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…

Aldo Conterno, remembrances and my visit to Bussia

Above: One of Barolo’s most beloved winemakers and last defenders of its historic identity Aldo Conterno has died at 81 (photo via La Stampa).

Myriad English-language tributes to the great Barolista Aldo Conterno have appeared in the enoblogosphere between yesterday and today since news of his passing first broke: Walter Speller, Monica Larner, and — one of the most touching — by S. Irene Virbila.

Franco Ziliani reminds us (in Italian) that together with great winemakers like Giovanni Conterno (Aldo’s borther), Bartolo Mascarello, Teobaldo Cappellano, Beppe Rinaldi, and Mauro Mascarello, Aldo was a “steadfast defender in a battle for the respect of Barolo’s personality in the heady years when some were trying to make the wine become something different.”

And La Stampa wine writer Sergio Miravalle remembers fondly that “for decades, he signed some of the most stunning wines of Italy but his fame never distanced him from the concrete, simple way of life of farmers in Langa.”

I had the great fortune of meeting him once at his home and winery in the village of Bussia (in the township of Monforte d’Alba).

The year was 2000 and I had met his son Franco Conterno earlier in the year at the presentation of the A. Conterno 1996 crus in New York and Franco had invited me to visit their cellars in Langa.

The release of the 1996 vintage from Langa was a pivotal moment in the new wave of Nebbiolo mania in the U.S. Then rising wine star Joe Bastianich, owner and founder of the retail crew at Italian Wine Merchants, had decided to throw his weight behind the vintage and the producer and the hype that 1996 would be “the vintage of the century” was thick. (Of course, even though there’s no doubt in my mind that 96 was the superior vintage, it was eclipsed by the American wine media’s love affair with 1997.)

When I was received by Aldo, we spoke in Italian only because I was accompanied by an Italian friend of mine but he greeted me in perfect English (see S. Irene Virbila’s wonderful remembrance for Aldo’s years in California and his service in the U.S. military).

I was just starting my career as a wine writer then and our meeting had a profound effect on me. I realized, for the first time, that certain women and men — persons of truly great character — make wines that will outlive them. In other words, he grew, bottled, and raised a wine — in this case the epic 1996 vintage — whose ultimate expression would occur only after his passing. My personal realization was even more powerful given that so many winemakers in Langa at that time were trying to make wines more approachable in their youth.

I’ll never forget his gentle voice, nor will I forget the taste of bittersweet Barolo Chinato at the end of the flight.

Carissime Alde, sit tibi terra alba levis…

Barbaresco Rio Sordo: Giovanna, cry me a silent river


Above: Giovanna Rizzolio is a delightful woman, wholly committed to terroir-expression wines and the traditions of her beloved Barbaresco. She presents her wines every April as part of the Vini Veri tasting.

The inestimable Italian wine raconteur Mr. Franco Ziliani certainly never promised me a rose garden but he most definitely delivered a bunch of roses when he o so generously introduced Tracie P and me to his dear, dear friend Giovanna Rizzolio (above), who runs a wonderful bed and breakfast on the cozy Cascina della Rose (literally, rose farm) estate, owned by her family for two generations, atop one of my favorite vineyards in the world, Rio Sordo, with a view upon Rabajà and Asili (the latter two considered by many the greatest expressions of Barbaresco).

Mr. Ziliani (arguably one of Italy’s greatest wine experts) is a huge fan of Giovanna and her wines and an even bigger fan of her estate, where we all stayed the night of our tasting and dinner, as Giovanna and her significant other Italo’s guests.


Above: I just had to take this photo. It’s the view from the bathroom of the guest room where Tracie P and I stayed, looking northward (Rabajà and Asili to the right, out of frame). One of the coolest things about being in Langa with snow on the ground is that you can see where the “snow melts first.” In the olden days, everyone will tell you, grape growers planted Nebbiolo where “the snow melts first” because the melting of the snow reveals the growing sites with the best exposure.

A home-grown Piedmontese, Giovanna is as true to her land as her wines are: she makes some Barbera and Dolcetto but her best rows, situated at the top of the Rio Sordo cru, are devoted to her beloved Nebbiolo (even before she made wine, when she was still working in the schmatta trade, she told me, she drank Barbaresco almost exclusively).


Above: One of the coolest things about tasting with Giovanna in her cellar is seeing the exposed subsoil, a cross-section as it were, where you can see the white calcareous marl that makes Barbaresco and Rio Sordo such unique expressions of Nebbiolo.

The top of the Rio Sordo vineyard, which literally means deaf or silent river, runs parallel to the Tanaro river (just to the northwest). It’s essentially an underground river: as they search for the water below, the roots of the vines are forced to dig through the calcareous marl and in turn render the rich fruit necessary to make fine wine.


Above: Giovanna showed me this tear drop, a product of the silent underground river. Photo by Tracie P.

The wines of Rio Sordo are softer than the more potent wines on the northside of the valley. Rio Sordo doesn’t enjoy the ideal exposure of Rabajà and Asili. But it’s for this very reason that I have always loved this cru: the wines don’t take as long to “come around,” as we say. As with Pora, the fruit emerges at an earlier moment in the wines development and what gorgeous fruit it is! I thought Giovanna’s wines were great, especially the 2006 Barbaresco Rio Sordo.


Above: Giovanna loves cats, as is evidenced by the image on her label.

But the thing I love the most about Giovanna is her attitude toward wine and life in Piedmont. Whether it was tales of dealing with unscrupulous wine pundits or the INCREDIBLE spinach casserole she served at dinner, she speaks with an honesty and integrity uncommon in the supremely competitive world of Langa wines. Her house atop Rio Sordo came to her long before the renaissance of Italian wine began and her love of Langa shines through in her personality and her wines.


Above: Giovanna’s wines are available in a few American markets.

I’m not the only one who digs Giovanna and her farmhouse bed and breakfast. Doug Cook, of, and his wife Rachel are frequent visitors. I highly recommend staying there: I can’t think of a better way to be in touch with Langa and the folks who live and make wine there.

Giovanna, you can cry me a river, anytime you like, honey! Thanks again for a wonderful stay and tasting…

Here’s Diana Krall singing “Cry Me a River” with our friend Anthony on guitar….

1968 Monfortino I need say no more

From the “life could be worse” department…

The other night found me and Tracie B in the home of our dear friend Alfonso, who treated us to one of the best bottles of wine I’ve ever drunk in my life: 1968 Barolo Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno (steaks by Alfonso, photo by Tracie B). It was one of those truly life-changing wines, a miracle in a bottle and a wonder in the glass, at once light and lithe, powerful and awesome. I’ve tasted — tasted, mind you, not drunk — 55, 58, 61, and 71 (some of the greatest years for Langa in the 20th century). Martinelli calls the 1968 harvest “good” (not great) and the wine did have some vegetal notes that I believe were product of the vintage. But quality of the materia prima (there is superb fruit in nearly every vintage, sometimes less of it than more) and the winemaking approach (aged 10 years in botti before bottling according to the back label!) made for a wine that I will never forget.

Need I say more? Check out Tracie B’s tasting notes.

Carissimo Alfonso, grazie per una serata indimenticabile!

In other news…

The other day at Bistro Vatel in San Antonio, I enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve had since I moved to Texas (save for daily dining chez Tracie B!). Owner Damien Vatel is a descendant of legendary 17th-century French chef François Vatel.

The resulting photography is pretty darn sexy, if I do say so myself.

In other other news…

I’d like to mention two series of ampelographic posts that I’ve been following: the one by Alessandro Bindocci at Montalcino Report, who asks “Is Sangiovese Grosso really Grosso?” and the other by Susannah Gold at Avvinare, who is writing an English-language dictionary of Italian grape varieties.