around the Barbaresco DOP; the 2013 vintage is a fine one, perfect for revealing Barbaresco’s intricacy and grain. Scents of sweet, floating gentleness; ample poised, ripe classicism on the palate, with flavours of milky grace. 93 points
Barbaresco Costa Russi 2013
“Russi’s slope” (Russi was a former owner) lies in the lower part of Roncagliette, a leading cru to the southeast of the Barbaresco zone, with a south-southwestern exposure. All of Gaja’s individual vineyard wines have unique fantasy names: another sign of the determination to be different. The scents of Costa Russi ‘13 have a meatiness which was not apparent in the Barbaresco, while the flavours are firmer and grippier, with a gratifying bramble note to the fruit spectrum. 94
Barbaresco Sorì Tildin 2013
Sorì Tildin (the name is an allusion to Angelo Gaja’s energetic grandmother Clotilde Rey, a formative influence) lies higher up in Roncagliette, with an open exposition. The wine is still youthful, with an intoxicating swirl of plum, sloe and elder fruits. Vibrant and energetic, growing firm on the finish; ripe, glowing acidity within a shapely, enticing frame. A wine of finely judged ripeness and concealed power. 96
Barbaresco Sorì San Lorenzo 2013
This vineyard (named after the patron saint of Alba’s cathedral) lies below the village on Barbaresco, within the cru of Secondine; it was also called San Donato or Codovilla in the past. This wine may be at a quiet stage of its evolution, as it seems more restrained and less aromatically expressive than Sorì Tildin 2013 for now. On the palate, it’s evidently fine with masterful concentration and vitality, glowing fruit, assured balance and sumptuously palpable tannins. 95
The Gaja family, like many in Barbaresco, are thrilled with what they have been able to craft in 2014, the principal reason being that Barbaresco had near-normal levels of rainfall (750mm) whereas Barolo took 1,200mm on the chin. The late season, September to November, was outstanding. This wine is a little more aromatically dry in style than the 2013, with bright red-fruit flavours of cranberry, pomegranate and red dessert apple. It’s harmonious, balanced and long. 91
Barbaresco Costa Russi 2014
The Costa Russi has more raspberry fruit notes and floral touches, too, in comparison with the Barbaresco. Warm, tangy, bright, edgy: a cascade of scent, a splash of flavour. After this vivacious mid-palate, the wine fills satisfyingly towards the finish. 92
Barbaresco Sorì Tildin 2014
This is a much more aromatically wealthy wine than its two peers above, with incense, spice and mint in addition to complex red fruits. The palate combines juiciness with elegance; there’s some floral complexity behind the fruit; while the finish reveals a glowing enchantment I didn’t expect from 2014. 94
Barbaresco Sorì San Lorenzo 2014
Refined scents, with the wood playing a slightly more prominent role here than in the other wines, but with plenty of fruited aromatic upholstery to support it. On the palate, this is the only wine of the quartet where the red fruits begin to shade into black in this vintage – though they retain a chic briskness, with ample energy and lift. Spice, incense and refined, chiselled, palpable tannins complete the picture. 95