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Gaja Winery, Italy: Current Releases

Gaja.bottle.jpgWhat can one say about Gaja? Among wine collectors and wine lovers it is one of the most sought after and prestigious wine labels across Italy and around the world. It is so instantly recognizable as such, that more often than not Gaja is the wine that I see fancy restaurants putting in the front of their wine cases or windows. Charlie Trotters in Chicago, for instance has several jeroboam sized bottles front and center in his restaurant's private dining room.

One reason for this celebrity status is that as opposed to the great Chateaux of Bordeaux which produce tens of thousands of cases of their top wines each year, Gaja produces its DOCG and single vineyard wines in quantities that range from a few thousand to a mere one thousand cases.

Founded in 1859, the Gaja winery in Barbaresco has been run by the Gaja family for four generations. It is currently under the stewardship of the dynamic Angelo Gaja, who has single-handedly put the wines from Barbaresco on the same footing with their more legendary cousins Barolo and Brunello. Gaja, who has a degree in Enology from the prestigious Enological Institute in Alba, Italy, actually sold off the family's holdings in Barolo to better concentrate on Barbaresco (he has also subsequently purchased land in Barolo again). In addition to pioneering single-vineyard designations in the region, he brought French-style winemaking to the estate and planted Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay much to the outrage of some local traditionalists.

When Gaja started blending in some of the Cabernet and Merlot into his Barbaresco wines, it was too much for some, and legislation was passed that prevented Gaja from using the Barbaresco appellation on such wines. As a result several of these wines are simply labeled with the vineyard name, and carry the most general designation of the appellation: "Langhe Rosso" despite being some of Italy's best wines. In the 1990's Gaja purchased two estates in Tuscany, from which he has been making both a Brunello and a Bolgheri.

Robert M. Parker, Jr. has called Angelo Gaja "Italy's most fascinating and revolutionary winemaker" and Wine Spectator has called his wines "perhaps the finest Italian wines ever made." Regardless of whether you lean towards the rustic traditionalism that still characterizes a good portion of Barbaresco and Brunello, or whether you prefer more modern stylings, it's hard not to like these wines, which show an extraordinary amount of finesse and character across the whole portfolio.

2001 Gaja "Sito Moresco" Langhe Rosso, Piemonte, Italy
A medium garnet in the glass this wine has a compelling nose of toasted nuts (almonds?), cherries, and light floral notes. In the mouth it is well balanced with dusty tannins supporting primary flavors of cherry and warm leather that taper to a modest finish. This wine is a blend of 35% Nebbiolo, 35% Merlot, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 9. Cost: $49. Where to buy?

2001 Gaja Barbaresco DOCG, Piemonte, Italy
A medium blood red in color, this wine has a nose of salty smoked meats, cinnamon, and violets. In the mouth it has rich thick tannins enveloping flavors of cherry, licorice, and leather, nicely balanced with good acidity. This wine is blended from Nebbiolo grapes of 14 different vineyards. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $176. Where to buy?

2001 Gaja "Costa Russi" Langhe Nebbiolo, Piemonte, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, the wine has a nose of grilled meat and blueberries. In the mouth it has incredibly smooth tannins and great acid balance that wraps around flavors of dates, licorice, earth, and cherries that power through to an impressively long finish. This is perhaps one of Gaja's most famous single vineyard bottlings. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $274. Where to buy?

2001 Gaja "Sori Tildin" Langhe Nebbiolo, Piemonte, Italy
A medium blood red color in the glass, this wine has a savory and perfumed nose that's a perfect balance between smoked bacon and violets. In the mouth it is full and fleshy, and has deliciously sweet tannins that weave together flavors of cherries and saddle leather which linger to a substantial finish. 95% Nebbiolo and 5% Barbera, this wine is from a vineyard named for Angelo Gaja's grandmother. Score: 9.5. Cost: $274. Where to buy?

2001 Gaja "Sori San Lorenzo" Langhe Nebbiolo, Piemonte, Italy
A medium ruby color in the glass, this wine has a complex nose that is very floral with scents of lilac and violets and a hint of mint mixed with sandalwood. On the tongue it is beautifully balanced and has sneaky tannins that gradually build up in the mouth around flavors of light woodsmoke, cherries, cassis, and leather. This wine is also 95% Nebbiolo and 5% Barbera. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $274. Where to buy?

2001 Gaja "Conteisa" Langhe Nebbiolo, Italy
A medium ruby color in the glass, this wine has a fruit driven nose of black cherry, red currant and cedar. In the mouth it has great acidity and a more medium bodied feel with very light tannins that support flavors of black cherries and blueberries through a modest finish. This wine is 92% Nebbiolo and 8% Barbera and takes its name from the Piemontese word for "quarrel" and refers to an 11th century dispute between two townships over a piece of land in the area. Score: 9. Cost: $196. Where to buy?

2001 Gaja "Sperss" Langhe Nebbiolo, Piemonte, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a bright nose of cherry and in the mouth it has a briary nature and a medium body with primary and pure flavors of cherry, leather, raspberry, and light earth notes that work beautifully together and finish strong. Sperss means "nostalgia" in Piemontese, and refers to the fact that this vineyard was an historic source for Gaja Barolo earlier in the century. This wine is 94% Nebbiolo and 6% Barbera. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $189. Where to buy?

All of the above wines are aged for 12 months French oak barrels ("Barriques") and then 12 months in large oak casks ("Foudres").

2001 Gaja "Darmagi" Langhe, Piemonte, Italy
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a sharp nose of green wood, wet earth and crushed stones. In the mouth it displays nice acidity and subtle tannic structure with primary flavors of cherry, cassis, and sweet oak. Darmagi is Piemontese for "what a pity," which is what Angelo Gaja's father was rumored to have commented when his son decided to plant the vineyard with Bordeaux varietals. The wine is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc, and is aged for six to eight months in Barrique, and then 12 months in Foudres. Score: 9. Cost: $185. Where to buy?

1999 Gaja "Rennina" Brunello Di Montalcino, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass this wine has a spicy and high toned nose of cherry, cardamom, leather, and a bit of acetone that hints at a bit of volatile acidity (VA). In the mouth it is smooth and velvety with a nice tannin and acid balance that supports flavors of cherry, sandalwood, and earth, and a lengthy satisfying finish. According to regulations this 100% Sangiovese Grosso, single vineyard wine is aged for one year in Barrique and then another in Foudres, and then aged in the bottle for 2 years prior to release. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $95. Where to buy?

1999 Gaja "Sugarille" Brunello di Montalcino, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a gorgeous, complex nose of dried meat, cherry, blackberry, and light floral tones. In the mouth it has a classic Brunello flavor profile of black cherry, earth and leather with light high tones of exotic spices. It has excellent, soft tannic structure and a full bodied mouthfeel, with a solid finish. The Sugarille vineyard has been on record since 1547 as a producer of top quality Brunello. Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $133. Where to buy?

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud