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Gaja: A family portrait

Through undeniably audacious viticultural decisions, this fifth-generation winemaking dynasty elevated Barbaresco to fine-wine status. Now, the patriarch of Piedmont and his family are ushering in a new era for their business, with ambitious projects – and a healthy dose of compromise, as Tiziano Gaia discovers

‘You have to believe.’ ‘It’s a question of faith.’ ‘There’s no room for doubt!’ Not a sermon from a Baptist preacher backed by a gospel choir, nor a motivational speech by a coach in a self-improvement seminar. Instead, winemaker Angelo Gaja is talking. Sitting with his daughters Gaia and Rossana in a soberly decorated room inside the Barbaresco castle, he is answering the question: ‘How do you become the best in your field?’

In the case of Gaja – still the most internationally acclaimed name in Italian wine – success stems from an unshakeable self-confidence and an unwavering ambition, supported by the potential of the Langhe terroir. It was here, in Italy’s Piedmont region, that the Gaja story started more than a century and a half ago, with a tavern next to a river port.

Solid foundations

Winding at the foot of Barbaresco’s hill, the Tanaro is today a pale shadow of what was once a mighty river. Back in the 19th century, boys would swim in it and fishermen could make a living from their catches. To cross from one bank to the other required the services of a navét – a flat-bottomed ferryboat – and close to its dock, the Gajas ran the Osteria del Vapore, where their wines were first served and sold. The family’s other business was transport. Angelo’s great-grandfather Giovanni organised caravans of foodstuffs and other goods along the Via del Sale, the ‘salt road’ linking Piedmont and Liguria. It was the first sign of an innate aptitude for expansion and trade.

The establishment of the winemaking business came later, thanks to Giovanni’s steely daughter-in-law, Clotilde Rey. Widowed in 1944, Tildìn, as she was known at home, bought new vineyards and resolutely led the winery, attracting illustrious clients such as the Zegnas and Agnellis. Barbaresco was nonetheless considered little more than an honest table wine.

‘When I joined the business in 1961, the situation I found was good but also disheartening,’ remembers Angelo. ‘My grandmother Tildìn and my father Giovanni had put together 30ha of vineyards and created a brand. But the lack of recognition for our wines abroad weighed heavily.’ Several times, in a dialect-driven accent, he repeats the English phrase ‘cheap and cheerful’. That characterisation of Italian wines by the Americans still bothers him today. His tone becomes heated: ‘We had to get a move on and change the perception that foreigners had of our products.’ One problem was the at-times tricky relationship with Barolo. Made just a few hills away and using the same variety, Nebbiolo, that historic wine had always been famed as complex, powerful and long-lived. Barbaresco wine was born later (towards the end of the 19th century, thanks to Emilian agronomist Domizio Cavazza). It is produced in a smaller zone, and is aged for just two years instead of three, meaning it fits the characteristics of a ‘second vin’.

The Gajas at a glance

Angelo Gaja

Born 1940 in Alba, Piedmont

Education Degree in Business Economics

Career Joined the family wine business in 1961

Children Gaia, Rossana, Giovanni (1993)

Gaia Gaja

Born 1979 in Alba, Piedmont

Education Degree in Business Administration, 2003

Career Joined the family business in 2004

Rossana Gaja

Born 1981 in Alba, Piedmont

Education Degree in Psychology, 2008

Career Joined the family business in 2009

Brave new wine

Yet in barely a decade, Angelo managed to change the rules of the game. He started using only his own grapes, whereas before it had been common practice to buy some fruit from other local growers, and began vinifying the grapes from each vineyard separately. In 1966, he tested the use of barriques, which were mysterious tools in these parts at the time. They were introduced not to overload the wine but to refine it, rounding off excessive youthful roughness. Next he set off on an assault of the market. ‘I was living with my suitcase in my hand. I knew that consecration would come through the international fine-dining scene.’

Angelo talked up his tiny corner of Piedmont with such vigour that the world was forced to take notice. A triptych of Barbaresco crus, Sorì San Lorenzo (first vintage in 1967), Sorì Tildìn (1970) and Costa Russi (1978) paved the way for the appellation’s success for years to come. Their unusually high prices ennobled not only the Nebbiolo grape, but the entire winemaking area. ‘We are all the children of Angelo Gaja,’ noted Barolista Elio Altare has said.

Credit for the style of Gaja wines, which defies classification as either ‘traditional’ or ‘modernist’ (‘Gaja is Gaja’, according to David Gleave MW), must also go to the man who spent 45 years technically interpreting Angelo’s oenological ideas. Angelo talks with affection and gratitude about the recently retired winemaker Guido Rivella. Together they worked to refine that unique blend of elegance, depth and character recognisable in each bottle, above and beyond the individual nuances of different vineyards.

Gaja is synonymous with risky gambles and bold changes of direction, as evidenced by its interest in white wines in a land of reds, and the turn towards international grapes in a region devoted only to indigenous varieties. ‘We’ve always looked ahead,’ chimes in Gaia. Angelo’s older daughter, who has been involved in the business since 2004, loves to talk about the family’s whites, intertwined as they are with her own history. The Gaia & Rey Chardonnay vineyard was planted in 1979, the year of her birth. Launched in 1983, this opulent and seductive white, aged six to eight months in barrique, left everyone speechless. The same response came three years later with Alteni di Brassica, acclaimed as one of the best Sauvignon Blancs ever produced in Italy.

But the true record for innovation is held by a red, Darmagi, made from what, in 1978, was the first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard to be planted in Piedmont. ‘We needed a direct confrontation with the varieties best known abroad,’ reflects Angelo. The English-speaking public and critics applauded.

In 2000, the winery made the most controversial decision in its long history. Angelo took the liberty of sullying the Nebbiolo with a small proportion of Barbera, meaning the three most famous Barbarescos were downgraded from DOCGs to simply Langhe Nebbiolo. ‘Appellations are not a dogma. In my opinion, they have the same relevance as the winery’s brand,’ claims Angelo. For the wine world, it was viewed like Cronus devouring his own children. But in the end, it was Angelo’s daughter who would play the role of Zeus.

On 1 July 2016, Gaia Gaja announced that as of the 2013 vintage, Sorì San Lorenzo, Sorì Tildìn and Costa Russi would once again be released as Barbaresco DOCGs. ‘We want to devote ourselves to Nebbiolo and to maximise its potential,’ she confirms. Generously, she uses the first-person plural, but pride in a very personal initiative shines through.

Was it opposed? ‘I wouldn’t have done it,’ admits Angelo, ‘but the young won!’ After decades of experimentation, the Langhe’s new generation seems to be leaning towards linearity and clarity, espousing a pure and essential oenological grammar.

United front

Attempts to provoke internal dispute within the family have so far proven futile. The Gajas may think individually, but they act as a Roman legion testudo. Gaia is clear: ‘There are five of us, with my mother Lucia and my brother Giovanni, who joined the business just a year ago. We all do everything, and every decision is taken starting from a tasting of our wines.’ Angelo likes the round-table format. Listening in on one of their discussions is instructive for the way in which each topic is dissected from every point of view by family members until a final decision takes shape organically. Everyone brings their own sensibility, sometimes influenced by their age.

Born in 1940, Angelo knows that the new challenge goes beyond the fate of the winery, beyond the fate of wine itself. ‘For those of us who live in the fields, climate change is a fact,’ interjects Rossana. ‘The comparative data speak clearly, the seasons are changing, weather events are more extreme and diseases are appearing that we’ve never seen before.’ In the family business since 2009, she is now working on possible responses. Thanks to her, the winery has surrounded itself with geologists, botanists, entomologists and geneticists. Hardier rootstocks are required and the alcohol level of the wines needs to be contained. The soil seems to be suffering from the stress of years of intensive use. In its vineyards, Gaja has planted barley, a natural plough that churns up the soil; mustard, an excellent disinfectant; and phacelia, which fixes nitrogen in the subsoil. In the spring, these plants are carefully flattened, so that in the summer they create an insulating cover, able to maintain coolness amid the vine rows. ‘The bees, attracted by the flowers, produce a marvellous symphony,’ adds Rossana.

New ground

A more drastic alternative is to move – to slightly higher altitudes. ‘We are evaluating the Alta Langa as a new frontier,’ says Gaia. ‘The areas protected by the Ligurian Apennines are cooler, but we still need to carry out some preliminary studies. You can’t improvise in viticulture.’

Beyond Piedmont’s borders, the Gajas were recently spotted on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, the source of refined and increasingly appreciated reds made from the indigenous Nerello Mascalese. The brand-new Idda (‘Her’, as the natives call the mountain) winery will release its first wines this spring: a red Etna Rosso 2017, and a white Sicilia Bianco 2018, from the Carricante grape. Gaja, here in partnership with the local winemaker Alberto Graci, owns vineyards in Biancavilla on the southwest side of the volcano, so far little explored. The family started two prestigious wineries in Tuscany in the 1990s, Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino and Ca’ Marcanda in Bolgheri, and now it’s definitively Sicily’s turn.

Evening is falling outside the Barbaresco castle. Once owned by Domizio Cavazza and now the headquarters of the Gaja winery, the elegant mansion is like a baton passed on from one protagonist of this epic to the next. Angelo is taking one side; Rossana is on the other. It’s a game in which everyone has their roles, acted out in collaborative and respectful tones. The daughters are keen on a switch towards organic, but Angelo isn’t convinced. They want to produce a Barbera, but Angelo is hesitant. How to reach a resolution? ‘He’ll decide,’ they laugh. Angelo has, however, accepted their proposal to open up the winery to visitors. In his own way, of course: the tour costs €300 per person, including a tasting, and the proceeds go to charity.

Maybe the secret to being ‘number one’ lies in having a harmonious family team?

See also: Gaja Barbaereco – A taste of the greats?

Buy tickets for the Five Generations of Gaja Masterclass in NYC

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