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Angelo Gaja’s notes on Langhe vintages, 1958-2011

Terlato Wines International recently asked a writer to sit down with Angelo Gaja and record his notes and memories from Langhe vintages stretching back to the 1958. Not only did the transcript of their conversation generate fascinating technical observations, it also delivered unexpected insights, surprising revelations, and highly personal anecdotes from Gaja’s life as a grape grower and winemakers. The unedited transcript follows.

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1958 – A very good vintage but not as good as 1961.

1960 – Bad weather and a very poor vintage. Cool summer and thick fog during harvest. We don’t have weather like that anymore because of global warming. The fog was like milk, 5-10 meters thick. And we had rain during harvest as well. The conditions didn’t allow the grapes to become fully ripe.

1961 – The first important vintage, with alcohol levels reaching fourteen and fifteen percent. But to repeat this, we had to wait another ten years.

1962 – Very good vintage with good crop but not large like 1964. The quality was good, very good. Not at the level of 1961. But very good.

The wine writers didn’t recognize the quality of the vintage because 1961 was so good.

1963 – Difficult vintage with low quality. It rained during harvest time and few terroirs were capable of producing good quality.

1964 – A large crop, one of the largest. Conditions in autumn were perfect. Growers could leave the grapes on the vine to become ripe and harvest went on until mid-November. A long harvest and a large crop in terms of quality. It wasn’t like 1961 but the quality of 1964 was quite good.

1965, 1966, and 1968 — Very difficult vintages. Some cru were able to produce good quality wine. But they represented 10% of the total production. Perhaps even less.

Both 1965 and 1966 were nearly disasters because of rain.

1967 – A little bit lower quality but a good vintage.

1968 – Very difficult vintage, not dramatic, but difficult [see previous note for 1965, 1966, and 1968].

1969 – Average vintage. A little bit better than average for certain cru.

1970 – Finally another good vintage. A very good vintage obscured by 1971. There was an idea among wine writers in Italy at that time that Piedmont could produce a great vintage only once every ten years. They weren’t ready to accept that Piedmont could have two great vintages two years in a row. And this is what happened in 1970. Their idea was that there could be only one great vintage and so they believed the others were low quality.

At that time the power was in the hands of the owners of the wine shops. They were the critics. They had the reputation. Restaurateurs and even collectors were more capable than the wine writers.

We had Veronelli. He was able to write good books. But they were sold in small numbers. The impact of wine writers was important but not as much as today

1971 – A great vintage. In 1971, the difference between the best and the bad exposure wasn’t very great.

1972 – The vintage was a disaster. It rained for 15 days during harvest. I believe that a bad decision was made. At that time, more than 80 percent of the harvest was sold to négociants (mediatori in Italian). Less than 20% was vinified by the growers themselves. The négociants didn’t want to pay for the grapes because the quality wasn’t there and so they pushed the chamber of commerce to declassify the vintage. And it was declassified after the harvest. And so it was not possible to take advantage of what good fruit there was. It was a bad choice and it has never been repeated. The price collapsed and the grape growers were not able to cover their costs. They were the ones who suffered the most. Wineries can recoup their costs from other vintages. This decision was only made once and in my opinion it was a mistake.

1973 – An average vintage. Low quality. The best terroirs showed their best ability in mid-level quality. In vintages like this, the quality of the cru is three to four times as good as the Barbaresco.

The 1973 vintage helped to show us the ability of vineyards with the best exposure. Some crus are very good, not outstanding, but quite good.

1974 – This vintage was celebrated as a great vintage but in fact it was a good vintage, with a large crop. It was close to 1964 but less quality. The crop was large. The harvest time was very long and lasted through November.

1975, 1976, 1977 – Low quality, poor vintages. Difficult vintages because of the rain. There was rain during the spring, a cold summer, and it rained during harvest.

1978 – Finally, 1978 was a celebrated vintage, a great vintage. Indeed, it was a special vintage. The grapes ripened very slowly.

It was a very closed vintage and difficult to understand. It only began to discover its quality after fifteen or twenty years. It took time. This was a type of miracle that Nebbiolo can sometimes do. Vintages considered medium quality can show a better wine than we are expecting. Some vintages are like this.

In 1996, everybody was waiting for a great vintage. But it is probably not as good as we expected. Sometimes, it can be that a vintage does not deliver.

1979 – Another average-plus vintage, a little bit overlooked. In 1978, there was a lot of brouhaha, a lot of words. 1978 followed three difficult vintages and so there was a little bit of exaggeration. It took fifteen years for it to explode.

1980-1981 – In 1980 and 1981, we refused to bottle. It was a disaster. We declassified GAJA wines. And in 1981, we vinified only 25% of the crop. I remember that we started the harvest at the end of October and by November 3rd we had snow that completely covered the vineyard. We had to wait nine to ten days for the snow to melt. But the grapes were not ripe. Harvest was over by November 15 or 17. But it was so late.

1982 – Another beautiful vintage, finally, with balance. A vintage of harmony, an excellent combination of finesse and power for Barbaresco.

1983 – Another difficult vintage. It was important to choose the right date. There was a rain of four days. Some producers harvested too early. Those who waited after the rain had greater quantity. The quality became better but not great. It was possible for there to be a lot of difference in quality.

1984 – Another disaster. We didn’t bottle again. There was rain during harvest time.

1985 – Another celebrated vintage, close to 1978 but more sun than 1978. In the beginning, the wine was closed and had aggressive tannins. But after 1984 and 1983, there was a large celebration for this vintage.

1986 – Average plus.

1987 – Very difficult because of rain. A half disaster.

1988 – Good level of quality. A lot of enthusiasm after 1987 and so it received a lot of attention. But it wasn’t of the level of 1989 and 1990.

1989 – I believe that 1989 is a beautiful vintage. The vintage is not prized because 1989 was good only in Piedmont and principally in the Langhe. It rained in Italy a lot in October and November. In Piedmont, we had a cloudy time for almost fifteen days. It rained in Cuneo, in Switzerland, and partially in Asti. But not in the Langhe. We were crossing our fingers. The sun started again after fifteen days and we had sun through October to the beginning of November.

Perfectly ripe. The vintage was obscured by 1990, of course.

1990 – This was a very good vintage. The quality isn’t lower. The vintage was good on the planet. The emphasis is on 1990.

Especially in Italy, I have had the chance to drink many 1989s because price was higher for the 1990s so the restaurateurs kept the 1989s.

The 1990 vintage is probably the first that there was a concentration of foreign writers with interest in Italy, in general for Italy.

Better scores were given to artisan producers after 1986. The interest of wine writers began to grow. Until then, the ambassadors of Italian wine were sommeliers.

1991 – Difficult vintage, low quality.

1992 – A disaster. We declassified completely. A big sacrifice that I learned from my father.

1993 – An average vintage. There was some difference because of the crus but 90% was average.

1994 – Half disaster. We declassified fifty percent of the crop because of rain.

1995 – This is the year that we can say global warming began. 1995 or 1996.

It was not so great as we considered in the beginning. Everyone was talking well about 1995 because it followed the disaster of 1992 and 1994.

1996 – Close to harvest time, we were skeptical about quality and we had the impression that the berries were too big. There was too much rain but there were some promising signs.

It is important in my work to walk in the vineyards fifteen to twenty days before harvest and to taste the grapes. Analysis is important, yes. But you cannot rely exclusively on technology and exclude the producers. Walking in the vinyeards in harvest time and tasting and squeezing the berries to see their color.

In 1996, the juice had a very deep color, not unusual for Nebbiolo, and the color of the seeds was perfect.

I believe that 99 was more classical but 96 was unusal… because the majority were NOT expecting quality…

The wine showed very well in the cellar. It created all this expectation but when you retaste the wine, not all the promises are there. It was considered a classic vintage but the ripening process was not as perfect as we expected. It may be that we need to keep it in the cellar and wait to have the wine in the end.

1997 – This is a vintage that we had five weeks with hot weather, 32° C. This had never happened before. This vintage signaled the beginning of climate change.

The quality can be different in 1997 because some producers were unprepared to ferment high sugar levels and the grapes were coming to the winery very hot because even during harvest the weather was hot.

There were wines that had stuck fermentation and residual sugar. High volatile acidity. Some wines were not at a high level. But the large majority were beautiful. Much more approachable and with a new character.

In the restaurant, the wines were easy to drink and gave a lot of satisfaction. I remember that we quickly sold our 1997.

It also signaled the first conflict among the America and European wine writers. The Americans welcomes it as “the greatest vintage made in Piedmont.”

It was actually an unusual vintage in its approachability and its pleasure. It had perfectly integrated tannins. Not sweetness. But it was similar to sweetness. We had only had this in 1961 and 1971. Not residual sugar but the consequence of perfect ripening.

“This is a vintage that will last a lot of time,” said American wine writers. The European writers said this is a mistake. Yes, it’s an unusual vintage, never seen before. But it is too early to judge and to say that it will be able to keep for a very long time. This is a mistake by American writers who don’t know enough.

The 1997 is good but not as good as has been described and it will not be able to age thirty or forty years.

1998 – 1998 is one of my favorite vintages. It is a vintage of balance, beautiful balance. But after 1996 and 1997, 1998 was forgotten. But it is one of the most drinkable wines in the last thirty years. Excellent balance. Perfect to match with food. Because Piedmont produces food wines.

1999 – A classic vintage, very good. Rough tannin in the beginning but it’s now beginning to open.

2000 – This vintage was celebrated as a great vintage. With three zeros, it was easy to sell. Some 2000s still have aggressive tannins, others less. A very good vintage.

It was hot and so some of the tannins are a little bit dry and need cellaring and are probably not ready to drink.

It may give us the surprise of 1978.

Before 1995, it never happened. Global warming has helped to establish a reputation of Piedmontese wines not only for Nebbiolo but also for Barbera. Especially before 1995, the acidity was outrageous, often very high. Now the ripening process is better and better and it’s easier to have balanced wines.

2001 – Beautiful.

2002 – The only difficult vintage in the 2000s.

2003-2011 – The climate change created high ripening and a complete ripening process with fantastic regularity. This was never seen before.

Before climate change, the only vintages that were perfectly ripe were 1961, 1964, 1971, 1982. Then, the grapes were often unable to naturally reach 12 and 12.5% alcohol level. That’s not a parameter to judge quality. But in those years, many vintages did not reach even 12%.

Now with global warming, it is easy to reach 13 and 14%. In Barolo and in Serralunga, now even 15%.

2003 – Most difficult vintage. Nine weeks of very hot weather. We decided to declassify almost 50%. We are quite happy with the 2003 we have in the market. Not a great vintage but a very honorable vintage.

2004 – Another vintage close to 1964. Good crop and a good combination of harmony. Good harmony. Close to 1962 and close to 1982. More to 1964.

2005-2011 – All good vintages. For Barbaresco, 2008 was a winning vintage of elegance. 2010 similar to 2008. But the differences between vintages is not as evident as in the past.

Wine Advocate 2008 Barbaresco and Langhe Nebbiolo Scores and Notes

This is a stunning set of wines from Angelo Gaja and his team in Barbaresco. Those who think 2008 is a truly great year for Nebbiolo must have tasted these wines. In a vintage that is inconsistent across the villages of Barbaresco, Gaja has produced not one but four stellar wines.”—Antonio Galloni, Wine Advocate

Click here to view Antonio Galloni’s Wine Advocate scores and notes for Gaja’s 2008 Barbaresco and Langhe Nebbiolo.

Wine Spectator’s Feature Story on Angelo Gaja

Veteran journalist and editor Mitch Frank’s October 2011 Wine Spectator cover story on Angelo Gaja is already being called one of the best stand-alone pieces ever to have been written about the legendary Piedmontese and now Tuscan winemaker.

Never before has one of the top wine writers in the United States taken such an in-depth look at Gaja, the man who singlehandedly transformed Barbaresco into one of the world’s most coveted and collectible appellations. The coverage includes rare interviews, a history of the winery’s expansion beginning in the 1960s when Gaja decided to bottle estate-grown fruit exclusively, detailed analysis of growing sites, and profiles of both of family’s Tuscan properties.

Click here to download
a PDF/printable version of the article.

Angelo Gaja’s Vinitaly address

Questions from Vinitaly

The following questions and answers were part of Angelo Gaja’s address last month at Vinitaly, the Italian wine industry’s annual trade fare.

QUESTION: Can the largest producer of wine survive on exports alone? What are the risks represented by financial fluctuations and the aggressive marketing and distribution tactis of the so-called “New World” competitors?

ANGELO GAJA (AG): It’s the producers’ job to apply themselves in understanding the dynamics of the markets and to decide how and when to approach them. However unique they are for their size, the leaders of various categories — like Santa Margherita, Campari, Armani, Barilla, and Ferraro — have shown that the domestic market must be tended two with great care.

QUESTION: What’s the nature of the deficit in the Italian market? Is it economic or cultural? Or is it a question of marketing?

AG: A question of marketing? There are 35,000 producers in Italy and they all market their products in their own ways. There are more than 1,500 journalists who write about wine either occasionally or primarily. There are more than 500 wineries who sponsor journalism prizes. And there are more than 50 guides that judge the wines. Wine conferences, wine tourism, public wine tastings, radio and television shows on wine, and the wines bloggers’ dissertations… The wine world bubbles with life and is the envy of politicians interested in promoting tourism and their regions. The same holds for service-oriented associations and bankers who would like to find a way to get a piece of the pie.

We’re used to all this commotion and we couldn’t live without it. There are many of us who believe that some of the public monies earmarked for promotion are being wasting. There are those who have proposed combining those monies in a command center in charge of promotion.

But how would we avoid such a body from becoming yet another gravy train for politicians and the privileged? Who would direct such a body? What would be the basis of its authority? Would it be able to work for the interests of all categories? My own recipe is this: in order to reduce the cacophony of voices, 50% of the subsidies earmarked for the promotion of Italian wine should be redirected to create entities intended to raise awareness of Italian wines in foreign markets. These monies could also be use to open more Italian culinary programs in the BRIC countries (Brasil, Russia, India, and China).

QUESTION: Why, conversely, are exports continuing to grow?

AG: The export trend continues to grow because over time those Italian winemakers accustomed to exporting their products have helped to build demand. Such demand does not benefit them alone. It also subsequently bounces back to Italy where importers look for other Italian producers who are able to provide similar wines at better prices. Or superior quality or exclusivity of products not widely distributed. Vinitaly is Italian wine’s stage and its function is to accommodate importers from all over the world. For years now, Italy has been the top exporter of wine in terms of volume. And the same was true in 2010, while France remains the great exporter in terms gross sales. In terms of quantities, France exported 50% less than Italy in 2010. If the French decide not to tear out some of their vineyards, they will be forced to export even more wine. Italy’s average price per liter on the world market is 2.5 times less than that of France. Italians need to sell more wine and to do so, they will need to improve both quality and marketing.

Having said that, there’s no denying Italy’s success. Whom do we thank for it? Native grape varieties? The land itself? These are just some of the factors in wine production. Thanks goes to the 35,000 Italian wineries, including the more than 25,000 artisan, small- and medium-sized producers who apply themselves through sacrifice, passion, enthusiasm, and enterprise.

The wines of artisan producers are often recognized for their quality and this helps to consolidate public perception of Italian wine. Artisan producers represent a counterpoint to the large wineries who sell all or some of their wines as bulk wine. This excellently integrated system functions superbly.

Fragmentation in wine production is common in European countries. The new world has its own peculiarities. The tired old story that Italian wines are ill-prepared to compete on world markets because of fragmentation has been laid to rest by the success of Italian wine exports. The same holds for the notion that Italian wine could not hold its own because of the dead weight of too many small producers who didn’t know how to market their products because they were fragile and destined to collapse on the shelf.

—Angelo Gaja


A letter to the editors of Corriere Vinicolo

To the editor: I would like to submit a comment on two recent contributions to the Corriere Vinicolo, issue 49/50, 2010.

Lamberto Vallarino Gancia, president of Federvini (an association of spirits and alcoholic beverage producers) states that “the consumption of wine, aperitifs, liquor, and distillates is part of the heritage of knowledge, culture, and traditions related to the Mediterranean style.”

This statement could lead to confusion: not only confusion between the Mediterranean diet and Mediterranean style, but also confusion between alcohol and alcohol. Wine does indeed have profound cultural significance in and is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. For nine thousand uninterrupted years, the alcohol contained in wine (and also beer) has been produced using the exact same means: fermentation through an organic and natural process. The same is not true of the alcohol found in aperitifs, distillates, liquors, and soft drinks. This is a profound and substantial difference that we cannot continue to ignore.

Sergio Marini, president of Coldiretti (the most important association of farmers and grape growers) states that “we must reopen negotiations to the end of reviving the discussion of chapitalization.”

After a long bout of negotiations, the Common Market Organisation for wine has introduced measures intended to rebalance the wine market.

At the time, it was not possible to eliminate the practice of enrichment (chapitalization and concentrated rectified must), which is the leading cause of oversupply in grape production. Such practices encourage oversupply, they exasperate it, and they empower winemakers who wish to correct deficiencies owed to dishonest grape growing.

Brussels was right when it tried to counter overproduction: it represents a plague that depresses grape prices and diminishes grape growers’ earnings. Italy should instead become a virtuous knight: it should not delay in recognizing the practicality and value of chapitalization but it should ask that it be taxed in Europe and that the proceeds of said tax be allocated to the education of younger generations on the correct consumption of wine.

—Angelo Gaja
Barbaresco, December 28, 2010

Letter published by the Corriere Vinicolo, issue 1/2, January 10, 2011.

Translation by Terlato Wines International.