A-Ga-Ga Over Gaja With A Gal Named Gaia
If you look real closely, you can see why ELV got into this whole food and wine thing.
And if you said to yourself: “For the pork chops,” you really don’t know us very well.
But we…uh…ahem…er…struggled through another one-on-one wine tasting with one of the most charming ladies in all of viticulture a couple of days ago, and were quite frankly astonished by the depth of her knowledge, the sparkle of her wit, and the fun she brought to imparting information about her product….which just happens to be the greatest Italian wine in the world.
Her name is Gaia Gaja (Guy-yah Guy-yah), she’s named after a Greek Goddess and she is the daughter of Angelo Gaja, the man who is single handedly given credit for putting upscale, single-vineyard, Italian wines on the world’s map.
She’s also the well-traveled, seductively-accented marketing rep for these trophy wines, and the restaurant she chose for lunch — the Country Club Grill at Wynn — provided the perfect backdrop for some serious tasting.
Appropos the situation, Chef Carlos Guia took the Gaja bottles back in the kitchen and came up with four simple courses: simply charred ahi tuna, wagyu beef carpaccio, succulent and savory pork chops — dressed with slightly sweet, house-made barbecue — and some simply-grilled, American wagyu rib-eye, all of which were perfect counterpoints to the elegant wines.
Guia’s only misstep with Gaia: using truffle oil on the carpaccio. As the beautiful beef was presented, we both caught a whiff, and she silently (but politely) recoiled in horror. “Truffle oil?” we asked, wrinkling our nose. She nodded. “It is a false product that ruins the reputation of the real thing…just like all the fake balsamic vinegar in the world,” was her only comment. We couldn’t agree more.
Gaia began by telling us Italy buys 25% of all Gaja wines; USA get 20% of their output; Germany 8%; then Switzerland, England, Japan and Russia divide up the rest. She then dropped a small bomb by proclaiming Japan the place where you’ll find the best Italian food outside of Italy. “I don’t know whether it’s because their palates are better or they just study harder,” was her take on the subject. Then she turned to describing the wines:
“Piedmont wines like Piedmontese people, are shy and a bit reserved. And like a teenager, they can be a handful (mouthful?) when young.” As she composed herself over the truffle oil offense, she added: “Old Piedmontese wines were, austere, tough, and tannic….not very approachable.” She went on to explain that in the old days, quantity was greatly valued over quality, and old-timers considered it a sin to extensively prune vines or cut back in any way on the size of the harvest.
“They accused my father of wasting wine, and when short pruning and green harvesting began in the 1960’s it was quite radical.” (Gaja was the first producer to experiment with, then implement the pruning and cutting back on vines to increase the fruit concentration in the grapes. It was also the first Barbaresco producer to utilize the barrique (small barrel) method of aging.)
In between bites, we asked her to describe the grape that made Barbaresco famous. “Nebbiolo, has a lot of attitude when young, but it can be quite subtle and delicate (pinot noir-like?) once the tannins soften. My father has famously described it as being the Marcello Mastroianni of grapes, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is more like John Wayne. It is a gentle soul of a wine…powerful but not overpowering.” she continued between sips from the Riedel Burgundy glasses. These glasses focus the nose and allow the wine to approach the palate in a more centered fashion, like an arrow, unlike cabernet glasses where you want the wine to arrive in a larger, broader way in the mouth.” To date, there Riedel has yet to make a Barolo/Barbaresco wine glass.
Her recommendation: “The Ca’ Marcanda is something you drink with a friend. Barbaresco you drink with a lover.”
Hard to argue with that. Ca’ Marcanda Magari (a 50% Merlot/25% Cabernet Sauvignon/25% Cab Franc blend with the cab franc thrown in for its spicy/herbal quality), was all about forest, wood and mint scents. The ‘o5 Barbaresco had a much more reserved nose that eventually opened up to reveal hints of strawberries and orange peels. It also displayed an herbal quality characteristic of this vintage (according to Gaia) but still it had that light-in-the-glass-full-in-the-mouth personality that defines Barbaresco.
It was also much more acidic and tannic than the Tuscan Ca’ Marcanda — owing to its potential for much longer aging. Our only disagreement throughout the tasting was she thought the tannins on the Barbaresco faded rather quickly in the front of the mouth, and we thought they hung around for longer than they were welcome.
Barbaresco is generally paler than the alcoholic monsters the American wine-buying public seems to crave. But like Pinot Noir, the Nebbiolo grape can be an iron fist in a velvet glove. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Sori Tildin (sor-EE til-DEEN) — clearly the star of the show. “Sori” means hilltop, and “Tildin” was the nickname of Angelo’s grandmother, Clotilde Rey. This is the big hitter in the Gaja lineup (along with Sperss and Costa Russi) — renowned for its finesse and power.
Like the Barbaresco, it is remarkably light (deep purple but not black purple) in color and huge in the mouth, with hints of menthol, leather, tar and all those heavy-vapor metaphors wine folks bandy about to describe wines possessing those complex, haunting smells that transcend mere fruit. It retails for well over $300 bottle and (like human beings) is the kind of wine that needs decades to reveal the full measure of its character. Its finish lasted until next Tuesday.
Are these wines for everyday drinking? Of course not. The Barbaresco retails for up to two hundred simoleans and even the Magari is at least seventy bucks in most wine shops. In fact the only Gaja wine we at ELV can afford on an everyday basis in the Ca’ Marcanda Promis (around $35 retail – $120 at Carnevino).
But if you’re going to splurge, you’d be hard pressed to find a more mouth-filling drink.
“I really love your wines, I just wish I could afford them,” was the first thing we said upon meeting the charming Gaia. She smiled and then told us she was just in Spain where certain, small cans of exotic seafood go for over 50 euros apiece. “When you look at it that way,” she said, “our wines aren’t such a bad deal.”
And let’s face it, who ever made love over a can of tinned fish?