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1. First among equals

Gaja is one of the stars of the world wine scene, a producer that is widely credited with transforming not just the image and international reputation of its native Piedmont region, but of Italy as a whole. It has had a significant impact on the way that Italian wine is grown, made, priced, distributed and marketed. Gaja is one of a handful of fine wine brands that can compete with and charge the same prices as the top names of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

2. A little history

Gaja celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009 – it was founded with only two hectares (five acres) by Giovanni Gaja, whose ancestors originally came from Spain in the 17th Century – and is now run by Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation of the family to make wine in Barbaresco. Angelo Gaja – of whom more in a moment – is often credited with initiating the winery's modern success, but there were other important predecessors. Angelo points to the crucial influence of his grandmother, Clotilde Rey, after whom the winery's Chardonnay, Gaia & Rey, is named, as "the person who pushed my father and grandfather in the direction of quality".

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Angelo's father, another Giovanni, continued the good work. It was he who began to acquire some of the best vineyards in Barbaresco in the 1960s, including the three "crus" for which the winery is best known: Sorì San Lorenzo, Sorì Tildìn and Costa Russi. He was also the first person to put the name Gaja, or rather GAJA, in large red type on his labels in 1937, demonstrating a flair for marketing that he passed on to his son and granddaughter. "We don't sell Barbaresco, Barolo, Bolgheri or Brunello," says Angelo, "we sell Gaja."

3. Enter Angelo…

Giovanni was not without ambition, but the business was transformed by the arrival of his energetic son, Angelo, a human whirlwind who joined the winery after graduating from Alba's school of enology in 1961.

Angelo traveled widely, particularly to France, in the early years. He also introduced sweeping changes in the vineyard and the cellar, especially after he took over full time in 1970, including higher density planting, green harvesting, lower yields, temperature-controlled vinifications, shorter macerations, new French oak barriques and longer corks. Angelo created the single vineyard Barbarescos (Sorì San Lorenzo in 1967, Sorì Tildìn in 1970 and Costa Russi in 1978). Just as importantly, he appointed the enologist Guido Rivella as his winemaker and collaborator, giving himself more freedom to concentrate on sales, marketing and vineyard acquisitions.

Relations between father and son were not always easy. Giovanni opposed Angelo's use of new barriques, as well as the planting of French grapes. The name of Gaja's Cabernet Sauvignon-based red, Darmagi, first released in 1985, means "what a pity" in the Piedmont dialect, said to be Giovanni’s reaction to the arrival of Bordeaux varieties in Barbaresco.

The bond between Angelo and his aptly named daughter, Gaia Gaja, is considerably more relaxed. The handover between generations has been smoother this time. As well as striking physical similarities, the two have a work ethic, a sense of humor, a love of fast cars, and a dedication to the family business in common. Angelo's other daughter, Rossana, shares the running of the company.


The Ca'Marcanda winery in Bolgheri, Tuscany is the largest of Gaja's properties
© Gaja | The Ca'Marcanda winery in Bolgheri, Tuscany is the largest of Gaja's properties


Fast facts:
Founded: 1859
Plantings: 245 hectares (605 acres) divided between Piedmont (100 ha), Bolgheri (118 ha) and Montalcino (27 ha)
Average annual production: 970,000 bottles, divided between Piedmont (350,000), Bolgheri (420,000) and Montalcino (100,000 bottles)
Wines: Barbaresco, Sorì Tildìn, Sorì San Lorenzo, Costa Russi, Sperss, Conteisa, DaGromis, Sito Moresco, Darmagi, Alteni di Brassica, Rossj Bass, Gaia & Rey, (Piedmont); Sugarille, Renina, Brunello di Montalcino (Montalcino); Promis, Ca'Marcanda, Magari, Vistamare (Bolgheri)

4. Modern, traditional or a bit of both?

Angelo is sometimes regarded as one of Italy's leading modernizers – the counterpoint to Bruno Giacosa, Barbaresco's other superstar. He has certainly planted French grapes, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as employing techniques that were initially more typical of Bordeaux or California than Piedmont, but in other respects he has perpetuated tradition. He favors long macerations, for instance, rather than the shorter spells in roto-fermenters that are popular with some modernizers, and his use of new oak is complemented by that of larger Slavonian botti.

Gaja's decision to blend Nebbiolo with a little Barbera in all but two of his Barbarescos and Barolos is also nothing new, he claims. "Until the mid-1960s, it was rare for either to be made with 100-percent Nebbiolo. Depending on the vintage, they also contained up to 15 percent Dolcetto, Barbera or [traditional Piedmont variety] Neirano," he says.

5. Heading south

The focus of the winery has shifted and expanded over the last 25 years, although its headquarters are still on a quiet street in Barbaresco. Starting in 1988 with Sperrs in Serralunga in neighboring Barolo, Gaja has purchased vineyards in Montalcino (Pieve Santa Restituta in 1994) and Bolgheri (Ca'Marcanda in 1996). Its holdings in Barolo were extended with the acquisition of the Gromis property in La Morra in 1995. Today, thanks to the size of its operation in Bolgheri, Gaja makes more wine in Tuscany than in Piedmont.

6. Saying no to Mondavi

Angelo Gaja feels that some regions of Italy deserve to be better known. If he were to advise his children where to buy vineyard land, he says that Campania, Basilicata, Etna and the Marche would be at the top of his list. Significantly, he has never invested overseas. He came close to doing a joint venture with Robert Mondavi in 1989, but concluded that it was a mismatch – "like a mosquito having sex with an elephant: very dangerous and not much fun".

7. A little white wine

Gaja is best known for the reds it makes in Piedmont and Tuscany, but around 8 percent of its production is white. There are four vini bianchi in the Gaja portfolio: Vistamare (a blend of Vermentino and Viognier), Alteni di Brassica (a Sauvignon Blanc), Rossj Bass (a Chardonnay with 5 percent Sauvignon Blanc) and, best of all, Gaia & Rey Chardonnay, which ages remarkably well.

8. An artisanal approach?

Given the size of its production, which is close to a million bottles, Gaja could be regarded as at least a medium-sized winery. But Angelo insists that its approach is essentially "artisanal". Gaja's pricing is certainly ambitious – a bottle of one its 2010 "cru" Barbarecos will set you back around $450 – but the winery's focus is unashamedly on quality. It is not afraid to declassify or sell off in bulk vintages that do not meet its high standards, as it did in Piedmont in 2002 and Montalcino in 2002, 2003 and 2009. And for all its reputation as a marketing machine, Gaja's website is nothing more than a holding page.


Pieve Santa Restituta, Gaja's Montalcino winery, was the first purchase outside Piedmont
© Gaja | Pieve Santa Restituta, Gaja's Montalcino winery, was the first purchase outside Piedmont


9. Dealing with climate change

Global warming – or climate change if you prefer – is a major preoccupation at Gaja. The winery has recently planted 500 cypress trees in and around its vineyards in Barbaresco – giving them a distinctly Tuscan look – to promote natural vegetation and wildlife. It is also using hedging in the vineyards to reduce alcohol levels in its wines and experimenting with biodynamic methods. "With climate change," explains Angelo, "vintages are more consistent and earlier than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, but the disease pressure is potentially greater. For 120 years, we just had to deal with oidium and mildew; now there are new things and we aren't sure how to control them."

10. Current vintages

The winery is on impressive form at the moment. The current vintage of its Barbaresco and Barolo crus – 2010 – was very successful in both DOCGs, with the Sorì San Lorenzo and Sperss the two outstanding wines. And if you want a cheaper alternative to the top wines, the 2011 Barbaresco, which is a blend of 14 vineyards, is as good as ever.

Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):