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

Maremma, part 2: bistecca panzanese at Osteria Magona in Bolgheri

Above: Omar Barsacchi and Gionata d’Alessi, chefs at Osteria Magona, the coolest joint in Bolgheri.

Osteria Magona
57022 Bolgheri (LI)
Piazza Ugo, 2/3
tel. 0565 762173

Whey they hear the toponym Bolgheri (pronounced BOHL-geh-ree), many think immediately of the Maremma coastline where Italy’s famed Super Tuscans are produced. But the appellation gets its name from Bolgheri the beautiful borgo medievale (medieval township), a village with delightful summertime nightlife, music, wine bars, and a handful of family-run osterie.

I had the good fortune to visit Bolgheri at the tail end of the summer this year to have dinner with Cinzia during my stay in the Maremma.

She, my buddy Ben Shapiro, and I met up at the Osteria Magona, run by Omar and Gionata, above, two young chefs who show great verve in their traditional Tuscan cooking (Gionata’s name is pronounced JOH-nah-tah and is a calque of the English Jonathan). Both young men consider themselves quasi-disciples of celebrity Tuscan butcher and poet Dario Cecchini of Panzano in Chianti Classico (I liked this profile of Cecchini.) Cecchini gained notoriety a few years back when he composed an ode to the bistecca alla fiorentina, bemoaning its ban by the European Union during the mad cow scare.

During that period, he developed a cut of beef, which he called the bistecca alla panzanese, named after his natio loco, Panzano, carved from the thigh (pictured above at Osteria Magona). It resembles the fiorentina but has no contact with bone and, thus, was acceptable under EU rules.

That night, we paired a gorgeous panzanese with Cinzia’s 2001 Messorio, a bottling with great emotional significance for her. I was honored that she shared it with me. Her Messorio is her most famous wine and has received high marks from U.S. wine writers in recent years. But sometimes a great wine isn’t about its fame, rarity, or even the physical pleasure derived from it. Sometimes it’s more about the people who made it and the people with whom you share it. Thanks, Cinzia. It’s a bottle I’ll never forget.

On deck: tasting at Ornellaia and Sassicaia… stay tuned…

Hang time

Look at those babies hang! There was a scirocco yesterday in Bolgheri and a hot wind blew from the south. While some wineries had begun to pick their Merlot, these berries still hung on the vine in Ornellaia’s famed Masseto vineyard.

Ben and I are headed up and over to Lombardy today to meet Franco. Still can’t get properly online but was determined to post nonetheless.

Stay tuned…

Gambero Rosso in San Diego (or What Would Happen if All Tuscans Became Super Tuscans?)

Above: Giovanni Folonari pours his new Super Tuscan, Campo al Mare (Bolgheri) at the Gambero Rosso Tour in San Diego, California.

Does the world really need another Super Tuscan? This question plagued me as I tasted through the wines on display at the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” at the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center in downtown San Diego.

Otherwise useful as a directory of Italian wineries, the Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy favors the big “lip-smacking,” luscious wines that seem do sell well in the United States. The three-glass scoring system used in the guide is yet another – however poetically veiled – points-based system, and while the same big-name wines seem to score well year after year in the guide, few small producers and even fewer lower-end wines make it up the ladder.

When I asked how the guide has grown in the 20+ years he’s served as editor-in-chief, Marco Sabellico told me, “the guide hasn’t grown because Italians are making more wines. The guide has grown because Italians are making more higher-end wines.”

It’s not really clear to me how the wines are chosen for the Gambero Rosso “Top Italian Wine Roadshow” (held this year in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and for the first time San Diego). Its “Three Glass” tasting features only those wines that have won the guide’s top award. For the roadshow, it seems that Marina Thompson PR might have something to do with the selection. Marina happens to be Gambero Rosso president Daniele Cernilli’s wife.

What lured me to the event this year was the fact that it was held for the first-time in San Diego, California.

Above: Tim Grace of Il Mulino di Grace, a Chianti Classico producer in the township of Panzano.

I was asked by many presenters to taste this or that “new” Super Tuscan.

Giovanni Folonari had me taste his Campo al Mare, made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot (no Sangiovese). The estate, he told me, lies between Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The wine was well made, not overly woody, and not too high in alcohol. But does the world need yet another Super Tuscan? Maybe it does and since I’m not a fan of Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon in the first place, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. Giovanni told me it will retail for about $35 and that’s good news, I guess. Maybe the world does need a new reasonably priced Super Tuscan.

I also tasted a Super Tuscan (Gratius) by Mulino di Grace (Panzano, Chianti Classico). The Grace family’s Chianti Classico is a blend of Sangiovese with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet. I kinda liked its Chianti Classico, where the addition of small amounts of international grapes give the wine more color and forward fruit, thus making it more modern in style. But I really liked the Gratius, 100% Sangiovese, a wine that showed the balance of fruit, acidity, and gentler tannin, and the lightness in the mouth that you get with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. To my palate, the Gratius tasted the most like Chianti Classico of all the wines he was pouring (in fact, owner Tim Grace told me, the wine could have been classified as Chianti Classico DOCG).

Some believe that the term Super Tuscan was coined by Nicolas Belfrage and was first used in print in Life Beyond Lambrusco (1985), co-authored by Nicolas and Jancis Robinson. The early Super Tuscans were generally made with international grape varieties and the wines generally saw some time in new wood. Because the wines — most famously, Sassicaia and Tignanello — did not meet standards for any existing appellations at the time they were first released, they were officially classified as vini da tavola or table wines, even though they were marketed as high-end wines.

According to usage, a Super Tuscan is a Tuscan-made wine that 1) does not meet requirements set forth by local appellation laws (in many cases, this is due merely to the fact that a given wine uses grape varieties not allowed by the appellation); or 2) has been intentionally declassified by the producer (as in the case of Tim Grace’ wine). While barrique aging is often used for Super Tuscans, barrique is not a sine qua non.

One of the reasons why the term Super Tuscan helps winemakers to sell wines in the United States is the moniker itself: it just sounds good and it implies that the wines are somehow better, that they surpass the rest of the field. I certainly can’t blame Tim for declassifying his wine. Chianti is a confusing appellation for Americans and if declassification helps him to promote awareness of his wines, more power to him (and his wines are good and deserve attention).

But because the term Super Tuscan is now applied to wines made in Bolgheri (on the Tuscan coast), Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini (and other subzones), Montalcino, Montecucco, Montepulciano… and the list goes on… it has became a de facto über-classification that eclipses the personality of those places and the character of the persons who make those wines.

Tuscans are a highly diverse group of people and their language, their food, their traditions, and their wines change from city to city, town to town, from village to village (and from principality to principality, we would have said in another age). Just ask a Florentine what s/he thinks of the Pisans and you’ll see what I mean (and I won’t repeat the colloquial adage nor the often quoted line from Dante here). I’ve traveled extensively in Tuscany and have spent many hours in its libraries, its trattorie, and wineries. I would certainly be disappointed if the Tuscans, like their wines, all became Super Tuscans.