ANGELO GAJA'S name is synonymous with barbaresco ...splendid servers argue that Gaja is barbaresco. His father is the mayor of the medieval town of Barbaresco and his winery is one of that village's largest buildings.
Barbaresco is, of course, Piedmont's second-most-famous wine after barolo. Like barolo, it is made from the nebbiolo grape. Barbaresco has much of the robust character and spicy flavors of barolo, but has a silkier texture and matures faster. It is a more popular wine among the cognoscenti of Piedmont than barolo, which they claim is best reserved for "more solemn occasions."
Gaja's knack for getting attention is the result of several factors. First, his wines are indeed excellent. Second, he is a bold innovator, willing to try just about anything to make a better wine, even if it goes against time-honored traditional winemaking techniques. He pioneered the carbonic maceration method for his vienot wine, a point he strongly asserts as he remains upset over the statement in Burton Anderson's book "Vino" that "Gaja is the disciple of carbonic maceration in Italy."
Gaja is the only Piedmontese winemaker to age his barbarescos in small, new Yugoslavian oak barrels for a year, and his was one of the first wineries to produce and bottle its wines from specific vineyard locations. In addition, Gaja owns all of his own vineyards and purchases no grapes from any growers, an expensive proposition, but one which gives him a measure of quality control that is unique in Piedmont.
Gaja is also controversial because he takes the position that his top barbarescos are as good as the finest French bordeaux and burgundies and should sell at similar prices. He has the exclusive distribution rights within Italy to the fabulously expensive French burgundies from the Domaine de Romanee-Conti, and is well aware of what collectors will pay for a highly publicized burgundy.
Many of Gaja's own admirers tell him those burgundies are no better, and perhaps not as good as, one of his barbarescos. Consequently, Gaja sells his barbarescos from the three-acre Sori Tilden, two-acre Sori San Lorenzo and Costa Russi vineyards, splendid as they are, in the United States at for $30 a bottle. His dolcettos and barberas are twice the price of almost all other wines of their type from Piedmont.
From a quality standpoint, Gaja's wines are extremely well-made, and his barbarescos are indeed superb. If you are willing to part with the $30 for a bottle of bordeaux, then in terms of quality you certainly are no worse off with Gaja's barbaresco.
Still, with plenty of good barolos and barbarescos selling at less than half the price charged for a Gaja wine, and an American market historically weaned on cheap Italian wines, one has to wonder how many consumers are willing to make the rather hefty investment in a Gaja wine. Apparently somebody is, because his three vineyard-designated barbarescos are strictly allocated to a few shops in the United States, and seem to be as hard to come by as a bottle of 1929 bordeaux. Gaja's wines are distributed locally by the Alseca Corpor., and small selections can be found at A & A Liquors and the Calvert Wine Shop.
Gaja's wines seem to possess a purity of fruit and intensity of flavors that combine the power of the nebbiolo grape with a measure of finesse. His finest wines are the three vineyard-designated barbarescos.
While in Piedmont, I tasted all three of them from the extraordinary 1978 vintage. If I had a favorite, it was the Sori San Lorenzo, because it was the most developed and the least tannic. If you have the money, any of these three wines will provide a memorable drinking experience around 1988.
Almost identical in quality is Gaja's regular 1978 barbaresco ($16.50), which is a blend from his own vineyards. It is a big, spicy, rich wine which promises greatness if you have the patience to hold onto it for at least five years. Gaja fans should look forward to his 1979 barbarescos, which will be available later this year. They have the fruit, power and depth of the 1978 wines, but without the harsh tannin and acidity. Of the vineyard-designated barbarescos, Gaja claims his Costa Russi 1979 Barbaresco is the greatest wine he has ever made.
Gaja does make three wines for current drinking upon their release. His 1979 Dolcetto Vignabajla ($10.49), his Barbera Vignarey 1979 ($9.49) and 1979 Nebbiolo Vignaveja ($10.49) share in common ripe, fruity, supple, intense flavors, full body and light-to-moderate tannin.
Gaja, at 42, is admired by his peers in Piedmont; he is unquestionably one of that region's most successful businessmen and winemakers. His wines are expensive to make, and he is not bashful when it comes to setting their prices.
The success or failure of his wines in an American market conditioned upon inexpensive Italian wine is being watched closely by many of the small, high-quality Piedmontese producers and their importers who sincerely feel that their wines deserve to sell at much higher prices.