July 28: Angelo Gaja created history of sorts when he introduced his Nebbiolo wines from Barbaresco, a small village of Piedmont, Italy for more than $200 per bottle. Dubbed as the Prince of Piedmont by the Wine Spectator and one of the top wine producers of Italy by experts and critics, he changed the earlier Italian philosophy of producing bulk wines at cheaper prices and put Barbaresco on the map of fine wines at a time when only Barolo had been recognized as the maker of fine wines, writes Subhash Arora who visited the winery on 18 July 2003 and also quizzed him about Sauvignon Blanc from Sula Vineyards and got interesting response
I had first met Angelo Gaja in Vinitaly 2002 and again in Vinexpo 2003 where he invited me to visit his Tuscan Winery, Ca'Marcanda in Bolgheri, in the small village of Castagneto-Carducci. This winery won the Italian Oscar for being the Best Winery of the Year 2003. Following are the excerpts from the 2-hour chat during my visit on 18 July 2003 from Perugia where I was studying Italian language on scholarship and had taken time out to visit the winery on his invitation at Vinexpo. The visit included tasting his Magari 2001, Promis 2001 and Ca'Marcanda 2000 made from international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Words may not be exactly his but in essence are his own-Subhash Arora
Arora: Congratulations again on your Ca'Marcanda getting the Oscar for the best Azienda in Italy for 2003.
Gaja: Thank you. Actually we have got a couple of awards already for wines in the earlier year including Sori` San Lorenzo. But this one was special because we got it for our Tuscan Winery, which is relatively new. How did you come to know of this Award?
Arora: I was in Amsterdam on 21st June on my way to the Vinexpo 2003 in Bordeaux. I switched on RAI Uno Italian Channel when I saw the Award Ceremony going on. Yours was the last and the ultimate Award for the best winery. Can you tell me something about this Award?
Gaja: These were initiated 3 years ago by the Italian Sommeliers' Association, IES, to help recognize the quality wines and wineries of Italy and help improve the quality of Italian wines.
Arora: How is the Award decided?
Gaja: There are 30,000 members who are given a list of short-listed names. They vote for different categories and the ones getting the maximum in each category get the award. The Award ceremony is held in Rome every summer.
Arora: You made Barbaresco world famous by introducing fine wines made from Nebbiolo. What made you chose Bolgheri in Tuscany?
Gaja: There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, expansion in Barbaresco was getting very difficult. The Classification rules make it extremely difficult to expand there. As it is, the land being limited is astronomically expensive. We had found a place in Montalcino where we started producing Brunello. I wanted to experiment with international variety of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. Antinori has been in this area for a long time. This area is also on my way from Montalcino to my home in Barbaresco in Piemonte. So I used to scout around this area on my way home to locate a suitable property till I found this one.
Arora: I believe your wife (Lucia) had a hand in naming this Azienda as Ca'Marcanda.
Gaja: Ca'Marcanda is a colloquial term in Piemonte and is used when people have the house and business at the same place. I used to be so busy in my work that she felt the business was my home. So you could say that the idea was hers.
Arora: Thank you for inviting me to your vineyards in Ca'Marcanda. I believe you do not receive visitors here normally.
Gaja: We believe that the winery is a place of work and worship. We do not like to make it a place for tourists. It distracts us from our main business of producing good wine. Unlike in America where it is used commercially by the winemakers, we discourage it strongly.
(While talking to me, he is interrupted by phone calls from customers in Washington, Baltimore and Seattle and many others.)
ON CA'MARCANDA ARCHITECTURE
Arora: This winery seems to have been designed beautifully. One can hardly see any building. It also looks more like a modern office block than a winery.
Gaja: (Giovanni) Bo has been my architect since 1970 in Barbaresco. I asked him to commission this winery completely. It was our intention to use a sober and toned down style using materials that could merge with surroundings. That is why we transferred the olive trees growing in the estate when we bought it in 1996 to the surroundings of the building we were constructing. Over years we shall have the whole office complex covered with these huge trees and from a distance the winery will not be visible.
We also wanted the winery to be aesthetically toned down but expansive and horizontal. We have always wanted space so it may look pleasing to the eye. We have been going to the local government of Barbaresco to give us more land every 10 years but our request had been consistently turned down. So we are experimenting a lot in this area.
ON WINE CULTURE AND PROMOTION
Arora: What about wine promotion in Europe? I have been attending Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia for the last few days, where there is no wine promotion at all but beer is being promoted in a big way.
Gaja: That is not true. There have been a lot of wine promotion programmes. Younger people want to know more about wines and want to discuss wines. Of course, there cannot be mass promotions like the event you are mentioning. In Rome, there was a Conference recently of 300 people who paid 50 Euros to be there and taste wines. This trend has been increasing in Europe during the last 10 years especially in countries like Germany, Austria and France.
BARBARESCO Vs. BORDEAUX and BURGUNDY
Arora: How do you rate your Barbaresco like Sori Tildin or Sori San Lorenzo with similar priced Bordeaux or Burgundies?
Gaja: Obviously, one cannot and should not compare the two. I enjoy fine Bordeaux and Burgundy Pinot Noirs too. Sometimes people ask me why there is so much fuss over Nebbiolo since it is highly tannic and a very difficult grape to grow in good quality.
Good Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux is open book like John Wayne. Everybody wants his father, son and friend to be like him. He is easy going, loyal and dominates the taste. He is a good human being who does his duty sincerely and consistently. Even women want him as their husband for such good qualities. But Nebbiolo is like Marcello Mastroianni – adventurous, suave, mystical and seductive and unpredictable. He is married but makes each woman feel like a queen. He is not dominating and does not occupy the middle of the palate. You have to use all parts of your mouth to enjoy Nebbiolo.
Cabernet goes very well with lamb and beef. But Nebbiolo is the only grape that goes well with any food whether it is meat, chicken, duck or fish. Moreover, it definitely enhances the taste of any food and is not dominating. The tannins are much softer. They clean your mouth and give you chance to clean your palate.
Arora: But don't chicken and fish normally go better with white wines?
Gaja: I have been saying it for years that Nebbiolo makes a red wine for all foods. Food critics and writers have finally begun to agree with me. In fact, I shall be presenting 10 wines, including 7 from Nebbiolo to about 1200 people at the New York Wine Experience on 24th October where the theme will be just this-that Nebbiolo reds can be enjoyed with any food and that they enhance the eating experience.
You could say that my heart is in Bordeaux but Nebbiolo is in my blood. It is unique and multi-dimensional. I must add though that after spending 5 years in this area I am falling in love with this place. Being near the sea. The climate is very good for the grapes. It is always slightly windy. There is difference of temperature between days and nights that are cooler thus maintaining the balance of acidity.
REASONS FOR SUCCESS:
Arora: What would you attribute your success to?
Gaja: Firstly, our philosophy of improving quality at the cost of yield has paid off. Earlier producers believed in high tannins making wines very coarse. We make wines with softer tannins. Also, during the bad years like 1991-94 we declassify our wines. This means they are no bottling of our standard labels during these years. In 1987 we declassified 50% of our wines. In 2002 also we bottled 30 % less. We sell the bulk of grapes to brokers who sell them for making bulk wine
The second reason is our people. We employ only those people who are passionate about wines and not interested in just a job. They are very proud and value the quality at all levels.
ON EXPANDING OUTSIDE ITALY
Arora: Have you ever thought of expanding outside Italy with your name and the strong Branding that you have created.
Gaja: I have already been invited by several wineries in the USA, Chile, South Africa and Australia to collaborate with them. But I have refrained from going outside Italy.
Arora: Any specific reasons?
Gaja: I love my grapes and am very particular in the way they are tended to. When I get up in the morning I have a comfortable feeling that they are growing the way I would like them to. I am not sure if my partners would give the same attention.
The other very important factor is that I am passionate about my wines and the quality. We don't think of making money when we make our wines. Of course, we want to make money but it is not the only objective. Big producers have more passion for making money. So there could be a clash of interest if we were to partner with someone.
ON MARKETING GAJA WINES IN INDIA
Arora: How is the marketing of your wines doing in India?
Gaja: As you know we have been marketing in India through Sanjay Menon of Sansula. I believe he is discontinuing marketing of wines and getting into production of wines or something? So we would be interested in fresh tie-ups.
Arora: Recently, the Indian Government has allowed the import of duty free wines to the hotels earning foreign exchange. So, it would make sense for them to import your wines now since they can store them in their cellars and also offer to their Wine Connoisseur clients at better rates.
Gaja: Let us hope so. We would be willing to work with them.
Arora: The problem is that though your wines are fine but they are extremely expensive for ordinary wine drinkers. Coupled with the massive duties of around 260% it is almost impossible to afford your wines.
Gaja: I agree our wines from Barbaresco are not cheap. But it is also a fact that it is extremely expensive to grow good quality grapes. The yields have to be minimized. The wine making process is costly. The storage and cost of barriques is prohibitive. So it costs a lot more to produce fine wine. Of course, our Tuscan wines are quite reasonable for the quality we produce and for connoisseurs of fine wines, they are a very good value for money.
ON INDIAN WINES
Arora: I believe you have imported some Sauvignon Blanc from India. What do you feel about Indian wines?
Gaja: Rajeev Samant of Sula wines had met me at VinExpo2002 in Japan. He presented me with a couple of bottles of his Sauvignons. I liked the taste. So I asked him to send some more for tasting with some friends.
Arora: I have read the book, 'The Vines of San Lorenzo" by Edward Steinberg, which describes making of your world famous Sori' San Lorenzo 1989. He has talked about this group of about 12 people including your wine maker tasting wines together. Have these people tasted this wine?
Gaja: Yes, whenever we taste different wines we drink it together to get diversified opinion. And the consensus was that they liked the wine.
Arora: What was typical of this wine?
Gaja: Well, this does not taste like Sancerre, Chile or New Zealand that can be too exotic at times. It is different, unique and pleasant. We are also distributing wines from different countries and I must say we have done reasonably well with his wines.
Arora: So what do you feel about the future of Indian wines?
Gaja: Well, like I said what we tasted was very nice. But Rajeev has to be careful and ensure that quality, not the prices go up. People here cannot imagine that India can produce wine what to talk of the quality. So they have to be promoted properly and progressively. I have not tasted Indian Reds. How are the red wines in India?
Arora: We have Grover Vineyards in Bangalore, who have had reasonable success with wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in India. Michel Rolland of France is helping them on the project and I think they have a great potential. There Red Reserve is pretty good-at any rate a lot better than the French bulk table wine we get right now in the grey market.
Gaja: I won't mind trying some of your reds.
ON INDIA VISIT
Arora: Have you ever been to India? Sanjay Menon once told me you were to visit in February this year but had to cancel out due to SARS scare?
Gaja: I know something was planned. But it got cancelled due to some reason, I don't remember what.
Arora: Any plans to visit us in the near future? Maybe you should stop over in Delhi on your way to some East Asian destination.
Gaja: I don't have immediate plans but will let you know when I can visit. But, if there are any business possibilities, I would certainly like to come.
Arora: Maybe it sounds silly. But any future plans to invest in India?
Gaja: As I told you, I am not comfortable with the idea of investing outside Italy. But who knows, if I get the right proposal, I may consider it.
Arora: Thanks for your time. Ciao.
There is a trove of information in our website as useful today as it was many years ago when it was written. There was no Indian Wine Academy between 2002-2006 so many Articles were written on our Associate-Delhi Wine Club’s website. We shall be including a few of the important Articles from the Archives as reference material and hope our readers find them useful. Since there was no numbering of the Articles and we did not publish dates earlier, it may be only an estimate, though fairly accurate. Gaja Wines are imported by Aman Dhall of Brindco since 2003 -editor