Many things have changed in Piedmont, and it didn’t happen overnight. The battle of modern versus traditional is no more, and both sides have conceded to the positive aspects of the other. Modernists have cut down on new French oak or replaced them with large botti. Skin contact has increased, and some are even experimenting with whole cluster fermentation. Meanwhile, the traditional camp has cleaned up their cellars, replacing ancient barrels, controlling fermentation and employing new vineyard practices, which have improved their fruit vintage after vintage. The days of gruff and rustic Barolo and Barbaresco are becoming a distant memory. Vintages are now described as forward or classic. Wines that you wouldn’t dare to touch within the first ten years are now enjoying an earlier drinking window while still maintaining their classic structure.
This is not a bad thing for a region whose biggest drawback has been wine that is so difficult to understand in its youth—wine that most give up on before they even start to understand. The modern camp wanted wine you could drink upon release. They used new oak and intensely ripe fruit in an attempt to mask the austere tannins in Nebbiolo. However, we’ve learned a lesson from this: sometimes it’s not just the fruit that draws you to a wine; more often it’s a classic structure, ripe tannins and balance; it’s a feeling on your palate and those beguiling aromas wafting up from the glass which drive you wild. Yet while all these changes have been taking place, and as producers are turning over cellars and rethinking their vineyard management, there is one house that has been forward thinking and constantly evolving for over five decades, and that is Gaja.
Some would say that Gaja triggered the modernist movement, and to a large degree they would be right. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when most producers were happy to simply turn a good crop, Gaja was cutting yields, cropping their vines closer, adding stainless steel, malolactic fermentation and experimenting with barrique in the cellar. Yet, these are no longer just the attributes of a modern producer. Today, these are sound practices. The fact is that Gaja had a vision of what Barbaresco and Barolo could achieve, and that vision has been realized. Gaja has become the paradigm of what Barbaresco and Barolo strives to be.
So you can say that Gaja triggered the modern era, but in its wake, Gaja improved winemaking throughout the entire region and paved the way for what is now a true classic Nebbiolo. Their wines can’t be classified into either the modern or traditional camp; instead they are timeless, elegant and delicate, yet tense with tremendous depth. They are history in a bottle and years before their time.
The 1999 Vintage Collection Case (Cellar Direct)
1999 Gaja Langhe Nebbiolo are wines of severe elegance. They are just entering their perfect drinking window and giving much pleasure at this age. They still ache to spend some time in your cellar, yet there’s no shame in opening one now. These wines are classic Nebbiolo to the core, with red fruits, roses, tar, tobacco, minerals and wild herbs. They are dark and mysterious wines which tempt you to come back to the glass over and over again. These are not wines that win you over with a fancy label; instead they capture your senses the first time you put your nose to the glass and keep you captivated the very second you take a sip. It’s a perfume that fills an entire room, as you glance across the table and see the look of pure satisfaction on the face of your fellow tasters. Arguments break out over which wine is the better of the three, yet in the end there is no winner, because they are all unique and utterly thrilling.
1999 Gaja Costi Russi Langhe Nebbiolo– The nose was inviting with soft, dark balsamic tones, dried cherry, dusty spice, sweet potpourri and a hint of parchment. On the palate, dark red fruits caressed the senses with inner floral rose, and a hint of unresolved tannin contrasted by its rich textures. The palate-staining finish showed intense blackberry and minerals as it slowly faded away. It’s a rich and satisfying wine with an underlying structure which provides a textural appeal seldom seen in ‘99 Barbaresco. (94 points)
1999 Gaja Sori Tildin Langhe Nebbiolo – The dark and seductive ’99 Sori Tildin was a spellbinding experience. The nose was intense, showing cherry and plum sauce, yet it remained remarkably fresh and lifting with spices and menthol. It was ethereal on the palate with sweet cherry, dried spice, and earthy minerals, reminding me of perfectly-aged Burgundy, yet with a hint of tannin still tugging at the senses. It turned floral on the finish with spiced dried cherry lingering throughout. (96 points)
1999 Gaja Sori San Lorenzo Langhe Nebbiolo – Even in a tasting of the greatest wines, there is always one that captures your attention and simply won’t let go. For me, it was the ’99 Sori San Lorenzo. The nose was aggressive, seeming to leap out at you with notes of black cherry and menthol. With more time in the glass, a saline note joined the fray, along with dusty, sweet potpourri and spice. It was soft and enveloping on the palate, yet it seemed weightless somehow, with dark cherry and rosy floral tones dancing upon the senses. The finish still showed youthful and slightly firm, assuring many more years of development, yet fresh with red fruit and hints of herbs. (97 points)
The just-released 2010 Gaja selections are impeccable wines that show the true pedigree of this great vintage. They stand like marble statues with their rigid lines and the gloss of their youth. Hard and angular, yet there is so much focused fruit. In a word, chiseled, an art form to be sure. Your mind goes wild as you begin to imagine what this wine will one day become, and so you sip again from the glass of a ‘99, and a feeling of pure satisfaction envelops you. Now you know, you need to taste this wine again at 5, 10, and 15 years–there has to be a way. This is history being made in a bottle.
2010 Gaja Barbaresco – The 2010 Gaja Barbaresco is a model of class. Ethereal in the glass with an expression of tart red berry and rhubarb, lifted by rosy perfumes with hints of anise and cinnamon. On the palate, it was delicate yet tense and perfectly balanced with notes of herbal tea and medicinal red fruits complimented by sweet tannin. It was long with palate-staining wild berry and sweet floral notes that seemed to touch on all the senses. It’s beautiful now, yet will reward cellaring. (93 points)
2010 Gaja Costi Russi Langhe Nebbiolo– The 2010 Costi Russi was rich and inviting with seductive dark fruit on the nose. Plum and strawberry were met by classic notes of tar and roses with sweet red beets and a hint of wild herbs. On the palate, it was elegant, touching upon all the senses with black cherry and dry coco. Its youthful structure showed throughout the finish, as fine tannin coasted the palate, yet through it all the fruit remained focused and refined. (94 points)
2010 Gaja Sori Tildin Langhe Nebbiolo – The 2010 Sori Tilden was a lesson in understated power and potential. The nose pulls you in with dark, spiced fruits, rosy floral tones and a hint of menthol. On the palate, it was angular and stern, yet there’s a density to its dark red fruit as the Sori Tildin hinted at black soil, mineral and spice. Brimming with potential and built for the cellar, I hope to taste this again in ten years’ time. (95 points)
2010 Gaja Sperss – With all of the talk of 2010 Barolo, the Sperss makes the case for just how amazing this vintage truly is. The nose was dark, brooding, yet seductive with wild berry fruit, mountain herbs, dark mineral laden soil and tobacco. Dark red fruits enveloped the palate, yet firmed up quickly as youthful tannin coated the senses. Black fruit, along with soil and mineral notes lingered on the finish as tannin tugged at the palate. I simply couldn’t resist returning to the glass over and over. This is a beautiful expression of Serralunga with a brilliant future ahead for the patient collector. (95 points)