Gaja's Next Move

Italy's most celebrated wine producer is expanding his empire to Bolgheri, where he'll make wines that truly reflect the soul of Tuscany.

Why should Italian winemakers be isolated in a ghetto of only Italian grape varieties?" Angelo Gaja asks provocatively. "I want to measure myself against the new wines from the rest of the world. And my way of doing that is to go down to Bolgheri!" We have started the 250-mile drive from the town of Barbaresco, in Piedmont, where Gaja has become Italy's most celebrated wine producer, to the village of Bolgheri on Tuscany's west coast, where his newest winemaking venture has just begun. It's a bold move, from the tradition-bound Langhe, where for centuries every inch of space has been used to cultivate vines for Barolo and Barbaresco, to an area with little viticultural history, one that remained a malarial swamp until after World War II. The wine world is abuzz with talk about the spectacular cellar he has built there, and I want to see it for myself. Gaja's new wines are about to be born.

"Tuscany is not so far geographically from Piedmont," Gaja continues, "and like Piedmont it has a great vocation for making red wines. My goal in Bolgheri is to make wines that reflect the soul, the earth, and the colors of Tuscany. And I'm going to do it with Cabernet and Merlot and the other 'international' grape varieties. Why shouldn't I? I'm ready for that challenge!"

Gaja, who is 62, is a charismatic, fast-talking and even faster-thinking man, with an intense dynamism the Italians attribute to having "una marcia in più"—one gear more than everyone else. When he laughs, it's explosive. When you are with him, you don't walk, you trot. His exuberance is contagious: The intensity of his commitment to the highest-quality wines and his untiring ability to communicate that passion has made him the ambassador per eccellenza for Piedmont's—and Italy's—top wines, fixing them securely in the world's winemaking firmaments.

When Gaja won Decanter magazine's coveted Man of the Year Award in 1998, Matt Kramer wrote: "Gaja truly is great because, like Robert Mondavi, he didn't merely sail his own ship. He raised the tide altogether. He single-handedly showed that quality pays—in every way." As one who excels at every stage of winemaking, from producing to promoting, Gaja has been a guiding light for the younger Italian wine producers who have followed his model.

As early as the 1970s, Angelo Gaja, a fourth-generation wine producer, realized that Barolo and Barbaresco, the traditional yet rustic Piedmontese wines made from the Nebbiolo grape (nebbia is the Italian word for "fog") were usually too tannic, harsh, and austere to be able to compete with the more immediately warm and rich Bordeaux-style wines. Yet he believed in Nebbiolo's intrinsic character and qualities. So he revolutionized—and scandalized—the Piedmontese by applying some French growing and vinification methods to the Nebbiolo, dramatically reducing the grape yield per plant, and working in the cellar with small French barriques as a complement to the larger traditional barrels. The resulting wines were as modern and impressive as the high prices they command: In February of 2001, James Suckling of Wine Spectator ranked four of Gaja's Barbarescos among the top half of his 50 most exciting Italian wines, with first place going to the single-vineyard Sorì San Lorenzo. These are serious, aristocratic red wines of power, perfume, and elegance—which may explain why Gaja has been called the Château Pétrus of Italy.

In the 1980s, Gaja decided to expand his operations. He soon discovered, however, that all of the best vineyards in Piedmont had been bought up, since everyone was making wine on what—thanks in part to Gaja's high pricing strategies—had come to be viticultural goldmines. So he looked beyond Piedmont to Tuscany, which historically has been one of the northern region's winemaking rivals. It was a natural choice, for it was home to that other classically prestigious single-variety Italian red, Brunello di Montalcino. Gaja purchased a property in Montalcino and started working with the challenging native grape, Sangiovese, with results that so far have not completely satisfied him. But he also kept an eye on a new, more exciting, and less restrictive Tuscan winemaking zone, the area near Bolgheri known as the Coast of the Etruscans. Here he would be free from the traditional growing and vinification constraints, which would allow him to produce the modern-style wines that were winning high points from the world's top wine critics. The Tuscan sun would guarantee him fully ripe grapes that he could use to make marvelously fruity wines.

We're almost there. The autostrada has already passed Genoa, the marble mountains of Carrara, and Pisa's leaning tower as we swing down the coast toward Livorno. The unspoiled 16th-century village of Bolgheri is 30 miles farther south. Framed by the Metalliferous Mountains behind, it sits on low hills, overlooking flat coastal plains and the sea. To the Italians, Bolgheri has long been famous for the three-mile-long avenue of centennial cypresses that leads up to it. The rest of the world has come to know Bolgheri much more recently: It is the birthplace of Sassicaia, the great red wine that American wine authority Robert Parker Jr. has described as "perfection in a bottle."

Unlike Tuscany's historically famous wine-producing zones—Chianti, Montepulciano, and Montalcino—the Maremma, the coastal area that stretches from Livorno to below Grosseto, had little history of viticulture and no links to traditional grape varieties or wine types. If the shoreline later succumbed to tourist development, until just a few years ago the flat coastal plains remained quietly agricultural, planted with olive groves, tomatoes, fava beans, and baby artichokes. That is, until what has been called the "Tuscan wine revolution" began there.

In the late 1940s, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, a landowner of culture and refinement whose family had large holdings at Bolgheri, took the radical step of planting the non-Italian grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. He then drastically reduced grape yields in order to increase the color and concentration in the wine, and followed vinification principles common in France. The Marchese loved the great wines of Bordeaux, and wanted to experiment with making wines of similarly high quality at home. Twenty years later, he decided to market the result. He named the wine Sassicaia for the stony vineyard it was grown in: Sasso is Italian for "stone."

"Sassicaia was the product of my father's passion," recalls his son, Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta. "He saw it as an adventure, a challenge, to make a good red wine in an area with a terrible reputation. I like to think that Sassicaia was born out of his hard-headedness—he was determined to prove his point."

Sassicaia immediately won admirers at an international level, and commanded high prices (it now sells for $150). It was favorably compared to high-quality Bordeaux, despite having no official status at home beyond that of a mere vino da tavola, or table wine, as Bolgheri had no appropriate appellation for it at that time. Indeed, midway through the 1980s the term "Super-Tuscan" was coined to differentiate Sassicaia from baser table wines. Other wine producers throughout Tuscany soon followed suit, enjoying the freedom to plant, age, and price their wines as they saw fit, freed from the strictures of the DOC denomination regulations. Piero Antinori won accolades with Tignanello, a blend of Cabernet and Sangiovese, while the late Sergio Manetti made history in Chianti by producing Le Pergole Torte, the first barrique-aged wine of pure Sangiovese. The Super-Tuscan generation was in full swing.

Realizing that Sassicaia's success might not be just an isolated instance, a number of other adventurous vintners—noble and non—began planting Bordeaux-style vines around Bolgheri and the neighboring village of Castagneto Carducci. Grattamacco launched its first wines in 1982; Marchese Lodovico Antinori's Ornellaia winery (which since June 2002 has been jointly owned by the Tuscan Frescobaldis and Californian Mondavis) brought out two prizewinning reds in 1985, one of which was Masseto, of 100 percent Merlot; Michele Satta began exploring with a fine wine of Sangiovese, Cavaliere. Eugenio Campolmi of Le Macchiole was also among the first—and the best—with his Cabernet-based Paleo. I recently tasted the 1994, and found it still lively, juicy, balanced and fruity, with its character of exotic woods and tobacco.

Despite the extraordinary successes of all the above wines, that's how the picture remained at Bolgheri: fewer than a dozen producers who between them cultivated 400 acres of vineyards. Then, in 1996, Angelo Gaja came onto the scene, and within just a few years the number of wineries has doubled, while the area planted to vines has increased to 2,000 acres. New investors include several fine vintners from northern Italy (Allegrini, of Amarone fame), central Tuscany (Prince Girolamo Strozzi of San Gimignano), as well as the Californian Delia Viader. Bulldozers came out in force, uprooting the olive trees and clearing the stones to make way for the perfectly ordered vineyards. Today, these vineyards are dramatically changing the landscape—and economy—of the area.

"As soon as word got out that Gaja was investing here in Bolgheri," says Mauro Poli, Gaja's agronomist, who is a native of Bolgheri, "there was literally an explosion of interest in the area. People from all over Italy and beyond started buying up every farm here, every piece of land that could conceivably produce grapes. And of course prices skyrocketed." If Gaja was there, there could be no mistake about it: Bolgheri had become a surefire proposition. But what had drawn Angelo Gaja to Bolgheri?

"Gaja recognized that it was hard to beat an area that combined the positive image of Tuscany with a growing environment like southern Italy's," says William Nesto, an American wine educator and expert on the Italian wine scene. "He saw that those two were a winning combination, and he also realized that the lack of regulation was a real plus to making the kind of wines that he wants." In Piedmont, with its traditions and single-variety wines, there is a lot of both family and regulatory pressure, but here in Bolgheri he could break out and, says Nesto, "exert his personality to full abandon."

"Anyone who decides to start making wine in Bolgheri knows they will have to do at least as well as the top seven or eight existing producers," adds Ernesto Gentili, principal taster of Tuscan wines for the prestigious annual Gambero Rosso-Arcigola wine guide, Wines of Italy. "So it's not an area for novices. Here the wines already command very high prices, but it's a zone that offers guarantees you don't find in other parts of Tuscany as far as growing and harvesting are concerned: The climate here is so favorable that if you plant Cabernet and Merlot, you can be sure of picking them safely every time."

In his other Tuscan estate at Montalcino, Gaja is dealing with the vicissitudes of Sangiovese, the grape that forms the basis of the traditional Tuscan wines, Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. It is as difficult to work with as his Piedmontese Nebbiolo: Both can lack intensity of color and both are high in tannins, which demands very careful work in the vineyard as well as in the cellar to soften or mellow the wines. And, like in Barbaresco, Montalcino has an unreliable climate, with the chance of autumn rains to spoil the harvest.

In Bolgheri, Gaja's wines will be made primarily from blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, with a little Syrah. "Compared to Piedmont or Montalcino, it seems much easier to work here by the coast," he says. "Both the climate and the flatness of the land make it more favorable. I chose these grape types after seeing Sassicaia's successful results with Cabernet, and Ornellaia's with Merlot. My wines will combine the two." These are adaptable, user-friendly, hot-climate grapes that will give consistently fine results in the hot, dry summers of the Maremma.

"I think of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo as wines in black and white," he explains, "like the photography that plays on tonal variations. And I really love them. But here in Bolgheri, the wines are like an explosion of colors! They are about the sun and they can be understood and appreciated immediately. We could also say that these are wines for easier palates—but not just for easier palates. If you take a wine made with Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, it is as though you have been given a fascinating but closed book. It is up to you to start opening it, and perhaps the first thing is to look at the index, and then at the preface, and then to start to read. In Bolgheri, on the other hand, right away they present you with the book already opened to one of the most beautiful pages. You know, the Americans have coined a great phrase for these wines: They call them 'wines of sun and light'—vini del sole e della luce."

Translated into taste terms, these sun-rich wines offer an explosion of warm, rich fruit enhanced but not covered by the toastiness of new oak, with none of the austere, bitter or green tannins that can trouble wines made from grapes that are less ripe.

Gaja will be producing three new wines at Bolgheri with his loyal oenologist from Barbaresco, Guido Rivella, who has worked with him for 32 years and helped create all the great Gaja wines. The "basic" wine will be the revamped Promis—until now Promis has been made on the Montalcino estate, Pieve di Santa Restituta. The new version, which is to combine 55 percent Merlot and 35 percent Syrah grapes from Bolgheri with 10 percent Sangiovese grapes from Montalcino, will be vinted in the Bolgheri cellar. The 2000 vintage was released in April. I tasted the new Promis just as it was being released, and although it offered promising fruitiness, it seemed as yet slightly unbalanced and over-oaked, perhaps lacking a point of acidity to bring up its freshness. As with all new wines, it will require time to grow into itself.

This autumn we can look forward to tasting the "middle" wine of the three, Magàri, of 50 percent Merlot, with 25 percent each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. "Magàri" is a word that is used continually in Italian, and it has a multitude of meanings: "You bet!""Of course!""If only!" and "No such luck!"

"We shouldn't take ourselves too seriously," Gaja explains. "Magàri will be a wine to drink young, and it will be affordable. It will spend some time in barriques, but I don't want the wood to be too apparent in it. Merlot maintains a good level of acidity here, which will help keep the wines tasting fresh as they age."

The biggest (and most expensive) wine will be named for the Bolgheri farm, Ca' Marcanda. Made of 50 percent Merlot, with 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Cabernet Franc, this wine will be targeted to the super-premium category. Gaja plans to give it plenty of bottle aging after the barriques, so the 2000 vintage won't be released until sometime in 2003. As Gaja's newly planted vineyards are only just coming into production, the character of these wines will evolve naturally over the next few years as the vines mature.

Gaja's investment in Bolgheri has been substantial: As soon as he bought Ca' Marcanda, a large agricultural farm, he planted 150 acres to vineyards, transplanting over 380 olive trees to make room for the vines. No vinification cellar existed on the farm, so he has had a vast one constructed: Estimates put its floor area at around two acres.

Several years in the making, it was designed by Piedmontese architect Giovanni Bo, who has worked with Gaja for 20 years, and helped build the cellars and winery at Barbaresco. The project for the big new cellar grew organically, a little at a time, with detailing being added to the main volumes as the building proceeded. For instance, Gaja and Bo visited Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao several times while the cellar was being constructed, to get an idea about how steel might be used in unusual ways. The completed cellar, with its use of strong, elemental materials, is a clear expression of the Gaja look: bold, sober, stylish, and ambitious.

"We had the option of building aboveground here," says Gaja. "But where I come from, in Piedmont, a cellar is by definition underground. The problem was that I had no hills to dig into, so we had to bury the whole thing in the plain, taking care not to run into the shallow water table." Indeed, most of the cellar has been sunk below ground level, with only a small rise up to the entrance to suggest that anything might be hidden below. It is surrounded by olive trees, and blends smoothly into the existing landscape. One advantage of this decision is that it will reduce the costs of air conditioning, a major factor in an area whose summer temperatures often rise above 95°. Fermentation vats and barrique rooms are also temperature-controlled by computer—in keeping with the technology that is now the sine qua non of all serious modern wineries.

We have walked through the flat vineyards to the cantina, which is both sculptural and imposing. Around large, spare volumetric concrete rooms it plays with contrasts of materials: Outside, in an homage to Frank Gehry, the entrances are covered with canopies of zigzag ironwork. They tower above expansive outer side walls built of soft-toned natural stone. Inside, enormous bronze doors offer windows onto the gray-green of olive groves outside, and monumental columns of varnished rusted steel rise from the luminous black basalt floors that Gaja has made his trademark in Barbaresco. "We wanted to make a strong, exuberant statement with these columns," he explains. "After all, we could hardly use spindly grissini [bread sticks] to hold up all that earth!"

The barrique rooms are breathtaking: row upon row of perfectly uniform barrels set on practical—and moveable—steel frames. "Everything here has been designed for maximum efficiency," he says.

"In the last twenty years, the success of American wines has changed many of our European ideas about ourselves, and about our wines," says Gaja, referring to the impact that these concentrated, fruity and accessible "New World" wines have had on the wine markets and producers around the world. "Until then, we in Europe—in Piedmont as much as in France—were arrogant, for we thought our wines were the best, and that the true art of winemaking had been handed down to us, and to us alone, by our predecessors. They were vini da terroir, for they reflected a certain place or territory.

"The Americans sought their inspiration from another model. They looked, yes, to France for the grape varieties, but devised brilliant stainless steel tanks to control their fermentation. Then they aged their wines in barriques they were proud to have brought from France. And at first, they came out with wines that we laughed at, because they were so full of wood—they were awful! But then they really made strides. And created a style of wine to challenge our traditional terroir wines. So now it is up to us to see how well we can make these immensely pleasurable wines 'of sun and light.' Magàri—hopefully—we will succeed!"

Visiting Bolgheri

Until recently, many of the famous wineries of Bolgheri were closed to the public, but now a very friendly wine tourism consortium (whose office is at the bottom of the cypress-lined avenue, inside Tenuta San Guido, the home of Sassicaia) has been set up to organize visits to these wineries, offering tastings and a knowledgeable guide (for a nominal fee). The consortium can tailor visits to suit your needs, but you must arrange it well in advance. Consorzio La Strada del Vino Costa degli Etruschi, Loc. 45 San Guido, 57020 Bolgheri (LI); 39-0565-749-768; fax 39-0565-749-705;

CASTELLO DI MAGONA For those who love history and antiques, the Grand Duke of Tuscany's castle has been brilliantly restored with just 11 rooms. 27 Via Venturina, 57021 Campiglia Marittima (LI); 39-0565-851-235; fax 39-0565-855-127;

PODERE LE MEZZELUNE This "country relais" is a privately-run Tuscan country house with four large bedrooms, each with a private terrace overlooking fields and olive groves. Signora Luisa also prepares delicious and beautifully presented breakfasts. $ Loc. 126 Mezzelune, 57020 Bibbona (LI); 39-0586-670-266; fax 39-0586-671-814;

TENUTA VILLA LA BANDITA A country villa that's tastefully furnished with antiques. 30 Via Campagna Nord, 57020 Sassetta (LI); 39-0565-794-224; fax 39-0565-794-350;

GRAND HOTEL TOMBOLO This very large, stylish hotel on the beach offers seawater spa facilities. Partly owned by the Antinoris (an important Tuscan winemaking family). 3 Via del Corallo, 57024 Marina di Castagneto Carducci (LI); 39-0565-74530; fax 39-0565-744-052;

There are lots of little trattorias and osterias in the area for good, plain rustic fare. But for a higher level of cuisine, try these:

GAMBERO ROSSO Fulvio Pierangelini (two-star Michelin) is one of the most dazzling chefs in Italy. His intimate restaurant overlooks the pretty fishing port of San Vincenzo. Formal service; exceptional wine list. 13 Piazza della Vittoria, 57027 San Vincenzo (LI); 39-0565-701-021. Closed in November.

SCACCIAPENSIERI If you are after really fresh Mediterranean fish, this restaurant is a classic. The decor is idiosyncratic, the food excellent (one-star Michelin). 22 Via Verdi, 57023 Cecina (LI); 39-0586-680-900.

CAPPELLAIO PAZZO South of Bolgheri, this family-run restaurant has imaginative cuisine and a pretty garden. Via di San Vincenzo, Loc. Sant'Antonio; 57021 Campiglia Marittima (LI); 39-0565-838-358.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.