Coups de Coeur
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The first thing you notice about Angelo Gaja, legendary Piemonte producer, is the somewhat mischievous grin. Angelo, who claims to be 67, could be a decade younger. He is vigorous, energetic and candid. He is someone who minces no words, frequently commenting on “shit” wines, and admitting that his Cabernet-based Darmagi is often vegetal—not “herbaceous,” not redolent of olives, no euphemisms. Just “vegetal.”
His winery is a family run operation involving several generations at this point. Angelo takes pride in small production wines, the products of craftsmen, as opposed to what he calls “commercial” wines. He points out that Barolo has a total production of 11 million bottles, and that is not likely to be increased. Not surprisingly, he says, increasing demand and limited supply mean prices will rise. Again, he minces no words. You may not always like what you hear, but it is fun to hear it.
Despite his forays into Cabernet Sauvignon, he is a Nebbiolo champion. He amusingly (if not always probatively) describes Cabernet as the John Wayne of grapes, friendly, with a strong personality, and dutiful in the bedroom. Nebbiolo, however, is the Marcello Mastroianni of wines, an image he matches with the more aggressive and acidic Nebbiolo. I'm not always sure what it means, but it was funny.
He also thinks Piemonte is a more reliable region these days, as the vintages are more consistent, and it is easier to ripen the grapes due to warmer growing seasons. He contrasts the vintages in the ‘60s and ‘70s with more recent ones, and notes how many older vintages were simply disasters by comparison where it was simply impossible to get ripe fruit. The principal modern problem? He feels that he needs to mix in some Barbera to increase the acidity in some of his Nebbiolo-based wines.
In a short afternoon, he presented us with nine very fine wines from both Tuscany and Piemonte. Gaja has, relatively recently, expanded into Tuscany, a somewhat startling move for one of Piemonte’s old and legendary wineries. Nonetheless, his operations there remain small and individualistic. What followed was a fine afternoon.
Let’s start with Tuscany…
The 2004 “Magari” I.G.T. (Ca’ Marcanda – Gaja) is a blend of Merlot (50%), and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in equal proportions. It is bright, showing lots of acid on opening, with an elegant mid-palate and just a touch of earthiness on the finish. I liked it, but thought there was a slight burn, and that it was a bit simple at first. It did evolve nicely, though, getting to a more respectable place and providing more harmony among its components. It is not quite a truly distinguished wine in my book, though. The 2003 “Camarcanda” (Ca’ Marcanda – Gaja) Super Tuscan entrant from Bolgheri is a blend of 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. There were 1,800 cases produced. It seems slightly fuller in body than the Magari, with an excellent finish, which lingers and shows grip. There is a touch of herbs on the finish, which is mouthwateringly bright. It expands reasonably in the glass with air. The 2001 Brunello di Montalcino “Rennina” (Pieve Santa Restituta) is a blend of three vineyards. There were about 2,166 cases produced. Full in the mouth, this makes an immediate positive impression, coating the palate. The finish is intense and powerful. The acidity is high enough to lend it a sour cherry note as it airs out. As it airs out, the tannins become rather intense and drying, but they relent a little with some more air. This wine is sometimes a little angular, but it is often impressive. The 2001 Brunello di Montalcino “Sugarille” (Pieve Santa Restituta) single vineyard Brunello produced about 1,333 cases. Bright, but to my mind, with the acidity better integrated than in the Rennina, this shows power, but harmony. There are some drying tannins on the finish, but also some velvet on the texture, and some eventual harmony between the components of the wine. The more I held this, the more I liked it, but it certainly needs a few years more in the cellar to show its stuff. There was no 2002 or 2003 of this wine, a tribute to Gaja's greatness. He was unhappy with the 2002 due to the wet vintage, and unhappy with the "roasted" 2003. They were sold off in bulk to negociants. This is what great winemakers should do. I started to applaud. It is a sign of dedication and passion.
Now, to Piemonte…the belly of the beast. The 2001 Barbaresco (Gaja) produced 5,000 cases. It is beautifully balanced and bright, but the acidity --and everything else—is impeccably integrated. It is also seductively textured, and simply a pleasure to taste. It has structure, but doesn't flaunt it. The 2001 “Sori Tildin” (Gaja) is simply another level. Earth, acid and fruit come together to produce a remarkably flavorful finish, nuanced by nuts and tar. The tannins kick in but they are hardly overbearing. The wine shows its breeding and balance at all times, remaining intense but not harsh. It is focused and deep, and expands nicely in the glass. For all of its obvious good points, it has a certain subtlety to it. This has 5% Barbera mixed in. The 2001 “Sperss” (Gaja) is from a vineyard Gaja bought in 1988. There are hints of cassis to the point where I wondered if I was tasting a Super Tuscan at times. It opens rich and ripe, but becomes more harmonious, a bright, silky wine with a lusher texture as it airs out. The tannins provide enough grip on the finish, which lingers, becoming more flavorful and more intense with air. Simply beautiful. The 1998 “Sperss” (Gaja) shows mature nuances. It is gentle and harmonious, with enough liveliness to be bright, charming and sunny. Its finish sneaks up on you--it is better and longer than you would think, with lovely, lingering flavors. It is a little drying on the end. This is a lovely Sperss, although not necessarily a great one. Finally, the 2001 “Darmagi” (Gaja) is usually my least favorite Gaja offering, because it shows green so often. I was surprised but pleased to hear Angelo Gaja himself call it vegetal, mincing no words, using no euphemisms. This is in texture lush and lovely, with some tang and spice, but the olives, bell peppers and general vegetal notes are not appealing. It is pleasant enough at times, but little more. There are only 800 cases produced. 88 points.
2004 “Magari” I.G.T. (Ca’ Marcanda – Gaja)……………………...89
2003 “Camarcanda” (Ca’ Marcanda – Gaja)……………………….90
2001 Brunello di Montalcino “Rennina” (Pieve Santa Restituta)……….90
2001 Brunello di Montalcino “Sugarille” (Pieve Santa Restituta)……….93
2001 Barbaresco (Gaja)…………………………………………… .92
2001 “Sori Tildin” (Gaja)……………………………………………..95
2001 “Sperss” (Gaja)………………………………………………..95
1998 “Sperss” (Gaja)…………………………………………………91
2001 “Darmagi” (Gaja)……………………………………………….88
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