5 Questions With Gaia Gaja
By Tom Thornton – November 2018
On October 26th, Gaia Gaja of Italy’s legendary Gaja spent a day in Austin talking to sommeliers and enthusiasts about her family’s line of wines. (For background and context on the Gajas, here’s an excellent 2016 feature on the family.)
During a lunch chat at Josephine House, we asked Ms. Gaja about pairings, climate change in Italy, blinding Nebbiolo, and her suggestions for warm weather drinking.
ATX Somms: Texas love steaks, smoked meats, and chile spice. Do you have favorite Italian wine pairings for one (or all) of those strong flavors?
Gaia Gaja: Nebbiolo has a lot – a lot – of tannins, so when you have something with good fat, like a big steak, it can be a fantastic match. The fat and the tannins work together to cut through and clean the palate. I especially like a young Nebbiolo (usually Barbaresco) with a ton of tannin for that. With something smoked, I’d go for a Barolo, because Barbaresco is more ethereal and delicate – not in the texture, but in the perfume. I have the feeling that the smokiness would go with the dustiness and earthiness of Barolo best.
ATX: When blind tasting your wines, are there some signature qualities to the grapes you work with that make them easier to identify?
GG: Nebbiolo can be identified (apart from the perfume) with the mouthfeel. Today we’re having Nebbiolo – when you swallow the wine, you’ll feel the taste more in your throat than in your mouth. It’s a discrete taste- it stays back. What you feel in your mouth is more the texture and the tannins. Sangiovese is similar, but more forward with taste. Then with Nebbiolo, Barbaresco has a sweeter taste with spice and perfume, while Barolo has more fruit, particularly the cherry fruit.
ATX: Do you have a favorite warm weather wine from your lineup?
GG: From my range, the Vistamare. It’s a wine we make in Bolgheri near the seaside, it’s made with Vermentino, which always has a saltiness that makes it very savory. It makes you salivate, and gives some freshness. There’s also some Viognier in the wine that’s big and more horizontal, so we do this special blend on purpose. With the new vintage in 2017, we’ve added some Fiano, which has a lot of acidity and keeps the alcohol down. In hot weather, you need something without too much alcohol or with too big a body. The Vistamare’s Vermentino and Fiano gives you that.
ATX: How is climate change affecting your vineyards and processes?
GG: With climate change we’re seeing different sicknesses. There are now less of them related to humidity, and more of them related to drought. They’re sicknesses related to the trunk of the plant. On average, about 3% of our vines on the property are sick, and we’ve noticed some trends. The number of sick plants is higher, for example, where you have a clonal selection. We’re working with a geneticist to better understand our vines. According to him, if clones are around the same thing, there’s not much they can learn, because each clone has different weaknesses and strengths. If there’s a communication between plants, being around other plants that have learned how to fight that virus year after year helps give the plant an ability to solve it. They can become more resilient, but not in places where there is less biodiversity between clones. Another thing we notice that’s similar to people: the highest number of sick plants are the ones at the beginning of a row. Those that eat more and have more space get more sick – probably the same for us! The answer is biodiversity – if you have different types of grass and insects, no one thing is going to become a major problem.
ATX: With your namesake Gaia & Rey Chardonnay, what elements of the wine make it distinctly Italian?
GG: It’s not evident to everyone what makes a Chardonnay from Piemonte. We know everything about Chardonnay from other areas! In our region we have clay, which is compact and gives you wine with big shoulders. There is limestone, so thankfully there’s a nice acidity in all wines from there. The acidity is dropping – it’s something that we are noticing, so we’re doing less malolactic than we’ve done in the past. We used to do around 80% ML, now we’re closer to 30% to protect the acidity. It has body, but it doesn’t have an oiliness – to me, it’s dry in the mouth in a way that reminds me of a Nebbiolo. It doesn’t have tannins, there is no skin contact, but it gives you a sense of cleanness like Nebbiolo gives.