Gaja and Produttori di Barbaresco … A Wine Study in Contrasts

I knew my group would be in for a major learning experience when I scheduled our visits in Barbaresco.  The first stop was Gaja, the most exclusive winery in the region, and the second a visit to Produttori di Barbaresco, the co-op that produces wines for a collective of 54 farmers. Angelo Gaja has done more to put Piedmont on the map than anyone. He is an ambassador that has promoted these wines and this region for decades. His single-vineyard Barbarescos are extremely hard to find and command prices of over $300.

Gaja bought and renovated the Castello di Barbaresco. It is decorated with art commissioned from countries where the Gaja wines are most popular.
Gaja bought and renovated the Castello di Barbaresco. It is decorated with art commissioned from countries where the Gaja wines are most popular.

Alessandra Forlani, Gaja import director, showed us around the winery, which is joined to the Barbaresco castle, an incredible building which they have restored into an incredible wine tasting facility and art gallery.  Halfway through the tour, she took me aside and said that Angelo Gaja remembered me from last time, and would join us for the tasting. Turns out that Angelo is an avid cyclist, and rides some of the toughest hills in Piedmont!

Everyone was blown away by our tasting with Angelo Gaja. I put him up there with Piero Antinori and the late Robert Mondavi as someone with so much charisma that people who have contact with him are buzzing for days afterwards.
Everyone was blown away by our tasting with Angelo Gaja. I put him up there with Piero Antinori and the late Robert Mondavi as someone with so much charisma that people who have contact with him are buzzing for days afterwards.

The Gaja operation is ultra-modern. Between the computerized winemaking facility, the use of all new barrique, and the blending of Barbera in the single vineyard Barbarescos (one of the reason Gaja gave back his DOCG status for these wines, although the official line is that he didn’t want them to show up his Barbaresco). We drank 2004 Sori Tildin, Barbaresco, and Sperss. The wines were lovely, and but there was something strange … with the dark extracted fruit and toasty oak finishes they reminded me more of high-end California cabernet than the lighter, elegant characteristics associated with Nebbiolo-based wines. No wonder Wine Advocate gave them 96 and 97 points … the WA loves toasty, extracted wine!

After a quick lunch we headed to Produttori di Barbaresco, just one block away from Gaja in the tiny town of Barbaresco. Aldo Vacca, the director of this cooperative, greeted us and announced that he first had to weigh in some grapes being dropped off by a farmer.

Maru kicked the farmer out of his tractor and jumped in!
Maru kicked the farmer out of his tractor and jumped in!
The tractor driver holding Maru's Purse while she has her picture taken
The farmer holding Marus purse while she has her picture taken

Produttori is a very traditional facility. Wine is fermented in cement tanks and aged in large barrels that are reused many times over (no new oak barrique here!) As my friend Jeremy Parzen would say, these wines are about true expression of fruit. Or another way to put it: there are three G’s of winemaking: 1. the Grape, 2. the Ground and 3. the Guy [or Gal]. Although every producer gives lip service to prioritizing the first two, Produttori is one that actually does.

Aldo showing us the cement fermentation tanks. No stainless steel here!
Aldo showing us the cement fermentation tanks. No stainless steel here!

We drank the 2004 Nebbiolo and Barbaresco as well as some of the single vineyard selections (Rabaja and Pora). The Rabaja had a beautifully perfumed nose and flavors of deep cherry and licorice. It is a rich wine but it still reflects Barbaresco elegance. Even the lower end wines were lovely, especially in this great vintage. Produttori wines have some of the best Quality-to-Price (QPR) ratios in the world. Not that I have a lot of respect for the Wine Advocate, but just to illustrate, they gave the Rabaja 95 points, and the other single vineyard bottlings (priced $40-$50), 92-94 points. Compared to Gaja Sori Tilden at $300 a bottle, I know which I’d choose!

This is all a testament to Aldo Vacca, who has been running the facility for over 30 years. There are wine cooperatives all over Europe, but many consider this the best.  The farmers who participate are lucky to have Aldo at the helm, and those of us that drink Produttori are lucky to be able to drink his readily-available reasonably- priced wines.


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