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The Story of Gaja

WORDS BY LINDSAY TRIVERS – THE TASTING CLASS

The setting is Tre Lounge at Dubai’s Nassima Royal Hotel and guest of honour is Gaia Gaja, Global Brand Ambassador (and so much more) of her family’s eponymous estate in Italy. She is full of energy and enjoying herself: ‘Whenever I come to Dubai I have a great time and enjoy the positivity,’ she extolls. ‘I meet people from all over the world and everyone seems very excited and in a great mood. I’m sure that such an attitude will continue as that’s what Dubai is known for.’

With its reticent, almost stark monochrome labels, there’s never been anything particularly showy or outwardly exuberant about Gaja but, founded in 1859, it has since become a byword for winemaking excellence.

Its reputation has been largely forged by her father, current owner, winemaker and living legend Angelo Gaja who took the helm in 1961 and sparked a sea change in the way wine was made in Piemonte. As Gaia, his eldest daughter, explains: He revolutionised everything and set an example to other producers that there was another way to make wine. He was the first in Piedmont to introduce high density planting, green harvesting, clonal selection, different grafting; all things that were not done before. Then he changed what happened in the cellar. In the past the grapes were bitter and dry because you have grapes that are not fully ripe and with lots of tannins and acidity, so they require five to seven years ageing in wood, but a lot of the wood was old. Now with fully ripe grapes we could reduce the ageing period as well as replace the old wood for new. He’s been called an innovator but he didn’t set out to be one, he just wanted to make the best wine possible.’

The Gaja Family
The Gaja Family

To increase the biodiversity of the estate, 40 beehives have been introduced as well as the planting of cypress trees. All of these developments gained traction at the end of the 20th Century, with climate change being the driving force according to Gaia: ‘The traditional ways of working were no longer bringing us the usual results and the plants were reacting differently. We were having drier seasons, warmer summers, photosynthesis was accelerating giving us more sugars and higher alcohol, so we had to fight back and understand how to keep life in the soil.’

Today Gaja owns 100ha of land, employing 70 full-time staff in the vineyards, 22 of whom are second generation, working the same land and vines as their parents did meaning that they know how the plants should behave and can spot any weaknesses. Surprisingly though, it’s not the fruit that tops their list of priorities: ‘Their focus is not the vines which are the last thing they look at,’ reveals Gaia. ‘The vines are a feedback. If they are healthy then we have managed to keep our soil alive. Our team is focused only on keeping life in the soil, through using composts and making sure more types of grass and flowers grow in the vineyard and we never cut these back, as they help keep the soil cool and retain its moisture’. The use of chemicals on the property is a strict no-no and although Gaja is influenced by biodynamics, it is not certified as such (nor organic) as the company believes the protocols are too restrictive, preferring to find its own way by experimenting and observing the results.

Yet another milestone largely accredited to Angelo Gaja is the concept of single vineyard wines: ‘In the past all the crus were normally blended together,’ confirms Gaia. ‘Yet in the 1960s my father, along with a few other producers such as Prunotto, began to make single vineyard wines and in 1967 he made his first single vineyard Barbaresco. Nearly everyone makes such wines now and most of our releases are single vineyard, although our historic, traditional Barbaresco is still a blend of 14 different sites.’

Although it is undisputedly Barbaresco where Gaja made its name, it has since extended its reach to other Italian wine regions, namely Brunello di Montalcino in 1994 with Pieve Santa Restituta and Bolgheri in 1996, with a winery called Cà Marcanda. ‘My father was the one who made the move to Tuscany,’ confirms Gaia. ‘He’s always energetic and looking for a new challenge. Our family was getting bigger and he felt he needed to do something for us. Fortunately, we had some savings in the bank and my father took the chance to buy the land; both in exceptional locations.’

Gaia concedes that the family has brought some of its knowledge and style from its homeland to Tuscany: ‘In Bolgheri when you talk about Super Tuscan wines, you can have ones that are very powerful, thick, concentrated and rich. There is a Piemontese touch to our wines and we make them according to the three different soils we have; so we have three wines and try to keep as much freshness in them as possible, by again keeping the soil cool which means the vines grow slower.’

Two key factors are cited as being major influences in Antonio Gaja’s drive and passion: France (he studied winemaking in Montpelier) and the New World, in particular a certain Robert Mondavi: ‘Mondavi was a very brave man,’ says Gaia. ‘What my father loved so much about Mondavi was his attitude to experimentation and this gave my father a lot of strength. Of course our region is completely different and every time my father was proposing new ways of doing things he was met by a wall, but going to Napa and seeing Mondavi experiment gave him the drive to come back home and try to break down that wall.’

‘My father is very business-driven, but at the same time has his feet on the ground is moulded into the landscape of Piemonte. His focus is always to make long-ageing wines because in our opinion wine is the best ambassador of a place, its culture or landscape. It is a memory of that place and if the wine is young that memory may be superficial, but if the wine is destined to age, then the older it gets the memory becomes more precise and the picture clearer.’

The evening was an exhibition of exceptional wines from Tuscany and Piemonte. Gaia presented 6 wines from 3 estates to more than 30 on-trade professionals. She was as fluid as you’d expect a person to be talking about a product created in their own backyard, and thorough in communicating more than a century of family history between the sips of wine.

First up were two 100% Sangiovese wines from Tuscany’s prized region of Brunello di Montalcino. Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G., 2010 had classic notes of cherry and vanilla paired with unique herbal aromas of cedar and juniper; and Pieve Santa Restituta Sugarille Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G, 2010 displayed cherry too, but with notes of violet, spice and lots of prized earthy mineral character.

Next was a rare opportunity to taste Dagromis Barolo D.O.C.G., 2011, one of the most iconic and best-selling 100% Nebbiolo wines on the UAE market.

For the second half of the tasting Gaia steered the room away from wines of long established D.O.C.G.’s, toward the modern Italian penchant for blending native grapes with international ones.

Sito Moresco Langhe D.O.C., 2013 combined the longevity of local kingpin grape Nebbiolo with the full body of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, capturing characters of strawberries, candied orange and savoury miso.

Closing the tasting were the newest wines to Gaja’s portfolio, the Super Tuscans.

Ca’Marcanda Promis, 2013 is made up of Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese. Gaja aimed for a point of difference to other Super Tuscans by creating slightly lighter style that presents freshness and elegance but that still has the ability to age for a decade.

The final wine of the night, also a Super Tuscan, was made from entirely classic red Bordeaux grapes, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Magari Bolgheri D.O.C., 2013 is one for those in search of a full-bodied and spicy wine with generous aromas of red and black cherry, mint and floral characters.

Upon closing the tasting an intimate meet and greet with many of Dubai’s sommeliers took the evening to a late close. And the morning saw Gaia swiftly back to her hometown of Barbaresco; a place which has a population of less than 1,000 people but, thanks to her family, has left an indelible mark on the wine world.