An Interview with the charismatic Gaia Gaja

The charismatic Gaia Gaja (pronounced Gaya) was in India last winter. Here’s what she had to say about growing up in a wine producing family, Piedmont’s premier grape, Nebbiolo, the path-breaking innovations of her father, Angelo, and Gaja’s move to Tuscany.
Here father and daughter look through a copy of Sommelier India.

Where are Gaja wines produced?
We are in the region of Piedmont in the northwest part of Italy. Here there is a little village called Barbaresco, a tiny village of 600 people. It’s a beautiful wine region. It’s full of hills and they are completely covered with vineyards. We have only one church, one shop, two restaurants and 100 wineries.
How long have you been producing wines?
Our winery was founded there in 1859 by Giovanni Gaja who originally owned a trattoria. In the past all the restaurants in the countryside made both food and wine. But then he closed the trattoria and continued with the wine production. He was the first generation, Giovanni Gaja.. After him, his son Angelo Gaja took over the business, then my grandfather, Giovanni, and now my father, Angelo.
What is special about Barolo and Barbaresco wine?
The greatness of Barolo and Barbaresco is that they are powerful wines made exclusively from nebbiolo grapes – wines that you can keep for a very long time, for 40 years or more. But first you have to wait for 10 years for the wine to be drinkable. So there was not a lot of wine from the producers. When my father started to work in the winery in the sixties he introduced many innovations, keeping the traditions that he liked, but taking out what he didn’t and introducing new ideas, which were all in the direction of trying to make wine more soft, more approachable – wine that was still strong with acidity and tannins, but easier to drink.
What kind of innovations did he introduce?
For example, in the past, wine was aged in ceiling-high, 100-year-old oak casks with a capacity of 15,000 litres. They were very difficult to clean. Angelo decided to replace some of these with 225-litre barriques used traditionally in Bordeaux and Burgundy. We also introduced innovations in the vineyards. The Green Harvest tractor which we now use was not something seen in Italy but in France. Several times, especially around June and July, we prune the grapes to concentrate the energy of the plant and make it more disease resistant. This is very important because in this way the plants are stronger and the taste is more concentrated which is reflected in the wine. Of course, the change was not immediate. My father would go to the vineyards and say to the people, “Okay, this time we won’t leave 13 bunches on the vines, we’ll leave just three.” And the people would say, yes, but they would turn away, murmuring, “God is giving you so much, and you’re cutting 10?”
Which grape variety is used in your wines?
In Italy, we have 1,500 different varieties of grapes.There is no other region in the world that has so many. In Piedmont, the key grape is Nebbiolo, with a very strong personality. It’s not a variety that can please everyone. Nebbiolo has two strong characteristics – high acidity and high tannins. That is what I like in the wine. During the vinification process we have to try to soften the tannins. It’s important to have them, but they should not be too strong.
Nebbiolo is very sensitive to differences in soil and climate. It is very fragile. Certain grapes grow very well all over the world but not Nebbiolo. That’s why nobody has tried to grow Nebbiolo anywhere else.
Another reason is that if you want to produce high quality wine with Nebbiolo you have to work harder than with other varieties. Probably the two most difficult grape varieties are Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. In Piedmont, even though the plots may be only one kilometre apart with the same climate, the soil is so different that the Nebbiolo has different flavours. We make five different types of wine from 100 per cent Nebbiolo grapes. To produce wine from these takes much more time and effort with very little yield and very low profit.
When did you move out of Piedmont?
Earlier, we made the drastic decision of not making any wines of a particular vintage several times – in 1972,1984,1992, 2002. Then there were vintages in between when we cut down the production. So we started to be economically affected which was kind of tragic. And there was no way of recovering. Economically, it was very difficult for us since it continued like that for four years. So we decided in 1994, after four generations in Piedmont, to move to Tuscany and we bought a tiny winery in Toscana called Pieve S Restituta in Montalcino. It is a very small winery producing a total of 3,000 bottles owned by a man who had retired and decided to sell. He had bought it in 1972 from the church (they were making wine for the Vatican). In 1996, we bought another piece of land in Tuscany Ca’Marcanda in the Bolgheri district which my father was very keen on.
Why Tuscany? It’s 360 km and a three-hour drive from Piedmont.
Toscana has a warm climate, Piedmont in the north has a continental climate, with more rain and cooler temperatures. We don’t produce the wine in the winery. No matter how well you do your work, at the end you always have to deal with nature. If you get just 10 days of rain, it can completely ruin a year’s work, especially in Piedmont. We have faced this many times. There were times when we did not produce any wine. For example, in 2002, we came up with only nine wines. Since we harvested the white before the red, we could harvest it in time. After that the weather ruined everything.
The wines from Toscana are light wines similar to the wines from California and Australia. Warm climate wines reflect a lot of fruitiness in the glass that comes from the sun, from how well the fruit ripens. In Piedmont, our wines are always much more “terroir” wines, like in Burgundy, reflecting not so much the fruitiness but spice and minerality. The wines are much stronger than in other regions of Italy. And because the climate is not that warm, you have to concentrate much more on the terroir to make good wines. Nebbiola reflects spices and flowers like roses and violets – these are its most typical aromas.
What was it that attracted your father to the Bolgheri district? The quality of the soil, the climate?
It was the region. What’s great about this region is that it’s on the coast, near the sea and there’s always a strong wind bringing down the temperature. So all the wines here have good acidity which makes them drinkable and with a good aging potential.
In 1996, it was big news that we were moving from Piedmont to Toscana. When we arrived, there were already 40 wineries. And they were great wineries producing very good quality wine, but people were leaving not realising what they had in their land. Moreover, in Bolgheri he had the opportunity of building a new winery. It doesn’t happen often that a wine producer starts a new winery because it’s very much a family business. So when my father started to work in Barbaresco, three generations before him had made the winery and it was not totally the winery of his dreams because it was also the concept of my grandfather and great-grandfather.
We had to make changes in the structure in Piedmont every year. We had to break walls to make new rooms and it was a nightmare. In Toscana, he decided to build a winery which was first of all very big. Ca’Marcanda is completely under the mountain and it is the first winery of its kind, at least in Italy. What you see from the outside are only the offices, the winery is on two floors under the ground. The first floor is where the grapes arrive. The floor below is where the fermentation takes place. It is very well organized. We bought the property from three brothers who were making olive oil. They had a very old olive trees, 150-200 years old. The law of the Tuscan region does not allow you to cut trees. So we built the winery and moved the trees around it. We have 350 olive trees that we had to prune very severely when we moved them but now they are already blooming and completely covering the structure on the outside.
What makes Gaja so remarkable?
When it comes to quality, the philosophy of Gaja is to make wine only from their own vineyards – we are not négociants. In Piedmont we have 100 hectares of land and we produce a total of 300,000 bottles. I know so many wineries that produce much more and they have less people working than we do. We have 60 people working, four are in the winery and all the rest in the vineyards because the big work is in the vineyards.
The fact that we produce wine only from our own grapes means we have total control of everything. We know how our grapes are grown, we know where they are coming from, from which exposure …. Most importantly it means that if 2006 was a great vintage, we’re not going to be able to double the production, since we use only the grapes we grow ourselves. You can have only so many cases of Barbaresco and that’s the beauty of working with it because you make the product rare. There’s always a secondary market for Gaja wines. They are Collectors Wines.
Are there many women involved in wine-making in Italy?
In Italy, the number of women involved with wine is growing. But there will always be more work for men than for women, even though in my family women have always been very important.
Do you enjoy your work?
I do. There was no particular moment in my life when I decided to work in wine because I grew up surrounded by it, with my mom and my father both working at the winery. When they were home, they continued to speak about wine. With so many wineries in Barbaresco, you naturally grow up with an interest. And you also grow up with a good palate because you start tasting wines very young, at 10 or 12 years. In fact, children start having discussions on wine from the age of 14.
At the dinner table when you sat down to eat you always had a glass of wine in front of you. So when I was very little, my glass of wine was there, maybe I took a little at first but didn’t like it because it had tannins and was bitter – you think something that comes from grapes would be sweet. Probably what I liked more to begin with was the smell of the wine, but I got used to it. And then I started to drink it and enjoy it.
What do you think of India as a wine drinking country?
I think people are just starting to drink wine in India. It’s a matter of culture. People have to understand what wine is and how to drink it. For eg, in Italy wine is always drunk with food which is why all the Italian wines are high in acidity and have strong tannins. These two characteristics make wine pair well with food. The tannins clean your palate, and make you ready for the next bite. If you’re able to translate the culture of drinking wine with food with what you find in a wine, then a taste for wine will follow.

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