A maestro of nebbiolo's subtle wines

Posted: June 24, 2007

'I am not in reality - how do you say? - a gour-met," said Angelo Gaja. "I have simple tastes."

Simplicity may not be the first word people associate with one of the world's greatest winemakers, which is exactly what Gaja is. The fourth-generation vintner is considered among Italy's very best. He is a poet of the Piedmont's vines and a maestro of the nebbiolo grape, which is crafted into elegant Barbarescos that routinely sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle.

But the 67-year-old Gaja, decidedly dapper in his crisp blue suitcoat as we settle in for a breakfast chat at his hotel, is true to his word at this meal.

"Just coffee and orange juice for me," he says to the waiter.

Gaja had come to Philadelphia recently to present his wines (including classics from Barbaresco as well as his newer Tuscan estate, Ca' Marcanda) to the industry, press and consumers at in-store tastings. In addition, he has wanted to discuss with his American audience two of his pet concerns - the uncertain risk of global warming to the future of winemaking, and the increasing homogenization of flavors in international wines.

The issue of global warming, he says, has been a mixed blessing to Piedmont's wine industry so far, with hotter, drier seasons contributing to a freakish string of great, intensely flavored vintages. Rainy years, especially in the fall, could dilute and damage the fruit, and typically occurred three to five times a decade - until recently.

Piedmont's farmers began noticing a change in the mid-'90s, Gaja says. Since then, there has only been one down vintage (2002).

Still, the uncertainty of this sudden warming change, even with its current benefits, clearly unsettles a man who is tied to the tradition and rhythms of a family vineyard that was founded in 1859.

That land, tucked into the Langhe hills of northern Italy, is responsible for the unique properties (or terroir) of Gaja's precious nebbiolo grapes, which make subtly expressive wines that are highly coveted by connoisseurs, but often misunderstood, he said, by New World drinkers.

In the spectrum of red wines, nebbiolo is the closest Italy has to pinot noir, a complex and medium-bodied red that shows elegant berry fruit, but can also have an assertive personality bolstered with tannins and acidity. As a result, nebbiolo is ideal to match with food, but can be hard to approach solo on an empty stomach at a cocktail party.

Gaja explains nebbiolo's charm in movie-star metaphors.

"Cabernet sauvignon is to John Wayne as nebbiolo is to [Italian actor] Marcello Mastroianni," says Gaja. "John Wayne was always in character, always in fashion, and easy to understand, with a big smile and a loud voice and a strong personality."

"Marcello never occupied the center of the room. He was in a corner. Not welcoming like John Wayne. He didn't have the 36-tooth smile. You were not even sure he is your friend. And if he did smile, it was a little bit ironic, a little sarcastic. But for some reason, he was always surrounded by the most beautiful women. And they were shining next to him. He was able to enhance them. They were shining like food next to a glass of nebbiolo!"

Gaja acknowledges that Americans don't always get the wine's sarcastic charm, though it may be because Americans have developed a fundamentally different approach to wine.

"In the Old World we have the habit of considering wine a food match," he says. "But [in America] and in Asia, wine is entertainment. Maybe that's good, yes. But then you have to make [those] wines to impress between meals. Soft. Not aggressive."

In other words, not what Gaja makes.

I sampled two of Gaja's wines at separate dinners, a 2003 Ca' Marcanda Promis and a 2001 Barbaresco, and found both to be spectacularly complex and balanced - tightly wrapped around a core of pure fruit, but deliberately slow to open up and become expressive in the glass. But patience was rewarded. The Tuscan Promis ($33.99 in Pennsylvania) is a merlot-syrah blend that hummed with tart black cherry, and it wove its spell effortlessly from a plate of garlicky chicken to a char-grilled veal chop with mushrooms to a pepper-crusted tuna steak splashed in balsamic vinegar.

The Barbaresco, meanwhile, was beguilingly intricate and ever-changing, a burst of dark wild berry fruits and licorice emerging from a ring of smoky tannins, a whiff of cedar box, and a long, ringing finish of lime. The challenge of well-spiced sausage with smoked red beans was an easy match, as this regal wine (available retail in Pennsylvania for $143.49 a bottle) showed its truly rustic soul.

That dish would have shredded any number of the fat "marmalade" wines, as Gaja dismissively refers to the easy-drinking "fruit-forward" commercial bottles that have been at the heart of Americans' spike in wine consumption.

Of course, these bottles are prohibitively expensive for most consumers (even lesser Barbarescos usually begin in the high $20s). But I wondered if we would drink more nebbiolo-like wines if more Italian grapes were being planted in American vineyards and produced more affordably with a New World interpretation. California's predominant varieties - cabernet, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and, increasingly, syrah - are all French in origin.

Gaja says it has been tried but with little success (even with his vines, in Washington State), as few winemakers can sustain the "tall sacrifice" of nebbiolo's extremely low yields (about a half to a third that of cabernet), slow maturation, and homesick affinity for Piedmont's particular microclimate.

Ultimately, though, Gaja takes heart in knowing that nebbiolo remains an elusive grape to translate beyond the Langhe hills. In a world of increasingly similar wine flavors "begun in the marketing office" instead of the vineyard, retaining the uniqueness of what he calls an "original wine" is important.

Original wines, he said, "reflect the real taste of where they came from. It comes from somewhere, not anywhere. It reflects the tradition and the culture of the ones who made it."

A bit sarcastic? Perhaps. Ironic? Maybe. But ultimately, that charm won't be denied.

Or Drink These

Here are three other excellent but less expensive Barbarescos to try that are available in selected Pennsylvania State Stores:

Moccagatta 2001 - $42.29

Paitin Sori Paitin 2001 - $38.99

Produttori del Barbaresco 2003 - $29.99 (currently available in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties).

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