Il Vino Unisce: An interview with Angelo Gaja

Il Vino Unisce: An interview with Angelo Gaja

On a misty mid-April morning in Barbaresco, with the cobblestone streets wet and glistening, the village breathed a palpable sigh of relief. For its six hundred residents, life revolves around wine and finally, after four months of drought, the rains had come. Aside from such worrisome extremes in weather patterns, climate change has generally been one of Barbaresco’s allies in recent years. It used to be a struggle to get Nebbiolo to ripen on the cool banks of the Tanaro River and autumn rains frequently played havoc with the harvest. Another of the village’s allies has been Angelo Gaja. In addition to making stunning wines for the past sixty years, he has circled the globe many times over to convince wine lovers that Barbaresco is worthy of serious attention.

At 82, he now delegates most professional duties to his three children, Gaia, Rossana and Giovanni, though retirement does not seem to be an idea he is willing to entertain. Our interview began in the morning in the winery conference room, continued in the cellar and concluded over lunch at Antica Torre, a restaurant in the village center. Throughout Angelo spoke in a soft tone, choosing his words carefully, though I was kept on my toes. When he laughed it was a minor explosion and if he grew impassioned the windows rattled with the vehemence of “Absolutely!” or “Never! Impossible!” Here are some highlights from the man whose motto is il vino unisce: wine unites.

What is your earliest memory related to wine?

I was 6 years old when, for the first time, my father poured a teaspoon of Barbaresco into my glass, which I refused because I did not appreciate the acidity and tannins. At 15, I began to be curious about the small quantities of Barbaresco that my father poured into my glass from time to time and to recognize that, unlike water, it improved the taste of meat, chicken, rabbit, cheese, even bread.

Your grandmother studied in Savoie and became a schoolteacher before marrying your grandfather, Angelo Gaja, in 1905. What was her role in both your own development and that of the winery?

Clotilde Rey was a very important woman in the family because after they married my grandfather put on the label, ‘Angelo Gaja, producer of luxury wine,’ so already at that time the family was considering Barbaresco luxury wine. ‘Di Lusso e da Pasto.’ Why? To make a wine to have at a special occasion and to create emotion. She always had vision. I remember when I was eight years old my grandmother asked to see my homework that I was doing in the summertime. She asked me, ‘what are you going to do in your life?’ I was eight years old. I had no idea. I stayed silent, but she insisted and she said to me, ‘you have to become an artisan.’ An artisan’s project is not for the market. Sometimes there are artisans who fail because they are too ambitious or crazy but he thinks of this project twenty-four hours a day and he wants to do it to perfection. If he is successful, he will be recognized as a maestro. Then he has to teach his children and others how to reach this level. And after, he must transmit knowledge to the market and explain to the consumers about his product. My grandmother had an important function in the family and we were very respectful of her. She was able to push my father to be ambitious, to understand about the production of luxury wine and to improve the quality of his wines.

What is your saddest childhood memory?

Fortunately, I don't remember moments of intense pain but when I was sixteen I asked my parents to buy me a medium-high displacement motorcycle like many of my schoolmates had. My parents hesitated, fearing for my safety, and they proposed a bicycle equipped with a small engine but it was very far from my desire. I refused huffily. I have always thought I was wrong. If I had settled for that bicycle, it would have been possible to get a motorcycle later. What did I learn from this? Better to be satisfied with a little in order to aspire to more later.

How did you father, Giovanni Gaja, influence you?

I truly think my father was the greatest wine artisan in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. He always reminded me that the best stage for premium wines is the restaurant table, where wine connects, breaks down barriers, and creates friendship. And that having your own wines on restaurant wine lists is the best advertisement, and one that is free of charge. My father always told me to think differently, to do something different, and to have passion. Sometimes I made mistakes trying to do something different but this was important. Passion is the engine of the artisan and it works like a windshield wiper. It doesn’t stop the rain from falling, but it gives you the chance to keep going on. Passion is indispensable.

Do you encourage your own children to think differently?

Absolutely! I tell them this insistently! Though they have more hesitation. I would like them to sometimes surprise me . . . no, they are probably already doing it in some way, though they have accepted not having a website and not being on social media. I believe in not looking for influencers, as some of my colleagues are. My children understand this. But they are also open to eating more foods that are for me strange foods, for example. What I admire about Gaia is that she can easily relate to people. I have colleagues who say that I am a bear. Not so easy. Maybe sometimes, yes. But Gaia is easy and capable. Who are some of the important thinkers and writers for you? One is Camillo Cavour, a politician who in 1861 unified Italy and was one of the fathers of Barolo. He was also a liberal who encouraged the people not only to look for public work but to create companies and opportunities. From 1948 to 1955 we had a president Einaudi whose family is still making Dolcetto di Dogliani. He was again a liberal saying the same thing: try to create your own company and have respect for your workers. I believe the best way to understand an area is through the writers. During the lockdown I repeatedly read the books by Beppe Fenoglio, a writer born in Alba who told the epic of the partisan war and described masterfully the people of the area. In the first half of the 20th century the people had a kind of terrible fever for gambling that destroyed families. They were looking at gambling as something that would give them another choice in life, and they were dreaming. After they lost everything they were killing themselves in the Tanaro River and Fenoglio described this perfectly. After the second world war a lot of people transferred this risk of gambling into their own activities and some tried to make a fortune in wine. It’s because of that we have one thousand wineries here. The examples given by the liberals Cavour and Einaudi of creating, then after the second world war transferring this spirit of gambling and taking risks into other activities.

Speaking of wine, what do you think of the term typicity? Is it positive? Does it still have importance?

To keep the original taste or expression of grape varieties is absolutely important but you must add something to make the winemaker recognizable. When Gaia started visiting foreign markets, she was impressed by wine lovers in Canada. On the occasion of the release of a new vintage of Barbaresco they would buy the same vintage from different producers and taste them blind. They told Gaia that often they could recognize our wine. So typicity has to be kept and maintained but also there has to be the possibility of recognizing that the wines come from Gaja. However, climate change is modifying conditions everywhere. Nobody knows if the wines we are producing now, or the white wines in Burgundy and the reds in Bordeaux, will be able to age as they did in the past. We don’t know. I believe that at the moment Barbaresco is the wine that has had the biggest help from climate change. From 12.5 to 14 degrees alcohol is absolutely different but what we have to do, in my opinion, is to maintain the fundamental difference between Barbaresco and Barolo. We do not have to make a copy of Barolo by trying, for example, to harvest overripe grapes and make a lot of extraction. Elegance will be important in the future. In the world there are many other areas where it is possible to make opulent wine but here it is important to keep this orientation towards elegance and delicacy.

Why did you become interested in buying vineyards in Barolo, then in Tuscany?

I joined the winery in 1961 and at that time we produced exclusively Barbaresco. We didn’t make Barolo because we did not like to buy grapes. My father asked me to explore international markets and when I met with importers they said, okay, we can buy ten cases of your Barbaresco but we would like to buy one hundred cases of Barolo. Because we were not negociants buying grapes I had to say no. We have only Barbaresco. We stayed like that until ’88 when we bought our first vineyard in Barolo. As the name Gaja became prestigious importers began asking why we didn’t make lower-priced wines and we thought of expanding our interests into another appellation. The first step was in Montalcino where I started a winery called Pieve S. Restituta in 1994. With Montalcino there were similarities to Barbaresco and even Barolo, where we have to produce wine with 100% Nebbiolo grapes. In Montalcino it’s 100% Sangiovese. Both wines need some time before they are ready to drink. Two years later in 1996 we went to the Tuscan coast and started a winery in Bolgheri, Ca’ Marcanda. It is completely different because there are international grape varieties, but it’s very special.

Tell me about your decision to declassify your Barbaresco and Barolo wines and add 5% Barbera.

We decided to use the grape Barbera in 1996. None of the Barolo and Barbaresco made before entering the DOC in 1966 were pure . Never! My goal was to recreate the wines made by my father and grandfather. Barbera adds colour and in the past, when Nebbiolo was only ripe two or three vintages out of ten, it was much easier with Barbera. We thought that it could be a good helper. Now the climate change has helped enormously. The grapes are ripe, even too ripe now. From 1996 to 2011 being excluded from the appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco was not easy. For us, the purpose was not declassification but people believed it was. Can you imagine that we liked to declassify our best wines? It was difficult to transmit the message because the wine writers, instead of asking me, asked my colleagues what was happening. But we went in this direction and had no problem. We didn’t produce single vineyards in 2012 because the vintage was not good, then in 2013 my children said they would like to come back to the appellation because they had never produced a Barolo or Barbaresco from a single vineyard.

Here are some final thoughts on . . .

The success of the book on Gaja, The Vines of San Lorenzo, by Edward Steinberg:

The book has had eleven translations. Incredible. I remember we did a presentation in Shanghai and at the end people asked me to sign the book. For the first time in my life I was asked by several people, if I read this book can I produce wine like you? I’ve never been asked this before!

Warnings against alcohol consumption:

I am 82 years old and I drink a glass of wine every day. I don’t drink spirits, though I have nothing against them, and I don’t drink in between meals. I like wine only at the table with people. We cannot avoid having alcohol in the wine since it is naturally produced by yeasts. Perfect! But this attitude against alcohol is not good. There is a big confusion in looking at the beverages containing alcohol.

Describing the flavours and aromas of his wine:

In my life as a producer, I have tried as much as possible not to describe the characteristics of the wine but to look at everything that is outside the glass. I was invited on stage at the New York Wine Experience seven times and I was always asked to talk about wine. Every time, I said no to the great amusement of those in the room.

Describing his wine as a person:

If the Barbaresco were like my father, that would be fantastic.

Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in France in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language. Read more about Angelo Gaja and his fabulous wines in 10 Great Wine Families by Fiona Morrison MW.
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