Angelo Gaja’s vintage notes 1958-2011

Above: Each one of the Gaja wineries is also home to an art collection. I snapped the above image in the foyer of the Piedmont cellar the last time I tasted there.

The following post recently came to my attention: Angelo Gaja’s vintage notes 1958-2011, anecdotes, insights, and reflections (many in hindsight).

I can’t conceal that I found it to be a fascinating document and I wanted to share it here.

50 Best Italian Wines (?)

It would be pleonastic for me to address the myriad reasons why “top” lists — 10, 50, 100, the number doesn’t matter — are inherently useless in any putatively empirical assessment of wine.

Such indices, even when presented as genuine and well intentioned, serve only the purposes of marketers, advertisers, sellers of advertising space, and those whose lives are driven by a desire to maximize consumer goods.

And just like a schoolchild who aimlessly believes that highlighting a passage in Manzoni’s The Betrothed with a yellow pen will aid her/him in a mnemonic quest, authors of such lists inadvertently delete scores of wines from their ledgers the way said child quickly forgets the unhighlighted passages — not seeing the forest for the trees.

Today the world of Italian wine is reeling from the publication of an Italian-grown “Best Italian Wine Awards,” presented yesterday in Milan by the organizers (click here for a blog post depicting the scene).

The list, which can be viewed here, surprised many Italian observers of the Italian wine industry and I believe it may surprise you as well.

Among the Italian wine bloggers I follow, no one protested Valentini and G. Mascarello in pole position.

But some were puzzled by some glaring omissions, like top Italian wine blogger Franco Ziliani who noted the absence of any of Angelo Gaja’s wines. Now, if you follow Franco’s excellent blog, you know that he’s no fan of Angelo Gaja’s wines. But as he points out (rightly), this could only be considered an “eccentric” oversight.

And beyond Gaja, there are many others missing and many bizarre entries.

With academic interest and for the record, I point you to the list here.

Otherwise devoid of cultural, societal, intellectual, or epistemological value, the list does represent a cross-section of marketing forces in Italy today (as do the “prize” selections).

Angelo Gaja’s cherry trees (and the legacy of global warming)

Angelo Gaja is simply one of wine world’s most fascinating personages. On the four occasions I’ve had the chance to sit down and taste or chat with him, I’ve always been wholly impressed by the scope and breadth of his interests and his humanity. And when you sit down with Angelo Gaja, you never know where the conversation will lead you… or rather, where he will lead you in conversation. At every meeting, I’ve always come away with my mind churning over an anecdote or insight that he shared.

I won’t conceal that I planned my recent trip to New York around his visit, knowing that I would get the chance to have breakfast with Angelo at the Soho Trump. He was in town to speak at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, where he gave a lecture on the evolution of the fine wine world and his role in it.

I was curious to ask him about his recent “open letter,” published in March of this year. In it, he wrote about the many challenges that Italian winemakers face in the wine trade “reset” (my term, not his).

But the day we met for breakfast last week, Angelo wanted to talk about cherry trees, perhaps inspired by the beautiful June day in the city.

“I remember when I was boy,” he began, “every summer, in June, my grandmother [Clotilde Rey] would send me a bag of cherries. They were the best cherries I’d ever had. These cherries were fantastic. But they were smaller than most cherries. They were black and they had a little bit of bitter taste. I thought that she had bought them at a fruit store.”

It was many years later, he explained, that he realized that the cherries actually came from a lone wild cherry tree — balin (bah-LEEN) in Piedmontese dialect, a Mahaleb cherry tree in English.

These trees, which blossom all over central and northern Italy in springtime, are ungrafted cherry trees and in their youth produce bitter fruit. But “after sixty or seventy years,” he said, their berries become fewer but larger in size and they deliver one of Langa’s greatest delicacies.

But in the summer of 1955, Clotilde didn’t send the teenage Angelo his cherries. “I thought that my grandmother bought the cherries in a food shop and so I asked my mother to ask her to send the cherries.” But they never arrived. And it would take six years before he would learn the reason why she stopped sending them.

A terrible hailstorm, he recounted, had devastated Barbaresco’s vineyards that spring. “It destroyed seventy percent of the vineyards in Barbaresco.” It was so violent that it ripped the bark from Clotilde’s beloved balin.

“For years, our vineyard manager Gino Cavallo had asked my father to cut down that tree,” remembered Angelo, “because it was planted in a field that was perfect for Nebbiolo. But my grandmother would not let them because she loved that tree so much. In 1961, when I joined the winery, he told me the story.”

It was only after the terrible storm of 1955 that she acquiesced and allowed them to cut it down. And today, that field is planted to Nebbiolo, one of the fourteen vineyards that provide fruit for Gaja’s classic Barbaresco.

Over the last few years, said Angelo, he’s had nearly eighty wild cherry trees planted across the Gaja family’s Piedmont estate.

“I’ll never get to taste those cherries,” he said wistfully, “because it will take sixty or seventy years for them to produce the cherries that we eat. But it’s something that I have done for future generations. Farmers must do this.”

“Before the 1990s,” and the epic string of bountiful crops that began in 1995, “we used to have to wait a decade for a good vintage. Today, with global warming, that has all changed… When I was a boy, the fog [could be] as thick as milk, five to ten meters thick. But nowadays, it’s not like that. The weather conditions have changed.”

Barbaresco growers have certainly benefited from the warming trend. Hail storms are never as severe as the storm of 1955 and they haven’t had a “disastrous” vintage for a decade now — a far cry from the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, when they were lucky to have one good vintage in the arc of ten years. And I don’t know a single grape grower in Barbaresco who doesn’t believe in global warming.

But I can’t help but wonder: will those cherries, planted by Gaja for our children, taste as sweet as they did to a teenage Angelo?

Thanks for reading…

An awesome flight at Terroir in Tribeca last night

There’s no two ways about it: New York is simply the greatest “wine” destination in our country. On any given night, whether its old Nebbiolo or funky skin-contact Natural wines you crave, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

Last night I connected with good friends at Terroir in Tribeca where I got to taste two of my all-time favorite wines, the Galea (2003!) by I Clivi (Colli Orientali del Friuli) and Ageno by La Stoppa (Piacenza), one of those life-changers.

And there were so many other cool wines, at reasonable prices, that would have quenched my thirst for wine that could speak to me in lyrical tones.

Marco Canora’s meatballs are as good as when I first tasted them at the original location on East 12th in 2008.

Speck and fontina sandwich rocked.

And a special thanks to sommelier Will Piper, who was always one step ahead of our table, offering just the right wine in perfect synch with the rhythm of our evening. The dude really knows his stuff and he was right on at every turn… loved it…

In other news…

Why is Angelo Gaja lecturing on Russia? Stay tuned to find out…

Bandol on the run (and heading to NYC)

Alfonso came for dinner last night and to visit with Georgia P.

He generously brought a bottle of the 2011 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé, our first taste of the new vintage, still very tight honestly…

But as it opened up, it paired nicely with Tracie P’s whole wheat spaghetti tossed with broccoli and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Posting in a hurry this morning from the Austin airport on my way to New York for meetings and to hear Angelo Gaja speak at the 92Y downtown tomorrow night. See you on the other side!

Angelo Gaja’s State of the Union Address: “the winery next door isn’t an enemy”

Above: The last time I tasted with Angelo Gaja was in March 2010 at his winery in Barbaresco.

Earlier this week Angelo Gaja sent out one of what I call his “papal bulls.” As an elder statesman of Italian wine, he often issues these statements via email — on the state of the Italian wine industry, on the Brunello controversy, on the distillation crisis in Piedmont etc. And a number of Italian bloggers repost them.

As I prepare to leave for Italy to attend the Italian wine trade fair Vinitaly (and to lead a group of bloggers to Friuli the following week), I decided to translate his most recent “state of the union” address.

Whether you agree with him or not, I think that you’ll find his insights and observations as interesting as I did.

For the record, I am the author of the translation below and while you can find the piece on many Italian-language sites, I read it on I Numeri del Vino (an Italian wine industry blog that I highly recommend).

I also highly recommend checking out this post by Alfonso on the DOC(G) to DOP migration (part of the same EEC Common Market Organization Reforms that Gaja references in his statement).

Europe’s Winds of Change

by Angelo Gaja

The Italian wine market is going through a phase of profound change that offers contrasting clues for interpretation.

Domestic consumption is dropping while exports are growing. There are producers who are finding it hard to sell their wines and their cellars are still full of wine. Others take advantage of market opportunities and they empty their cellars with ease.

The current trend of pessimism contrasts with the rhetoric of optimism. Where does the truth lie? The numbers don’t tell the whole story but they help us to understand the current situation.

Nearly twenty-five million hectoliters of Italian wine are exported annually and domestic consumption is just over twenty million hectoliters. Together, these numbers constitute a demand of forty-five million hectoliters, to which we need to add the demand for wine by vinegar producers and users of industrial alcohol. The annual average production of wine in Italy in recent years has strained to meet demand. Will Italian wine fail to rise to the occasion?

Causes that Contribute to a Balancing of the Market

Global warming has contributed to this stress, as has the advanced state of obsolescence of 50 percent of the vineyards in Italy today. But it has also been accelerated by the effects of the European market reforms that were called for, imposed, and implemented by Brussels on August 1, 2009.

These reforms were inspired by common sense — a rare commodity these days. And they were intended to put an end to the waste perpetuated by more than thirty years of public subsidies devoted to the elimination of surplus. And they were implemented by the introduction of measures aimed at re-balancing the wine market.

Once squandered, [European Economic] Community contributions are now devoted to the co-financing of promotion of European wineries beyond Europe’s borders and they have helped exports take off despite the current crisis.

In a short period of time, the number of wineries exporting their products has grown more than 30 percent. A significant number of artisanal producers has begun to ship wines abroad and their success has encouraged to them to combine their resources and to travel beyond Italy’s borders to tell their stories and share their passion, traditions, and innovations. And in doing so, they have helped to contribute to the greater respect that Italian wine now commands throughout the world. As a result, there are many who now believe that the Italian wine market is undergoing a profound and unprecedented structural change that requires them to adopt a new and different cultural approach.

Think Differently

More must be done to monitor and prevent the production of counterfeit wine.

We must stop thinking that we need to compete with one another and that the winery next door is an enemy.

It’s inconceivable that the windfall of European Economic Community contributions for the co-financing of exports beyond Europe’s borders continue uninterrupted: why should European citizens be taxes to achieve this goal?

We must learn how to build business networks using only our own funds.

The domestic market continues to be the most challenging. But its value is undiminished because it’s what shapes and builds business: it’s a mistake to dismiss and neglect it.

The producers whose wines enjoy a healthy presence in the Italian market are often the same producers who reap the rewards of foreign markets.

The balance between supply and demand puts the greatest responsibility on all of our shoulders. And it should impel producers to grow and to become more capable businessmen who are better prepared to rise up to meet the challenges of the market.

Angelo Gaja, March 19, 2012

New York Stories 6: lunch with Antonio Galloni at Marea

Above: The cuttlefish crudo at Marea.

There are many in our field who claim to be the world’s greatest experts on Italian wine. You certainly don’t need me to tell you who they are: they have publicists for that!

To my mind, Antonio Galloni is the greatest English-language authority on Italian wine in the U.S. today.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of others important writers to whom we need to listen. But the clarity and purpose of Antonio’s voice and the aequitas of his approach make him stand out among the field of the merely so-called as well as the bona fide Italian wine experts.

Above: Sommelier Francesco Grosso’s list features a lot of the usual suspects (and you don’t need to tell you who they are) but it also includes many gems for the Italian wine geeks among us, like this Blanc de Morgex et La Salle by Pavese.

Antonio was leaving the next day for Italy and the list of producers he is visiting… well, it would make you drool, too.

I cannot conceal that I was thrilled to get to meet him and to talk shop. We discussed Bartolo Mascarello, Beppe Rinaldi, Gianfranco Soldera, Angelo Gaja, and many others, and his insights are always fascinating to me (whether delivered via the Wine Advocate these days or a voce, in this case).

I followed his excellent newsletter Piedmont Report since its early days in 2004 (the original Italian wine blogger ante litteram?) and I think his knowledge and experience in Piedmont in particular are remarkable. His vintage notes are especially vital to our field.

“Every element of traditional winemaking in Barolo is present in Beppe Rinaldi,” he said making reference to the winemaker he goes back to every year and one of his favorites. This was just one of the gems that I took away with me that day. Man, I’d love to taste those wines with him.

Above: The spaghetti were excellent, although the crab and sea urchin sauce was a little too spicy.

I learned that his parents owned a wine store in Florida when he was growing up. I discovered that he’s a jazzer (studied at Berkeley) and a opera tenor (studied in Milan).

But the coolest thing was to learn that this dude, however revered and feared he is by nearly every Italian winemaker and wine publicist in the world today, is a really mellow guy who just digs Italy, Italian wine, and Italian food.

It can’t be easy to work with and for “Bob Parker” and to manage all the pressure and scrutiny that come along with the gig. But somehow Antonio seems to never have lost site of his original mission. He just loves Italian wine. (He speaks Italian with native speaker proficiency, btw.)

The power of the wine press may be excessive at times. But thank goodness that there are folks like him who somehow (miraculously, really) manage to balance the yin and the yang of it all.

Whether tasting with Gaja (yin?) or Rinaldi (yang?), Antonio put it best: “I’ll just never get tired of traveling to Italy,” he said, “and tasting wine and eating great food.”

Ubi major, minor cessat.

Angelo Gaja in Bolgheri: Oedipus and the winery as a work of art

Here’s another post from my recent trip to Italy during the second and third weeks of September, 2010. I’m slowly making my way through Tuscany, then the Veneto, and then Friuli. Thanks for reading!

Above: Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda winery “sinks” into the landscape.

Gaia Gaja drives fast. I could barely keep up with her… she in her Audi Quattro station wagon, me in my Renault Clio rental! After we finished our tasting and tour at her family’s Pieve di Santa Restituta property (a fascinating visit), we drove in tandem toward the coast, where we ate lunch in San Vincenzo at a restaurant that I highly recommend, if not for the food then for the cast of characters who await you). In the wake of our Fellinian repast, we headed from San Vincenzo toward Castagneto Carducci and her family’s Ca’ Marcanda winery.

Above: We stopped to chat with the vineyard manager whose team was picking Syrah that day (Monday, September 13).

I’ve visited some impressive wineries in my time as an observer of Italian wine and the people who grow and produce it (Soldera is at the top of that list, of course, and I’ll be posting on my incredible visit to Zidarich toward the end of this series). But Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda stands apart, a winery sui generis.

As a rule, winemakers design their wineries and winemaking facilities with functionality as their guide. Aesthetics are no afterthought but beauty is trumped by the business of making wine, the nuts and bolts, as it were, of presses, vats, casks, bottling lines, etc.

When Angelo Gaja conceived the Ca’ Marcanda facility, he turned this notion on its head: the germ was an aesthetic ideal and the functionality and process of wine came in its wake.

Above: Everywhere you turn in the winery, you find objets d’art, like these movable wood sculptures by Astigiano artist Sergio Omedé.

As we toured her family’s winery together, I noticed that everyone we met — from the receptionist to enologist Guido Rivella — had a smile on their face, a bounce in their step, and a kind word to share even in the industrious hum of their daily toil. This place — this enotopia (how’s that for a neologism!) — is so violently beautiful to look at, with something interesting to gaze upon at every corner. It’s no wonder the staff enjoys showing up for work every day.

Above: One of the many sculptures in terracotta by architect Giovanni Bo (Gaja’s longtime collaborator).

It occurred to me that Gaja’s Ca’ Marcanda property, the third in the Gaja tripytch, is the fulfillment of an Oedipal cycle.

In Piedmont, Gaja inherited a winery built by his father. In Piedmont, Gaja the winemaker is the fourth generation in one of Europe’s most venerable winemaking legacies. In Piedmont, Gaja has always pushed the envelope of the appellation regulations and tradition but he never works outside of them.

In Montalcino, Gaja bought what may be the oldest continuously operating estate in the appellation, with a church that dates back to the 7th century C.E. There, too, he is bound by strict appellation regulations and an entrenched however youthful enologic tradition. There, he is painstakingly restoring the beautiful house of worship and making wines that do not attempt to redefine the place but rather sing the notes of Sangiovese to the tune of Gaja elegance.

In Bolgheri, Gaja built a winery from scratch, on an estate that never produced fine wine until he arrived. Here, he was free to express his creativity, quite literally and figuratively, in an appellation where the rules have yet to be written (all of the Ca’ Marcanda wines are Toscana IGT). Gaja’s own ars poetica was the only chain to bind him and like a great poet, he has created his own language, a brave and new idiolect. Truly fascinating…

Above: I regret that ability as photographer do not do justice to this amazing working space. That’s winery as seen from the backside. It’s virtually invisible to the outside world.

When Gaia showed me the main floor of the winery, where vinification, aging, and bottling take place in one open space, I noticed that the bottling line was enclosed in acrylic. Her father wanted one open space for the main room of the winery, she said, and so he had to devise an enclosure to ensure the hygienic integrity of the bottling line. Here, aesthetics once again had trumped functionality. I asked Gaia if her father had patented the system. No, she said. Why would he?

Come with me
And you’ll be
In a world of
Pure imagination
Take a look
And you’ll see
Into your imagination

We’ll begin
With a spin
Traveling in
The world of my creation
What we’ll see
Will defy

There is no
Life I know
To compare with
Pure imagination
Living there
You’ll be free
If you truly
Wish to be

Denis Lin, one of the coolest cats, and the best tajerin

Chinese wine writer Denis Lin was one of the coolest cats I met on this trip. He draws the label of many of the wines he tastes in his tasting book. “This way, I don’t get drunk,” he said. His drawings are amazing.

One of the cool things about Barbera Meeting was the folks I met from all over the world. There were a lot of Asian buyers and writers here…

Denis, above, is currently in talks to appear in the sequel to The Barbera 7, scheduled release 2011, working title: The Barbera 8.

In other news…

The best tajerin I’ve ever had.

At Ristorante Antica Torre in Barbaresco with Gaia Gaja.

Thanks again, Gaia, for an unforgettable meal, from The Barbera 7! :-)

Ristorante Antica Torre
Via Torino, 64
12050 Barbaresco
0173 63 51 70

Highly recommended…

Waiter, waiter: I’ll have what Eric’s having…

Above: Last night, Tracie B and I opened Puffeney’s 2006 Trousseau, one of those “original” wines that we couldn’t stop talking about. Photos by Tracie B.

The wines from the Jura first came to my attention at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, L’Utopie in Québec City when my band Nous Non Plus was on tour there a few years back. Thirty-something owner and sommelier Frédéric Gauthier has an amazing palate and his list has always delivered something unusual and exciting to my table.

So when I read Eric’s preview of his column on the “Unusually Good” wines from the Jura at the end of a long workday for both me and Tracie B, I decided to cork a bottle of Puffeney 2006 Arbois Trousseau that we had picked up here in town at The Austin Wine Merchant.

At a talk on modern vs. traditional wines he gave in New York a number of years ago, Angelo Gaja discussed what he called “original” wines: wines that “surprise” you, he said.

The Trousseau, like nearly everything I’ve tasted from the Jura, was one of those “original” wines: it’s one of those wines that could only be made in that place, by those people, using the grapes, the techniques, and the terroir that belong uniquely to them. It was light in body but with some confident tannin, with berry fruit and brilliant acidity. Tracie B and I couldn’t stop talking about it: one of those wines that surprises you and speaks of a little mountainous utopia in France along the Swiss border where they make truly wonderful wines.

We loved it and I also highly recommend Eric’s column today in the times. Wine Digger digs these wines, too, as does McDuff. And here’s a little background on Puffeney’s methods.

Get it at The Austin Wine Merchant. Enjoy!