A visitor to Angelo Gaja’s winery in Barbaresco fell to his knees on a recent tasting tour and tried to kiss the great man’s hands. “Please get up,” Gaja told him, “I’m not the Pope.” He may not be the Supreme Pontiff, but Gaja is a big name in Piedmont. “Did you hear about this guy called God walking around pretending to be Angelo Gaja?” runs one local joke. The fact that Gaja often refers to himself in the third person only adds to the sense of deification.
The rise and rise of Angelo Gaja, still a sprightly 69-year-old who walks at jogging pace, has been a boon for his native region. Other producers, such as Aldo Conterno, Robert Voerzio, Elio Altare, Paolo Scavino and Bruno Giacosa, have made huge contributions to the emergence of this hilly, misty, truffle-rich corner of northwest Italy as the country’s leading red wine region, but Gaja has done more than anyone to transform the fortunes of Barbaresco and Barolo.
Gaja’s wines aren’t cheap: my favourite from a tasting of his just released 2006s, a single vineyard Nebbiolo with a splash of Barbera, is the perfumed, densely layered 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo, Sorì Tildin, which costs a jaw-dropping £192 per bottle (14.5%, www.armit.co.uk). Gaja would defend his prices by pointing to the fact that in lesser vintages such as 2002 he makes no red wine. He would also claim, rightly in my view, that these are up there with the greatest wines in the world.
Not everyone asks, let alone achieves, such prices. If you’re a fine-wine buyer, or just want a single bottle of something very special in your wine rack, two pure Nebbiolos that are just as good, albeit in a more traditional, less oaky style, are the floral, elegant 2005 Barolo Colonello, Bussia, Aldo Conterno (£89.99, Butlers, 01273 698 724; Bennetts, 01386 840 392) and the subtle, leafy, almost Pinot Noir-like 2005 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto, Bruno Giacosa (£128.35, www.armit.co.uk).
Piedmont doesn’t only produce wines at this level. In fact, Nebbiolo accounts for a mere 5% of the region’s plantings, mostly on the best (that’s to say warmest for such a late-ripening grape) south-facing slopes. Two other red varieties — juicy, easy drinking Dolcetto and wilder, more acidic Barbera — are considerably cheaper and made in much greater quantities.
Even the top Nebbiolo producers often make Dolcetto and Barbera, too, so buying them is a good way to experience their talents without punching a hole in your credit card. Two excellent examples are the savoury, bracing 2007 Barbera d’Asti, De Forville (£9.99 each for two, 14%, Majestic) and the silky, plum and black cherry, fruity 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba, Coste & Fossati, Vajra (£19.95, 14.5%, stockists from Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350), which was the best Dolcetto I tasted during my visit.
For all that, it’s Nebbiolo that draws me back to Piedmont — it’s that combination of austerity, firm tannins and sweet, ethereal fruit. People often talk about Burgundy as the most complicated wine region in the world, but mastering the differences between Barolo’s 11 and Barbaresco’s three villages, not to mention the array of wine styles, would reward a lifetime of study. It’s also one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
In terms of quality, 2006 isn’t far behind the wonderful 2004 vintage, and the best 2005s are delicious, too, providing more approachable, younger-drinking Nebbiolos. Prices for half-decent Nebbiolos tend to start at £20, but there are a couple of bargains: the assertive, dry 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba, Umberto Fiore (£7.99, 13%, Marks & Spencer) and the mature, gamey 2004 Barolo Ricossa, Mondo del Vino (£60 per case of six, down from £120 from 16 November, 13.5%, www.tesco.com) are both very affordable. Something to sip while you save up for a bottle of Gaja…★
Originally published in The Observer