Not many winemakers give their wines an unflattering names, such as “Darmaji,” which means “What a Shame” in the Piedmont dialect.
Angelo Gaja, a fourth-generation vintner and innovator, is one of them, however, conferring in jest the label of Darmaji upon an Italian Cabernet Sauvignon.
That name refers to the vintner’s father Giovanni Gaja, who was displeased with his son’s unprecedented planting in 1978 of Cabernet Sauvignon, a non-native variety in Italy. For most local wine producers, growing a non-native grape meant betraying Italian tradition.
“‘Darmaji! Planting Cabernet is such a waste of our good land,’ my father said. It is my way, in a humorous tone, to commemorate my father,” says the son.
Gaja, owner of Gaja Winery, is probably best known as the “king of Barbaresco,” who elevated a cheap, rough and undistinguished wine into the ranks of world-class wine. He is also a pioneer who dragged Piedmont winemaking into the modern world.
Gaja was recently in Shanghai to sign the Chinese translation of his book, “The Vines of San Lorenzo,” the story of how he transformed obscure Barbaresco into a coveted wine for connoisseurs. The book was written by a wine lover.
“I swear I never paid for it and that’s why I like it, it’s not commercial, just like my fine wine,” says Gaja.
The Gaja Winery in Italy’s northwest Piedmont region was founded in 1858 by Giovanni Gaja, the vintner’s great-grandfather. It is known for its Barbaresco and Barolo wines, both using the native varietal Nebbiolo. In 1997, Wine Spectator called Barbaresco “the finest Italian wine ever made.”
Gaja is credited with developing techniques that have revolutionized winemaking in Italy. Born in Alba, he studied viticulture in both Italy and France, and became the first one in Italy to experiment with single vineyard production. He was also the first in Italy to use new French oak, instead of old oak, to age wine.
He is widely described as an adventurer and innovator.
“I would rather say that I am a vintner devoted to my land (Piedmont), trying to fully tap its potential and present its diverse beauty,” says Gaja.
More importantly, the 73-year-old vintner has made his Barbaresco globally influential, selling it at French grand cru prices. Before that, much Italian wine was generally low cost and considered rough. That perception persists today in China.
Noted critic Julian Street (1879-1947) wrote in his book “Wines” that Italians generally dislike the important details of winemaking, considering them insignificant and trivial. They emphasize quantity rather than quality, he says. “My efforts in making my wine merit the price,” Gaja says.
“The Chinese generalization of Italian wine as cheap is likely to last for some time. They would rather spend money on Bordeaux grand cru,” he adds.
Gaja suggests that China increase its quality wine production through building its own regulated appellation system.
“Europe originated system based on a thousand years’ agricultural experience clarifies gray areas of winemaking, offering a good reference for the New World,” Gaja explains. “However, it’s better for China not to copy the system mechanically but to create a new version based on its own history and nature and that takes time.”
Gaja is probably the world’s only well-known winery without its own website, he says.
“I don’t like blowing my own horn but using word-of-mouth marketing. The best advertisement is placement of my wine on the wine lists of top restaurants,” he says.
Gaja says that his own aesthetics and philosophy — faithfully reflecting the land and respecting nature to the utmost — “is intrinsically contradictory to commercialized wine relying on manual intervention.”
Nebbiolo instead of Cabernet
“That means it’s impossible for my wine to be perfect, since there’s always some defect in nature. If a wine is described as perfect, I strongly suspect there’s something gray behind it. It’s just like a fashion models on magazine covers. If she looks perfect, the photo must have been retouched,” he says.
“We need to appreciate the imperfections in wine and that’s the elegance of fine wine,” the vintner says.
Gaja caused a sensation in Italy by planting Cabernet Sauvignon in 1978, but it was his reinterpretation of Nebbiolo, once an obscure and cheap Italian variety, that established the global status of Barbaresco.
Gaja says the his experimentation with Cabernet has been exaggerated. “Many people didn’t notice that the Cabernet I planted only accounts for 2 percent of the vineyard. I like Nebbiolo much more.”
“If Cabernet were a man, he would do his duty every night in the bedroom, but always the same way,” Gaja says. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, would be the brooding, quiet man in the corner, harder to understand but infinitely more complex.”
Few grapes are like Nebbiolo, “full of extract and high sugar levels, balanced by great acidity,” says Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, an influential wine critic.
“The wine is typically intensely aromatic, developing the most extraordinary haunting bouquet in which, variously, roses, autumn undergrowth, wood smoke, violets and tar can often be found ... the tannins are unyielding for the moment,” Robinson writes.
The unyielding, hard-to-tame nature of the grape is a great challenge, both in the vineyard and the winery, Gaja says.
He says the Nebbiolo vines are “as naturally vigorous as a runaway horse,” adding that they must be sharply pruned so they don’t waste energy sprouting leaves instead of ripening fruit.
Twenty-eight years after taking over his family business in 1961, Gaja pruned drastically, which made production tumble.
“People thought he was crazy and grape farmers snickered. For us the difference between Angelo and his father was just like day and night,” says Luigi Cavallo-Gino, the most experienced grape farmer at Gaja Winery. He is quoted in Gaja’s book “The Vines of San Lorenzo.”
Gaja’s father worried that the heavy pruning and low yield would bankrupt the winery.
The son says the pruning and his new thinking was inspired by travels in France “where they respect wine from their heart,” and the Napa Valley where they act with courage.
Gaja has never considered expanding production outside Europe, and he declined a joint venture with Robert Mondavi, a major Napa winery, saying the pairing would be “like a mosquito having sex with an elephant, very dangerous and without much pleasure.”
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t quality wine outside Europe. It’s just because I am European, both genetically and culturally, with a characteristically regional way of thinking,” he says.
He tells his daughter Gaia, who is responsible for distribution, that to really explore the overseas market, she should thoroughly understand foreigners, “who think totally differently from us.”
The vintner is gradually passing on his business to his two daughters, but he is not backing away. “We have an agreement and they never push me to retire,” says the father.
Global warming started to have an impact on the wine industry around 1995, he says, and the wine rules are being rewritten because of it.
The “advantage” of global warming is that summers are hotter, longer and drier, which is good for grape ripening and leads to increasingly stable wine quality. But longer summer also means more pests and disease. Some new diseases have emerged and they cannot be handled the old way, he says.
“I don’t want to increase the chemical dosage. Land is a vintner’s most valuable asset and must be treasured. I am trying to use the vine’s own strength and minimize the use of artificial chemicals,” Gaja says.
He has established a research team, including a botanist, entymologist and biologist, to fight weeds, insects and disease by using their natural enemies. “I am doing this gingerly because these are all entirely new problems, we have no experience for reference,” the vintner says.