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Italy: Gaja and Graci gear up for their First Etna Harvest

Posted: Friday, 15 September 2017 10:54


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Italy: Gaja and Graci gear up for their First Etna Harvest

Sep 15: The new Sicilian joint venture of the ‘Prince of Piedmont’ and the Wine Enthusiast Man of the year Angelo Gaja and the Etna producer Alberto Graci, is getting ready for the first harvest next month, to be fermented at Graci’s winery in the village of Passopisciaro on the north slope of Mount Etna and sold through Gaja Distribuzione, the distribution arm of Gaja family

Click For Large ViewI met Angelo Gaja, the iconic producer of Gaja wines in Piedmont with wineries also in Bolgheri and Montalcino in Tuscany, in 2002. When I met the Man from Barbaresco, in 2003 at the Ca’Marcanda  winery in Bolgheri and asked him if he had plans of buying more wineries, Gaja told me he had several offers from foreign producers to collaborate but he declined because he liked to have the vines always under his nose so he could monitor the grape quality.

While interviewing him at his winery in Barbaresco in June 2009, he said, ‘I am still getting offers every week but I still feel the same. Besides, now I am not that young. The kids have grown up. They have to decide. If they want to do it they can go ahead.’ He was then 69 years old, at an age where most men think of retiring. But he was focussing on shaping his daughters Gaia and Rossana who are now totally involved in the business along with younger brother Giovanni.

Retiring Gaja?

While reporting the Vertical Tasting of top-ended Gaja wine Sorì San Lorenzo 1971-2011 in November 2014, Antonio Galloni, the American expert on Italian wines, wrote, “Angelo and Lucia Gaja’s children, Gaia, Rossana and Giovanni, are now increasingly involved in the family business. Generational succession is the single greatest challenge facing Piedmont’s wineries today. If Angelo and Lucia Gaja can take their hands off their estate, to their children and give them the freedom to make decisions, they will succeed where so many others before them have failed.”

The succession seemed to be complete when the siblings brought back the IGT single vineyards iconic wines like Sori San Lorenzo into the DOCG Barbaresco fold with his blessings and Gaia Gaja so admitting.

Therefore it came as a surprise in April this year when, at the age of 77 and almost 50 years after taking reins of the family winery, Angelo announced stepping beyond the mainland Italy (both Montalcino and Bolgheri in Tuscany are at a motorable distance from his home in Barbaresco) and going to the volcanic Etna region in Sicily. And for the first time he decided to partner outside the family in a business venture when he chose to collaborate with Alberto Graci (pronounced  Gra-chi) as his equal joint venture partner to buy vineyards and set up a separate winery.  

I love Etna

When interviewed by Fabrizio Carrera, owner of the wine and food gastronomy Sicilian website, who got Gaja and Graci together in 2015, Angelo said, "We will do things step by step. I have come to Etna to harvest the fruit that I have not cultivated. But I have been feeling Etna under my skin for some time now. Giacomo Tachis (who was responsible for making Sassicaia, Solaia and Tignanello and who died in February 2016) first recommended it to me (I could have well recommended it too! Etna has unique soil and the wines have been getting increasingly popular and fashionable during the last couple of decades-editor). His descriptions about the sleeping mountain, that sometimes wakes up and is often overwhelmed, impressed me. Etna is also a place for elegant wines that are difficult to understand.”

He concedes he has no skills to work in Etna but is excited about the collaboration because of a good feeling about Alberto Graci who says, ‘we are thinking of making a very well produced wine that gives identity to the new company with us being protagonists’.

Gaia Gaja, his eldest daughter who is increasingly in command of day- to- day business, says, ‘It's the first time my family has decided to enter into a joint venture. We would have never started it if we had not met Alberto and his family. As we got to know him better, we also felt more in tune and discovered his passion, artisanal approach to wine, curiosity and his will to learn. The desire of working together came naturally.”

Click For Large ViewShe adds, ‘we have 21 hectares in Biancavilla, on the southwestern slope, which is not as developed as the northern slope but has good potential. Of the 21 hectares purchased 11 are planted with the red local variety Nerello Mascalese being 10 hA consisting of over 40 year old vines. One hA is planted with the white grape Carricante which has done very well in Etna though it is considered an ordinary grape in other parts of Sicily. The grapes are grown at an altitude of 600 to 800 m. We don’t have any facility yet. The grapes will be transported to Graci’s winery where we will vinify them and also get more understanding of the project we have in our hands.’

About the contrarian southwest face, Graci says “ it is a new area for modern Etna, but it was very important in the 19th century. We have arrived at this part of Etna humbly to learn. You only learn about a vineyard by cultivating it and producing wine.” The 41 year old Graci with a finance background is from Catania and has been making wine in Etna for the last 10 years, cultivating about 50 acres on Etna’s North face and reportedly producing 7,500 cases annually. He says they are taking a long-term approach with their venture. They plan to produce the wine first and then decide how much of the wine they will bottle this year.

Though the wine will perhaps not be available immediately in India where a select portfolio of Gaja wines from the Estates are being imported by Brindco, it ought to be available in a few years. Etna holds a special status in the heart of connoisseurs because of the volcanic soil sprinkled frequently by the lava from the live volcano. Wines from Gaja and Graci would hopefully, add yet another dimension with Gaia and her siblings playing a role in future as well.

Subhash Arora

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