Gaia Gaja’s cowgirl boots (and my first Alba truffles of the season)

Yesterday found me back in Houston where I had lunch with my friend and client Tony and Gaia Gaja.

To mark the occasion of her Houston, Texas visit, Gaia donned the cowgirl boots she had picked up on her previous visit (above). As the saying goes, you can take a girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl. After all, she does come from a town where they didn’t have running water until 1964.

As you can imagine, Tony pulled out all the stops for the luncheon: I’ve posted my complete notes on the meal and the wines over at his site here.

I wasn’t surprised by the Gaja 2007 Barbaresco: however strange (by virtue of the fact that there was no winter to speak of), the 2007 vintage was generous to Barbaresco and everything I’ve tasted so far has been great to phenomenal (remember when Tracie P and I tasted 2007 Asili and Santo Stefano with Bruno Giacosa?).

But it was Gaia’s family’s 2008 Barbaresco that really blew me away. In a challenging vintage, Gaja was blessed with very juicy, well ripened fruit. Green harvesting and southern exposure of their vineyards delivered mature grapes, said Gaja, and allowed them to pick before inclement weather arrived. The floral notes on the wine were fantastic and although still very young in its evolution, it had that zinging acidity and powerful tannin that makes Barbaresco such a unique appellation imho and one of my favorite wines in the world.

My favorite dish of the meal was the branzino and poached potato tartar topped with caviar and paired with the 2009 Gaia & Rey Chardonnay (a guilty pleasure, I must admit).

Click here for all of my notes, including the 2005 Sperss, and images of the dishes…

Thanks again, Tony and Gaia!

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
Explanation

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

Gaja’s Santa Restituta restoration project fascinated me

This is the first in a series of posts culled from my recent trip to Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. While on the road, I was only able to post short snippets and highlights from my visits. Starting today, and in the weeks that follow (as time permits), I’ll be posting in-depth accounts of my conversations with winemakers and restaurateurs and what I tasted. Thanks for reading…

Above: Can you imagine my delight when I got to tour the Pieve di Santa Restituta restoration site in Tavernelle (Montalcino) a few weeks ago? The white bassi rilievi (bas-reliefs) are possible indications of the presence of a Romanic church on this site, i.e., a pagan temple that was converted and consecrated as a Catholic church in the Middle Ages.

When I tasted with Gaia Gaja back in the spring of this year in Chicago, one of the things I was most curious about was her family’s restoration of the Pieve di Santa Restituta and the church of the parish (pieve) in the Orcia River Valley, where her family makes Brunello di Montalcino.

I first visited the Orcia River Valley in Tuscany (perhaps the most photogenic and photographed swath of this beautiful land) in 1989 and have been fascinated ever since by the medieval hilltop towns and the rich ancient religious traditions that thrive here, like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (in Castelnuovo) or the Madonna di Vitaleta (in San Quirico).

Above: The medieval façade of the Chiesa di Santa Restituta.

The pieve and church of Santa Restituta are particularly remarkable because the site represents an entirely unique and anomalous tradition in the context of the Orcia River Valley: the church is the only one in Tuscany devoted to Santa Restituta, the patron saint of Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, where Tracie P lived for nearly 5 years before we met.

Since Gaia (the fifth-generation winemaker in one of Itay’s most famous winemaking families) first told me about the church and her family’s restoration project, I’ve also been absorbed by the powerful legend of Santa Restituta. During my recent visit with her in Tuscany, she very generously photocopied an essay entitled “Una madre vegliarda: la Pieve di Santa Restituta (Montalcino)” (“An Old Mother: the Parish of Santa Restituta”)* and published in 1978 in Arezzo by a gentleman named Angelo Tafi, who spent the better part of the second half of the twentieth century documenting the many small parishes that dot the Tuscan countryside. On the plane ride home from Europe, I devoured this wonderful piece of writing, so generously given to me by Gaia.

Above: Many of the relics currently being cataloged in the restoration process date are from the nineteenth century, when this parish was populated by a vibrant community of sharecroppers.

St. Restituta was born in Africa during the rule of Diocletian (284 to 305). She is believed to be one of the Martyrs of Abitina (modern-day Tunisia). When she refused to worship Jupiter, the Romans ordered that she be covered in tar and burned on a boat. Miraculously, her captors’s vessel caught fire and her boat drifted away before they could set it ablaze.

Most scholars believe that her relics were brought to Naples by African Christians who fled persecution in the sixth century. Today, the Cathedral of Naples now stands where the Church of Santa Restituta was established at that time. Ultimately, the relics were transferred to the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia where a church devoted to her still stands.

Above: I don’t know if she planned to do so, but Gaia’s handsome outfit was reminiscent of a nun’s habit that day. The parish and the church have a truly magical aura about them.

Her feast is celebrated in May on the island, where the legend is re-enacted each year in a colorful and widely popular pageant. In the contemporary version of her story, her boat finds its way to the bay of San Montano in Lacco Ameno, where her body is discovered by Lucina, a local matron, who proclaims that a virgin has been delivered by the hand of God. Her cult on the island is so powerful that many families still name their daughters Restituta (as Tracie P can attest!).

No one really knows why the church in Tavernelle was devoted to Santa Restituta, although — as Tafi demonstrates — it’s unlikely that there is a relation to Latium’s homonymous Santa Restituta di Sora. The site was a well established state-owned farming community in Roman times and it’s possible that Neapolitan merchants settled there in the late Middle Ages: anyone who knows the coastal road from Fiumicino airport in Rome to Sant’Angelo in Colle (the southern outpost of Montalcino) will immediately recognize the strategic location of the Pieve di Santa Restituta with relation to Naples.

I simply cannot convey the electric sensation of touring this beautiful property. A team of artisans buzzed around us, delicately chipping away at a stuccoed wall to reveal the classic brown limestone of the Orcia Rivery Valley underneath.

Above: Tafi’s research shows that the Sugarille vineyards were already devoted to the cultivation of grapes by the fifteenth century.

In his research, Tafi discovered that certain parcels were already devoted to viticulture by the fifteenth century. Today, Gaja uses those same growning sites for its flagship Brunello, the vineyard-designated Brunello Sugarille (the vineyard of the cork trees, sugheri in Italian).

Gaja’s vineyards lie adjacent to those of Soldera (who, together with his wines, will be the subject of an upcoming post). Many consider these historic growing sites to be among the best in the appellation. My guess is that centuries of sharecropping ultimately depleted the soil’s nutrients, making the white and brown earth ideal for the cultivation of fine wine grapes (but more on that later).

Above: Gaia poured me a flight of wines that spanned 1996 through 2008.

Of course, I was also there to taste Gaia’s family’s wines and I will not conceal that I was thoroughly impressed by the 2008 Brunello Sugarille (single vineyard) and the 2006 Brunello Rennina (which is sourced from three different vineyards on the estate). As you can see from the color in the image above, the wines were bright and transparent, and I found them to be excellent expressions of Sangiovese Grosso and the Brunello appellation. The red fruit was balanced by good acidity and powerful tannin (still very youthful in the case of the Sugarille) and there was none of the woodiness that I’ve found in earlier vintages of this wine. Here, in this most western subzone, elegance and purity trump the earthier expressions of Sangiovese that you find in the central, southwest, and southeast areas.

In my limited experience with Gaja’s bottlings of Brunello (since I can hardly afford them), I’ve seen an evolution (and I think that Gaia would agree) bringing them more into line with the classic profile of great Brunello. I thought the most recent vintages were great.

But, most of all, I was impressed by this fascinating restoration project, adding yet another destination to the many sites on my list of places to take Tracie P the next time we’re there. Truly exciting stuff for geeks like me!

*The reference to the madre vegliarda is culled from the great nineteenth-century Italian poet Giosué Carducci’s poem “La chiesa di Polenta” (“The Church of Polenta”). The title alone is worthy of a stand-alone blog post but it will have to wait.

Tasted: Gaja 64, 78, 89, 97, 00, 04

barbaresco

Above: An enviable flight, if I do say so myself. The 64 was simply stunning and the 89 gorgeous.

As a good friend and admired colleague of mine says, “whether you like the wines or not, tasting Gaja is always an interesting experience.”

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend an impressive tasting with Gaia Gaja, who was also in Chicago (it was a trade tasting organized by her importer and I managed to snag a spot, the fly on the wall, so to speak).

I’ve actually tasted quite a bit of Gaja recently: the Barbera 7 and I visited Gaja while were in Piedmont in March (Fredric recently published his account of our visit over at Palate Press.)

barbaresco

Above: It was remarkable to see the evolution of the Gaja brand, the labels, and the transformation of bottle shape. From a classic Albese interpretation of the Burgundian bottle shape to a Burgundian bottle with a Bordeaux neck to accommodate a longer cork. Note also the slight changes in color and composition of the labels.

I’m writing in a hurry today because traveling and will write more on what I learned about Gaja the brand and my visit with Gaia the lady in future. And I think that some of you will be surprised by what I learned. I know I was surprised.

In the meantime, here are some quick tasting and winemaking notes.

Barbaresco 1964

“Longer fermentation and maceration” during this period in the winery’s history. Two to three weeks maceration and some slight oxidation because of winemaking practices at the time that gave the wine an orange hint early on. The winery had not implemented its current vineyard management (green harvest and “short pruning”) and the grapes were picked all at once, resulting in some of the fruit not being entirely ripe.

Drinking old Nebbiolo is not for everyone and so some might have disagreed with my take on the wine but I was completely blown away by how good and how alive this wine (older than me) was. Gorgeous brick and orange color, unbelievably seductive tar and earth on the nose, solid acidity and gentle, noble red fruit in the mouth. The mouthfeel of the wine was truly divine.

1978 Barbaresco

The last year with the short cork and the first year that Gaja began to age in barrique The winery had also begun to employ a green harvest at this point, although not “systematically” at this early stage. I’d actually tasted this wine before, a few years ago in NYC: I think this bottle might have been “off,” because it didn’t show as well as I had expected. It had a strong, menthol and Eucalyptus nose and it took a while for the fruit to emerge after I revisited it during the hour or so we spent tasted (the wines had been opened a few hours before the tasting but not decanted). It was almost Baroloesque in its power and showed some spicy notes in the mouth.

Barbaresco 1989

This wine was pure beauty. Great (in my opinion one of the top 3 of my lifetime) vintage, classic and balanced, with “four seasons,” so to speak. Incredible bottle of wine, showing beautifully, and with many, many more years ahead of it. This was one of Italy’s great producers at its best. An incredible elegant lightness and beauty and simultaneous power and tannic structure — the seemingly contradictory essence of Barbaresco, an experience that always brings equine metaphors to mind. Gaia told a great story about this wine. At the end of a school year spent abroad to learn English and studying acting (!) among other interests in San Francisco, she tasted this wine in 2004 at a family friend’s dinner party. “I could smell the perfume of my house in this wine,” she said and so she decided, after all, to return home and rejoin her family’s business. A truly life-changing wine, in her case.

Barbaresco 1997

I wasn’t expecting to like this vintage but was really impressed by its drinkability and its balance. “The heat of the vintage shows” but the wine is drinking fantastically well at this moment. It has begun to attain that orange hue of old Nebbiolo and I won’t conceal that I didn’t spit this wine. I thought it showed beautifully. Of all the wines we tasted, this would have been the one I would have most liked to have enjoyed at dinner (while the 89 and 64, my favorites, would have been special occasion wines, meditation wines). Drink it now if you got it.

Barbaresco 2000

This wine is going through a very closed phase of its evolution, very tannic and very tight as we say in our parlance. Like 1997, this was a very warm vintage and I was actually surprised by how reluctant the wine was to reveal its fruit. I really wish I would have had more time with this wine but the time constraints of this tasting (a trade tasting) didn’t allow me to revisit it.

Barbaresco 2004

I’ve tasted this wine on numerous occasions and you’d be surprised by the name of at least one wine writer who revealed very publicly that he enjoyed this wine in a blind tasting. The wine is still very young and very tannic but you can easily imagine the balance that it is going to reveal with aging. As we look back at 2004 with a few years distance, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the vintage is very similar to 1989, very balanced, very classic, and with extreme promise. If I could afford to buy Gaja, this is the wine I’d put in my cellar for long-term aging. A good bet if you’re the betting type.

barbaresco

Above: Gaia and I had a charbroiled cheddardog at Wieners Circle.

After I told Gaia and another a colleague about my adventure at the Wiener Circle (where the proprietors famously berate their customers), our colleague mentioned that Robert Parker had listed it one year as one of his “top ten meals” of the year, she expressed her desire to taste a Chicago red hot.

Impossible wine pairing? Gaja and Chicago red hot? I don’t think I’m gonna touch that one!

barbaresco

Thanks again, Gaia, for inviting me to such an incredible tasting! And thanks for the cheddardog!

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…