Angelo Gaja, The King of Barbaresco
Angelo Gaja is one of the leading names in Italian wines, and his history is related to Piedmont, considered by many the region responsible for the best Italian wine. Let’s learn about the history of the area and Angelo Gaja, the king of Barbaresco.
The history of Piedmont
Italy is one of the major wine producers in the world, and Piedmont is one of the most important Italian regions, located in the western part of Italy and borders France.
Wine production in Piedmont began with Greek culture. Some years later absorbed by the Roman Empire, which was responsible for a significant development in viticultural activities. Years later, already in the Christian era, winemaking activities were hampered by the invasion of barbarian peoples from northern Europe.
The medieval nobility was one of those responsible for resuming the planting of grapes and the elaboration of the wine. At this time, there were mentions of one of the main grapes of the region, Nebbiolo.
The Piemonte region became known for producing the renowned Barolo and Barbaresco. With an area of 70,000 hectares of vineyards and about 4 million hectoliters of wine produced per year, Piemonte became known for its production of high-quality wines.
The origin of Barbaresco
The origin of the name Barbaresco is a great mystery. Some say that the Welsh came to Italy attracted by the wines of the Barbaritium. Others believe that the name Barbaresco arose in honor of the barbarians who caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Many years ago, the village of Barbaresco originated in a forest where Ligurian peoples hid from Roman armies.
The fact that it became a strange land to the Romans was called Barbarrica Silva, derived from the expression Barbaritium, which later evolved into Barbaresco.
Producers of Barbaresco
In the half of the 19th century, the Nebbiolo grape was grown in Barbaresco and sold to Alba to produce a red table wine of remarkable structure, the Barolo.
Around 1894, Dominio Cavazza, president of the Enological School of Alba and resident of Barbaresco, created the Cantine Sociale di Barbaresco to produce a luxury red wine. He gathered nine other producers to develop a cantina and baptized the wine made with the town’s name.
Closed by Fascism, it was reopened in 1958 by Don Fiorino, a priest from the parish of Barbaresco. He gathered 19 farmers and founded what is now called Produttori di Barbaresco. Currently, 56 producers and 100 hectares of vines represent about 16% of the total vineyard area of Barbaresco and have produced some of the best wines in this region.
The Gaja Family and its Role in Barbaresco Wine
The history of the Gaja family goes back more than 150 years, and the beginning in the world of wine came thanks to their grandmother, Clotilde Rey, who bought vineyards in Piedmont and built a winery. At this time, Barbaresco wine was considered a simple wine.
Giovanni, Angelo Gaja’s father, continued with the winery project and bought some of the best vineyards in Barbaresco in 1960, including the 3 “crus” that made the winery best known.
Giovanni was the idealist in putting the Gaja name on his labels and demonstrated a great talent for marketing that he passed on to his son Angelo.
Angelo Gaja’s entry into the business
Angelo Gaja entered the family business in 1961. In search of knowledge, he traveled extensively. He introduced radical changes in the vineyards and wineries, such as higher-density plantings, temperature-controlled vinifications, green harvesting, shorter macerations, longer corking, and the purchase of new French oak barrels.
This last change was a problem, as his father Giovanni was against the use of new barrels, as he was against the planting of French grape varieties.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in one of his red labels, known as Darmagi and released in 1985, has the meaning of “what a pity” in the Piedmont dialect, which shows Giovanni’s reaction to the use of the typical Bordeaux grape in Barbaresco.
At this time, Angelo Gaja knew the business was profitable but without prospects. Even though his father and grandmother created a wine brand, the labels were not recognized, while Barolo was already known worldwide. At the same time, the Barbaresco wine was considered inferior to Barolo.
Angelo Gaja was not discouraged; he changed this perspective in a decade. He used only his grapes, while other producers bought grapes from other local producers and started to vinify each vineyard lot separately.
Besides all this technical work, Angelo started to work on the commercial side. He presented his Barbarescos crus to the world: Sorì San Lorenzo, which had its first vintage in 1967, and Sorì Tildìn, with its first vintage in 1970. And the Costa Russi, which had its first vintage in 1978. All these measures devised by Angelo Gaja set the stage for the appellation’s successful path a few years later.
Tradition or Modernity?
Many considered him one of those responsible for modernizing the winemaking processes in Italy, using techniques applied in Bordeaux and California. Gaja began to use French grape varieties, but in other aspects, he maintained the Barbarescan tradition, such as using long macerations.
Even though Gaja’s production is approaching 1 million bottles, which equates to an average winery, Angelo says that his production is essentially artisan and that the focus of production is on the quality of the wines.
The expansion to the South
In the last 25 years, the Gaja winery has grown. Even though its headquarters are still in the quiet streets of Barbaresco, the winery acquired Serralunga properties in 1988; in 1994, it bought vineyards in Montalcino and Bolgheri in 1996. Thanks to the growth of its Bolgheri estate operation, Gaja’s production in Tuscany is higher today than in Piedmont.
Gaja White Wines
Gaja’s recognition is due to its red wines in Piedmont and Tuscany, but its white wine production cannot be left aside. 8% of the production is of white grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier.
One of Gaja’s concerns is the issue of global warming, and seeking to promote natural vegetation and wildlife, the winery has planted 500 Italian cypress trees around its vineyards.
The winery also uses mulch in the vineyards to reduce alcohol levels in their wines and has begun experimenting with biodynamic methods.
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Despite being one of the big names in the wine world, Gaja has never invested abroad. He even had the opportunity to work together with Roberto Mondavi in 1989, but he turned it down.
Angelo believes that there are still many regions in Italy that deserve to be better known.
Today Gaja winery has about 101 hectares of vineyards divided into 32 vineyards and produces about 30,000 cases of wine per year.