10 Great Wine Families

10 Great Wine Families
Angelo Gaja, the patriarch of Piemonte’s greatest wine family, learnt his artisan’s wisdom from his grandmother Clotilde. Here he tells Fiona Morrison how her words have echoed down the generations

‘We sit opposite each other. If I didn’t have to take notes, my eyes would be locked constantly on his. His round red glasses frame his clear blue eyes; his greying hair is swept back to reveal his high forehead. His cupid bow mouth is expressive but rarely still and his strong jaw emphasizes a steely determination. I would have found his intensity to be intimidating a few years ago but I have got to know Angelo a little better; I was recently elected into the same international academy of wine as he and we share some common ground.

We speak French together, French being an official language of Piedmont, and I want to probe him to understand how he rose above the other growers to his position of such standing today. He talks to me about the unique heritage of Barbaresco that he calls “posizione” – the Piedmontese equivalent, I think, of “location, location, location”. He talks about how the individual vineyard sites were the guarantee of a better product; how from the beginning he wanted to harvest ripe Nebbiolo grapes; how the exposure of the vineyard slopes and the heat on the vines was paramount; where here in the Langhe, thanks to Fantini, a 19th-century expert in viticulture, the best southeast and southwest slopes were identified.

He talks about his grandmother Clotilde: “I was born in 1940 and was 21 years old when she died. I remember her asking me what I wanted to do in life. I stayed silent. She told me that I should become an artisan. It is best to do something with passion. The market does not inspire an artisan. He has his own project in mind, he is proud of it and he knows all of its possibilities in detail. Her words were: ‘First, you do something; second, you learn how to do it better; third, you learn to show others how do it; fourth, you communicate what you do.’ Of course, it sounds much better in Italian: Fare- saper, fare-saper, far fare- far sapere.”

Angelo’s project was to make Barbaresco more important than Barolo, which at the time was unthinkable. Inspired by his father, the two started to pay sharecroppers full salaries rather than just for their grapes, reduce yields and finally, most dramatically of all, put their name, the name of the artisan, on their bottle, which was unheard of before.

“Sapere far fare” – that phrase, “learn to show others how to do things” – has echoed down the generations of the Gaja family. “I try to give my children the chance to make mistakes” he tells me, echoing what Gaia has told me before. “My father let me do this too. I am letting my children do things their way.” He tells me that this is not always easy. For four years they discussed making their Barbaresco using 100% Nebbiolo grapes and discarding the 5% darker skinned Barbera grapes that Angelo liked to add. The girls won and for the first time since 1995, the Gaja wines were returned to the official DOCG ­ status for Barbaresco and Barolo. “Luckily, no knives were involved,” he says with a grin, but I can imagine that with so much passion around the discussions can get quite heated sometimes.’

Taken from 10 Great Wine Families by Fiona Morrison MW published by Académie du Vin Library. It is available here at an incredible 35% off discount for a limited time.
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