One of Italy’s greatest wines is finally getting the attention it deserves. We take you through the vintages, the communes and the bottles you need to buy.
Made with 100% native grape Nebbiolo, you’ve probably heard that Barbaresco is one of Italy’s greatest wines. Yet for many years, it’s also been Italy’s most famous unknown red: even though fine wine lovers had heard of it, until recently, many passed it up for Barolo, its larger, more renowned neighbor (also made entirely with Nebbiolo). But thanks to a new generation of winemakers embracing more natural farming methods that have led to even higher quality, and the denomination’s unique micro-climate that encourages freshness and balance even in the hottest vintages, wine lovers are discovering that Barbaresco is a world-class wine in its own right. And the recent, widespread fascination with Nebbiolo and Piedmont has further helped shine a light on the denomination.
Gaia Gaja oversees the day-to-day running of her family’s prestigious 154-year old estate in Piedmont.
Are you adjusting your winemaking practices because of climate change?
Absolutely. But more than in the cellar, the real changes are being made in the vineyards. If in the 1970s and 1980s, vineyard management was geared towards achieving better ripening and eliminating humidity from the vineyards, we’re now doing just the opposite. So, we no longer top off the leaf canopy to help the sun ripen the grapes.
Twenty years ago, we planted grass between the rows to absorb water, and we cut it constantly to stimulate new growth. Now, we leave the grass but never cut it. We let it die, then press it down so that it covers the soil to keep it cool and moist. Since 2003, we’ve also been identifying those clones on our estate that perform best in dry, hot vintages. It’s a long process but we’re starting to see interesting results that should help us in the future.
Who or what inspired you to make wine?
Both my grandfather and my father. My grandfather, because he believed wholeheartedly in Barbaresco at a time when almost no one else did, and my father because of his great courage to make daring changes that revolutionized vineyard management and winemaking.
Has your winemaking style changed over time? If so, how?
The style itself has not really changed, but each vintage is approached differently in order to make the best wines possible. Changes are subtle but include adapting maceration times and how long the wines age in oak, for example. Also, my father used to make all the decisions on his own, but now we have a team; together we make all the strategic decisions after careful tastings.
Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most charismatic and successful winemakers, is credited not only with drawing Barbaresco out of obscurity but with triggering the quality revolution that pulled the country’s wine scene out of the doldrums. Yet while aficionados and pundits automatically associate Gaja with Italy’s modern winemaking movement and sleek single-vineyard bottlings, the great aging potential of his wines should also be remembered.
Tasting through four decades of Gaja’s Barbaresco at an informal private tasting held for this author by Angelo and his daughter Gaia on January 12, 2007, at their cellars in Barbaresco was a chance to experience Italy’s quality metamorphosis at first hand. Changes and improvements in viticulture and vinification were subtle but unmistakable, while Gaja’s hallmark elegance was evident in every bottling, like a family resemblance.
While Gaja’s fans applaud his world-class wines, cynics often claim that his modern winemaking methods have changed the tipicità of his Nebbiolo. Yet these same critics often fail to note that Gaja persists with more traditional techniques whenever he thinks them worthwhile. He is among the few top producers in Italy who still resist selected yeasts for the alcoholic fermentation, except in very difficult years when, as a last resort, he will add a small amount of nutrients to feed the native yeasts. Gaja’s use of barriques has also come under fire by advocates of traditional Nebbiolo. But it should be pointed out that all his Nebbiolo wines are aged one year in barriques of various ages and one year in giant, perfectly maintained Slavonian casks that are, on average, 100 years old, so the new-wood sensations are minimal.