Experiencing the Lifetime Tasting Journey with Angelo Gaja

By | 24 April 2024

Tasting the Gaja family’s best wines, a journey through time and space from Piedmont to Montalcino and Etna.

By Susan Hulme MW

Susan Hulme MW takes advantage of a rare opportunity to join Angelo, Gaia, and Giovanni Gaja to taste some of the family’s most significant wines.

“Angelo is always ahead of time. He doesn’t say, ‘I am 83’; he says, ‘I am close to 84.’ [He is] always looking forward.” Gaia Gaja made these opening comments after her father Angelo had introduced himself at the “Tasting of a Lifetime” event in London’s Dorchester Hotel on October 10, 2023. The Gaja family—Angelo with daughter Gaia and son Giovanni—were here together for a very rare presentation and to talk about and taste some of the family’s most memorable vintages.

When Angelo first introduced international grape varieties in Treiso in Barbaresco, he was considered way ahead of his time. At that time, no one even considered making high-quality wines from anything other than Nebbiolo in this prime Nebbiolo territory. Planting white varieties was deemed as an outrageous decision. Despite this, Angelo bravely planted Cabernet Sauvignon in 1978, an action that was seen as disrespectful by his father, Giovanni. The act was described as darmagi, meaning “a shame”, for uprooting native varieties to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. This term later became the name of this very successful wine that was first introduced in 1982. He planted Chardonnay in 1979, and the first 100% Chardonnay under the Gaia & Rey was made in 1983. This move displayed his wisdom in realizing that well-made wines from known grape varieties were a clever strategy for capturing the attention consumers and aficionados, ultimately leading them back to the wines of Barbaresco and his father’s beloved native Nebbiolo.

Their family business originated in Barbaresco in 1859, with a humble start of merely 2ha (5 acres) of vineyards. It was through Angelo’s enterprising leadership in the 1970s that their wines soared to international fame. Nowadays, the Gaja family owns 130ha (320 acres) in Piemonte, located in Barbaresco (Barbaresco and Treiso), and Barolo (Serralunga d’Alba and La Morra), and Alta Langa. In Tuscany, their Pieve Santa Restituta estate in Montalcino covers 27ha (66 acres) of vineyard. Additionally, their Ca’ Marcanda estate in Bolgheri owns plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and Sangiovese reaching up to 126ha (312 acres).

It’s crucial to remember that, after World War II, Barbaresco, along with the rest of Piemonte, was incredibly poor. Grape growers had to wait in queues under the scorching heat, watching their grapes spoil as négociants and merchants anticipated the grape degradation to reduce the prices. In just 60 or 70 years, Angelo Gaja elevated his name to an international level, and his wines now command prices that most producers can only fantasize about. Apart from planting international grape varieties, one of his crucial moves was being among the first to bottle and label single-vineyard Barbaresco. Additionally, he ushered in improvements to wine quality by minimizing yields, increasing vine density, and experimenting with different types of oak. His success was also partially due to the idea his father had of putting the name Gaja in big red letters on the wines. Angelo has carried on this legacy and has further developed the Gaja brand ever since. In a conversation about acquiring organic or biodynamic certification, he noted that although they might employ some of these techniques in the vineyard, they are not to be labeled as biodynamic but as Gaja! The family name holds more value than being recognized as part of someone else’s association. The Gaja family, predominantly Angelo, has done a lot to elevate not only just Barbaresco but also Piemonte wines as a whole, raising their reputation and bringing them to the awareness of the wine aficionados worldwide.

Today, Angelo could easily rest on his laurels, having comfortably installed the next generation into the family business, with his two daughters, Gaia and Rossana, and son Giovanni all deeply involved. One might imagine that he would think about relaxing a little and slowing down—but instead he seems to be speeding up. The goals over the past few years have been to find cooler and higher vineyards that, by their nature, better handle the effects of climate change, and to give Italy’s white wines a helping hand to achieve world-class status. As Angelo commented about his joint venture in Sicily on the slopes of Mount Etna, “I believe that old age starts when the regrets are more than the dreams.”

In 2016, with the Idda project, Gaja entered into a partnership with leading Etna producer Graci. “Etna was something that I have been feeling under the skin for some time,” said Angelo at the time. Idda means “she” and is an affectionate name in Sicilian dialect, used by locals to refer to Mount Etna. Today, the winery has 20ha [50 acres] of vineyards between 1,970ft and 2,625ft (600–800m) above sea level, in the villages of Belpasso and Biancavilla. There is a great focus on Etna’s brilliant white grape variety Carricante, though they also cultivate the native red Nerello Mascalese. Angelo remarked, “Etna, like Langa, is a place where elegant, enigmatic, and intriguing wines can be made. I also took into consideration the challenges of climate change—indeed, I find important the fact that Etna has the highest vineyards in Europe, and the harvest period is among the latest on the continent.”

Previously, in 2015, the Gaja family had bought 30ha (75 acres) of abandoned hazelnut groves and woods at an altitude of between 2,100ft and 2,300ft (650–700m) in Alta Langa, and they planted 14ha (35 acres) of white grapes. “We gave priority to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, since these are early-ripening varieties,” explains Gaia. “We are also open to experimenting with other varieties, such as Timorasso, Pinot Bianco, Erbaluce, Nebbiolo, and Pinot Noir, so we planted a little of all these other varieties, [and we are] waiting to see the results over the next years.” Meanwhile, they have built a new winery in Alta Langa, ready in August for the 2023 harvest “to welcome the grapes coming from the new vineyards.”

In 2019, Gaja included ten percent of Alta Langa fruit in some of their white wines with very good results, and in 2020 and 2021 this increased to 20 percent. At present, they are not sure whether they will continue to use these grapes for their existing white wines—Gaia & Rey, Rossj-Bass, and Alteni di Brassica—or for a new wine, but Gaia says, “Nature will tell us.” Some of the uncertainties of the future have already been planned for. The Idda project, as well as the new vineyard acquisitions in Trezzo Tinella in Alta Langa, both focus on white grape varieties and high-altitude vineyards. And now the baton has been passed firmly onto the next generation. Angelo’s curiosity and courage have taken the family so far, and now it is time for Gaia, Rossana, and Giovanni to spread their wings.

Back at the “Tasting of a Lifetime” last October, the family showcased 14 vintages, commencing with the current release of their three single-cru Barbaresco—comprising 2020 Costa Russi Barbaresco, 2020 Sorì Tildìn Barbaresco, and 2020 Sori San Lorenzo Barbaresco—and culminating with treasured Gaja’s Barbaresco vintages from 1974, 1964, and the spectacular 1958. Additionally, guests were treated to a rare tasting experience of their white wines—the 1992 Alteni di Brassica, a Sauvignon Blanc, and the 1989 Gaia & Rey Chardonnay—as well as the 2000 Darmagi Cabernet Sauvignon. There were numerous exquisite wines, but the ones truly shining in the limelight for me were the magnificent 1958 Barbaresco, proudly crafted by Angelo’s father Giovanni, and the three 2020 Barbaresco crus, masterfully curated by the younger Gaja generation, Gaia and Giovanni. The 1958 stood out with its brilliant transparency and pristine qualitites. Despite the profound zest and resilience of this wine, the latest release 2020 Barbaresco crus share this clarity, purity, and concentration but brimming with the ripe vibrance of youth. These wines possess a family likeness, signifying an equilibrium and unity, along with a shimmering acidity, that run through them, crafting a circuit of unity. This connection transcends across family generations and various transformations that have occurred over the past 65 years.

Here’s a brief tale that encapsulates the Gaja family’s ethos. I had the opportunity to meet Angelo a few years ago. Following a wine-tasting session, he kindly offered to guide me through their vineyards. We journeyed through the unpaved-earth vineyard terraces in his large, comfortable Audi. Despite the vehicle’s struggling and rumbling, we managed to traverse through the vineyards at a significant pace, only to discover that we had a flat tire by the end of our tour. We halted in Serralunga to enjoy a bottle of Champagne and antipasti, while his nephew Stefano handled the car’s issue. This incident reminded me of a man who is driven, focused, and fearless in pursuit of his goals, a trait Angelo exemplifies in managing the family business.

During my more recent visit on a chilly, foggy December morning in 2023, Gaia Gaja introduced me to their new Alta Langa vineyards. She wanted me to savour the diverse environmental elements, from the steep slopes oriented in distinct directions, the hushed backdrop of the dense woodland, to the sparse sounds of a wild creature disrupting the silence. As we slowly descended the steep vineyard terrace into the vineyard, I couldn’t help but observe, “Like father, like daughter.” Curiosity, eagerness, ambition, and a daring ambition to expand boundaries and push the envelope are a common family trait.

Moreover, it resonated with the wisdom of Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” A blend of boldness, intelligence, and tenacity have guided the family and the wines to the royal domains of the wine industry. May they continue to thrive and reign for long. 

1989 Gaia and Rey Chardonnay (13.5% ABV)

The grapes used for this wine originate from Gaja’s oldest vineyards – the Giacosa vineyard in Treiso, Barbaresco, planted back in 1979. The wine was manufactured using 100% oak fermentation and maturation, with 80% going through the process of malolactic fermentation. It boasts of a vibrant green-gold color, comparable to Sauternes. The aroma is gentle, hinting at honey, warm spices, butterscotch, and nuts. Upon an initial whiff, you can catch a minor dusty scent which soon departs, just like Sleeping Beauty waking from her enchanted slumber. Following this, there is an exquisite freshness accompanied by predominant butterscotch flavors. This wine is undoubtedly harmonious, resembling melting butter in its texture, ending with a salty and mouthwatering finish. Despite its age – 34 years, it retains a seductive silky texture along with an array of mature Chardonnay flavors. Each sip finishes with a chalky, salty kiss that lingers on fascinatingly. Best consumed between 2023–29. | Rating: 95

1992 Alteni di Brassica (13.5% ABV) Magnum

The Alteni di Brassica Sauvignon Blanc predominantly comes from three vineyards located in Barbaresco. However, some of the grapes used are harvested from Rivette, nestled in Serralunga. This vineyard is surrounded by an abundant spread of woods, which contribute towards the wine’s cool, green, and herbal qualities. The 2020 vintage sees 10% contribution from Gaja’s newly acquired Alta Langa estate, which further increases to 20% in the 2021 and 2022 vintages. Once again, the wine’s beautifully aged nature surprises me, especially considering that it’s a Sauvignon Blanc and the vintage faced a tough year. The year 1992 saw continuous rainfall in October, forcing Gaja to abstain from bottling any Barbaresco that year. However, this 1992 wine beats the odds with its radiant, golden lemon color, accompanied by light green leaf, green herb, and sage notes. The maturing aroma of honey and waxy lemon rind is hard to miss. On tasting, you encounter a silky texture that smoothly transitions into fresh acidity noted with crunchy green apple and sage flavors. This wine perfectly encapsulates the vintage’s coolness. Recommended consumption is between 2023-28. | Rating: 93

2000 Darmagi (13.5% ABV) Magnum

The Darmagi vineyard was established in 1978 and adopted Cabernet Sauvignon for their plantings, a decision which caused quite the uproar at the time. This was seen as a surprising move given the strong Barbaresco roots of the site. The decision led Giovanni, Angelo’s father, to lament, calling it darmagi, or “a pity” in the local dialect, which subsequently inspired the name of the wine. The 2000 Darmagi wine comes up as incredibly youthful with a dark, almost black color, that reflects only a mere garnet slimmer at the rim. The perfume suggests of a smoky woodland with a mix of blackberries, green pepper and a hint of tar. The wine features abundant lively acidity, mingling woodland fruits with redcurrant and blackcurrant. The wine is a beautifully proportioned, medium-bodied drink with incredibly silky texture and gracefully subtle tannins. The delicious fusion of sous-bois and bramble flavors remains noteworthy in this awe-inspiring expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. Best enjoyed from 2023–30. | 94

1958 Gaja Barbaresco (14% ABV)

This wine is a creation of Angelo Gaja’s father, Giovanni. The wine predates the DOC regulations were put into effect in 1966, hence the absence of DOC labeling. Angelo notes that this 1958 Nebbiolo likely included some Barbera. Should you find a 1958 bottle on the market, you will see various labels, as over a period of roughly 14 years, the wines were bottled on request and the labels changed with time. During that era, the single-cru concept was nonexistent, and Giovanni, Angelo’s father, bottled different lots of this wine, labeling his top blend from the best plots as “Infernot”. This particular 1958 embodying a yellow label, tasted during this session, was not an Infernot. But 1958 has achieved legendary status in Piedmont, and this wine does justice to that reputation. The 1958 Gaja Barbaresco showcases commendable purity and transparency in its expression, accompanied by an elegant weight and texture that is elevated by bright acidity. Expectedly, some traits of evolution are evident, but that’s not unusual for a wine of this monumental age. The characteristics exhibit a brush of smoky wood and tar that reminds me of the air wafting from the intense winter prunings in far-off vineyards. There’s an energetic surge of acidity that injects life into the wine, bringing to mind the vigor of a Vintage Sercial Madeira. This wine, though mature, is vibrantly alive and shone brightly in the tasting. It shares a natural finesse found in the 2020 vintages, floating smoothly on the palate. These wines embody natural beauty, radiating brightly like celestial stars. A remarkable find till 2023–35. | 96

1974 Gaja Barbaresco (13% ABV)

During the 1970s, the successful ripening of grapes from climate conditions only occurred two or three times in a decade. 1974 brought a long, snow-filled winter and late spring, followed by a dry and hot summer and a delightfully fine autumn. Despite these favourable weather elements, unlike in 1971, and 1975, 1974 was viewed as a good vintage but not a great one. According to Gaia Gaja, the distinguishing factor of this wine was its freshness, and indeed, it was another splendid production. Despite appearing youthful with vibrant ruby tone, the wine’s nose suggested signs of ageing, hinting at sweet, dried fruit and hints of tertiary leather. The distinctive Gaja trademark of strikingly bright acidity and superfine tannins were prominent in the 1974 vintage, and blending with the delicate notes of faded roses and red-berry fruit resulted in a unique, fragile beauty. A wine to savor from 2023 to 2034| 94.

1964 Gaja Barbaresco (13% ABV)

The 1964 vintage was the first to be given the honor of inclusion in the DOC after its establishment in 1966, and featured a small addition of Barbera in its constituents. At this juncture, Angelo, new to the company since 1961, was still being trained in viticultural practices. The Gaja family note 1964 as an “excellent vintage both in terms of quality and quantity.”. Displaying maturity beyond its years when compared to the 1958 vintage, this wine carries a deep, dark garnet hue. It possesses a nose slightly evolved, with layers of brown sugar, leather, and game that do not overpower. Despite echoes of lively acidity, the older wine group viewed it as a little leaner and more angular compared to the other two. Tertiary flavours of truffle and leather become more pronounced on the palate, coupled with a little dry edge to the tannins. Nevertheless, the wine’s charm lies in its characteristics of faded flowers and dried roses, evoking a certain nostalgic beauty. Best to enjoy from 2023 to 2029 | 93.

1988 Sorì San Lorenzo Barbaresco (13.5% ABV) – 3-liter bottle

The 1988 vintage experienced periods of rain during spring, a comparatively warm summer, followed by a cooler autumn. The vintage tends to be often overshadowed by its neighboring vintages of 1989 and 1990, which are considered superior. Angelo, during the 60s, started a transition towards the usage of French oak barriques. By the end of the 80s, he extended this concept for the Nebbiolo and used up to 50% new oak barriques This wine has a remarkable aroma of black cherry, crisp celery, and a herbal scent reflective of the vintage’s coolness. Even at this age, the oak remains surprisingly present contributing to cream and spice top notes. The wine has a youthful inky black color. The palate indicates the presence of tar, a faded rose-like aroma mixed with green herb and dark berries, which is supported by the vibrancy of its acidity yielding an exquisite freshness. All these sensations combine to give a cool feeling, however, the smoothly textured silk of the wine is one aspect that stands out the most. Worth trying between 2023 and 2028.| 93

1997 Gaja Sperss (strength 14%) Magnum

Angelo had this wine labelled as Langhe Nebbiolo, which gave him the independence to work freely and be able to make wine as his grandfather once did. The blend comprises of 92% Nebbiolo and 8% Barbera. The wine boasts an intense aroma of dark fruits resembling blackberry and bramble, accompanied by a tinge of fresh green menthol. These gradually pave the path for tertiary aromas of Bloody Mary and rare meat with hints of iron-like, blood notes. The richness of these aromas and flavors, intertwining with each other, yield both nuance and intensity, integrating well with the fascinating tertiary aromas characteristic of a mature wine. The palate delivers a super-silky texture, complemented by an active, vibrant acidity and a hint of green herb and mint adding to the black fruits’ flavor. The finish is savory, juicy, and long-lasting. It might feel like it’s from a bygone era, but it displays a beautiful expression of the past. It’s a fully mature wine, and it’s drinking wonderfully at the moment. Best enjoyed from 2023 to 2032. | 96

2001 Gaja Barbaresco (14% ABV) 3-liter bottle

Many older bottles were uncorked from 75cl bottles or magnums, but the 2001 Barbaresco was presented in a 3-liter bottle. Gaja’s Barbaresco is a montage of grapes from 14 different vineyards. The year 2001 is a significant vintage for both Piemonte and the Gaja family. The wine introduces itself with traces of smoke, hints of tar, and iron notes, followed by a rare meat-like aroma that combines with tones of earth and dark licorice on both your nose and palate, all encompassed in vivid, juicy acidity and lively, gravel-textured tannins. The wine is full of life, characterized by vibrancy and its own distinct energy. It will shine from 2023 until 2030. | 94

Gaja Conteisa Barolo 2015 Magnum

The Conteisa’s fruit origins lie in the celebrated Cerequio vineyard, a fifth of it is in Barolo and the majority in La Morra. The Gaja family owns the parcels on the La Morra side. In general, La Morra is recognized for its fuller, rounder, and more sensual Barolo style. The year 2015 was a good vintage, characterized by a mild spring and a consistent summer heat, without severe extremes. As it gradually opens up, the nose reveals complex layers of fresh leather, exotic spice, dried flowers, and hay, all subtly laced with wild cherry and mint. The 2015 Barolo is textured broader, deeply aromatic, with an appeal on the palate, and charming red-cherry fruit. Its chalky-textured tannins and striking acerbity balance the sensuality and confer the wine with an invigorating freshness in the aftertaste. This wine, with its contrasts, exudes a mesmerizing and decisive personality. Its peak will be from 2023 to 2040. | 97

Gaja Sperss Barolo 2018 (14% ABV) Magnum

Sperss is a 7ha (17-acre) vineyard situated in the heart of Serralunga, purchased by Angelo due to his deep devotion and respect for his father, Giovanni. Giovanni cherished these vineyards during his youth, where he found simple pleasures and an escape from his stringent upbringing whilst assisting friends with their harvest. The vineyard’s name, Sperss, originates from the Piemontese dialect, translating to “nostalgia.” The year 2018 was a challenging one, with heavy spring rains demanding extra care in the vineyard. However, by the time of the harvest, the weather had warmed considerably, lacking the significant diurnal swings required for Nebbiolo to exhibit its finest qualities. The 2018 Sperss reflects the vintage’s lightness. Initially, it leans towards being more mineral, offering hints of rose and smoke and just a touch of the waxy, polish notes of secondary aromas. This wine presents a more linear profile than the rounder Conteisa, showcasing firm, gravelly, assertive tannins on the finish, a characteristic trait of Serralunga. Estimations of its peak are between 2023–38. | 95

Sorì San Lorenzo 2020 Magnum

Sorì San Lorenzo is a wine from a single vineyard, first produced in 1967. As Angelo Gaja explains, “We were among the pioneers to cultivate wines from this steep vineyard closest to the river, which is more humid—but Nebbiolo thrives in humidity.” The summer humidity in recent, increasingly hot and dry vintages, can be beneficial. Additionally, the presence of more limestone in the soil promotes water absorption due to the soil’s sponge-like effect. The vineyard’s name, Sorì, is local dialect for “sunny,” and it is reserved for the best vineyard sites sun-exposed. The 2020 San Lorenzo exhibits a very youthful, almost black, ruby color. Gaia characterizes its aromas as chiefly “wood and roots.” Currently, there’s a slightly creamier oak uptake, harmonizing well with the flavors of black-cherry and black-raspberry, along with a richer mid-palate. The texture oozes sumptuousness without being weighty, while the wine effortlessly flows across the palate, exemplifying supreme harmony in a glass. Its estimated peak is between 2025–50. | 97

Sorì Tildìn Barbaresco 2020 (14% ABV) Magnum

Sorì Tildìn is a vineyard resembling an amphitheater nestled atop the hill, situated above Costa Russi vineyard. The location was acquired back in 1974, with the debut vintage being introduced in 1978. This vineyard features warmer and sandier soil conditions and boasts of a vertical and denser plantation of vines. The wine’s fragrance takes a while to unfold fully, revealing a rather nuanced, spicy scent, gradually letting out hints of blood-orange and orange zest. The wine offers a fantastic sensation, spreading smoothly in the mouth with bright red-berry flavors, complemented by a lively acidity. Occasionally, a spicy touch of green herbs punctuates the taste, teaming up with juicy freshness to maintain a balanced, vibrant character. An array of fragrances and flavors merge brilliantly with a delicate texture, a natural flow across the palate, and an undercurrent of tension, lending Sorì Tildìn’s an appealing lively character. Look forward to enjoying this gem between 2025 and 2045. | 97

Costa Russi 2020 (14% ABV) Magnum

Costa Russi vineyard, humorously described by Gaia as having a rounded belly shape, is situated just beneath Sorì Tildìn. It overlooks a vast valley, with the vineyard’s plants catching the last sun rays from the west and south. However, the soil remains considerably cool and compact due to its clay constitution. Gaia notes a distinct freshness in their Costa Russi Barbaresco that she attributes to these conditions. This wine appears blood/ruby in color with a youthful pink rim and emits a mild yet pleasant aroma with barely there oak-spice and black cherry hints. Upon tasting, one notices a very fine texture akin to gossamer and well-balanced tannins that spark off with rich, dynamic acidity. The perfectly seamless progression of flavors, the distinctive, silty tannins towards the finish, and a savory hint of salt, add up to create yet another brilliantly harmonious wine. Anticipate this to peak between 2024 and 2043. | 96

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