Gaja masterclass
Tasting the wines of one of Italy's star producers with Gaia Gaja

With Gaia Gaja, March 2013, VinCE, Hungary

This was an engaging masterclass, with the dynamic Gaia Gaja (above) taking a large group through five wines from the Gaja stable.

She begins with a perspective. Italy is 1000 km long and has 1000 different grape varieties, growing in a range of climates. ‘There are lots of different varieties, because the people are all different,’ she says. ‘It is very difficult to learn about Italian wines, and Italians make it very difficult for you.’

Gaia comes from Barbaresco in the Langhe, Piedmont, which is a compact village with one church, one shop, a few restaurants and 100 wineries, for just 600 people. Gaja is right in the middle of the village, and was founded in 1859.

‘At the time families were making cheap wine for themselves and selling grapes to negociants,’ says Gaia, ‘Giovanni Gaja stopped selling grapes and closed his tavern, devoting himself to making wine.’ At the time the business was in selling 50 litre jars of wines.

Giovanni had 8 sons, and the best of them, the youngest, Angelo, took over the business and married a tough wife (Clotilde Rey), who turned out to be the driving force behind the business. 

The third generation, another Giovanni (Gaia’s grandfather), was responsible for developing Gaja as a significant wine business. Without any competition, he went out and bought what he felt to be the best vineyards in the region, from the 1930s until the 1950s. He was the mayor of the village for 25 years.

Angelo Gaja, Gaia’s father, has been working in the winery since 1961, and is largely responsible for shaping today’s portfolio. He has been criticized for being a modernist, introducing small oak and international varieties. In truth, he’s only a  modernist by the standards of a very traditional region. Stick him in California or Australia, and he’s be seen as an arch traditionalist.

Gaia began working in the family business in 2004, and has no specific role. She travels widely, pimps the wines, runs the office and drives the business. Her sister is also involved, but more in the production side: she’s a trained winemaker.

‘Over the last 15–20 years, global warming has really affected our way of working,’ says Gaia. ‘15 years ago we had too much water, and we were pulling out leaves to expose bunches. Now we talk about the opposite: how can we keep the moisture, and how can we protect grapes from the sun? The pH of the wines 30 years ago was very different to how it is today.’ She suggests that global warming is also changing the disease pressure in the vineyard. ‘Esca never happened much in the past, and we are trying to solve the problem.’

‘Nebbiolo is a very discrete wine. The taste is very delicate, at the end of the palate. In the centre of your palate you have texture more than taste. A sense of freshness and lightness.’

‘Barbaresco is always described as less,’ says Gaia. ‘Less structured, less tannic and less ageable than Barolo. It is negative. The biggest innovation of Gaja was to show the greatness of Barbaresco. It is less tannic, less austere and has an elegance, with more open aromas. It is more ethereal and delicate and wins on elegance.’

‘In ageing these Nebbiolos can’t keep the youth of Bordeaux,’ says Gaia. She cites a 1940 Latour tasted recently that seemed 20 years old, not 73. ‘Very old Barbaresco doesn’t keep the same youth. Nebbiolo can evolve a lot. The more you turn it in the glass the more it changes.’

Gaja has expanded beyond Barbaresco, into Barolo, and also into Tuscany. They currently have 100 hectares in Piedmont, making 300 000 bottles. In Montalcino they have 16 hectares, yielding 40 000 bottles, and in Bolgheri another 80 hectares, yielding 300 000 bottles.

The Gaja Brunello comes from the Pieve S. Restituta winery, which is a 16 hectare vineyard with a church in the middle. It was owned by the clergy, who sold it to a guy in 1974, who retired 20 years later and sold it to Gaja. Brunello has grown massively of late. In 1961 ghere were 250 hectares; now there are 2000, and in that time the number of producers has grown from 25 to 200, and production has grown from 150 000 bottles to 7 million.

Gaja’s Bolgheri project was started in 1996, with the Ca’Marcanda winery, Gaia describes it as ‘The opposite of Barbaresco, the New World of Italy.’ There were no local varieties here, as the region – on the Tuscan coast – consisted of swamps for a large part of its history. In the 18th century, people began to drain areas, and Sassicaia was the pioneering winery in the region in the 1960s and 70s, opening the way for other producers.   


Gaja Ca'Marcanda ‘Magari’ 2010 Toscana IGT, Italy
A blend of Merlot (50%) with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, from a mixture of brown and white clay soils. Dense, spicy and quite rich with good acidity supporting the rich black fruits, as well as some dense, tarry, spicy savoury notes. Warm and herby with some garrigue notes, and a grippy finish. 91/100

Gaja Ca’Marcanda 2009 IGT Toscana, Italy
Smooth, fresh black cherry fruit with some berry notes as well as spicy, mineral characters. Grippy, mineral, slightly tarry palate with fresh acidity and good tannins. Ripe and fresh with nice richness, good balance and a lovely personality. 93/100

Gaja Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino 2007 Tuscany, Italy
Rich, dense, tannic and spicy. Fresh but angular with firm tannins and subtle notes of warm herbs and spices, as well as a hint of tea leaf. Sweet cherries, too, and some balsamic notes. Direct and full. 92/100

Gaja Barbaresco 2009 Piedmont, Italy
14 different vineyards contributed. ‘Balance and ageability comes from blending different terroirs,’ says Gaia Gaja. ‘By being a master of blending different Nebbiolos you can make a balanced wine.’ Because of the ripeness of the vintage, 70% of stems were included in the ferment for the first time. Notes of spice, herbs, tea and fresh cherries, couple with some tight tannic structure and good acidity. Taut, dense, savoury and fine with real interest and a grippy finish. 94/100

Gaja Sperss 2001 Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
This is from Barolo, but because some Barbera is included in the blend it is labelled as Langhe. Fresh, dark and balsamic nose with spicy black cherry and berry fruits. Assertive and spicy. The palate is dense, tannic and austere with firm structure under the vivid black fruits, together with hints of exotic spices. Still tightwound and firm, with nice acidity. 93/100

See also:

Soldera Brunello vertical tasting 
The wines of Luca Roagna, Piedmont

Wines tasted 03/13  
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