Top Dogs: Part 1

The Barbera 7 did actually have some time off from all things barbera. While in arguably the best winemaking region in Italy, there were plenty of producers to visit. We just happened to be able to visit and taste with some of the best (in my humble opinion.) The pezzo grosso- the top dogs…


Giorgio Lavagna, the enologist for Bruno Giacosa. What a guy. Cool, calm, collected. A guy that, for some reason, I feel would have a home outfitted in Armani Casa in shades of grey. I met Giorgio back in October and tasted completely different wines than this time around. It was amazing to be able to revisit him and the wine in a different context and with a much better understanding of the region than just 5 short months ago.

In the quiet early evening, the Giacosa tasting room in Neive was the eye of the storm. A place we sought refuge after days of intense tastings and polemical arguments on oak and the “true” barbera. Giorgio spoke of the Giacosa style-  which is no style at all. To let the land speak for itself. That all the work is done in the vineyard. A humble man clearly, but he’s right. His goal is for the wines to taste “clean and clear, showing the least amount of interference.” And that when tasting wine, the first things it must show is the grape variety and the terroir. What a novel idea.

In complete and unknowing opposition to Michele Chiarlo’s earlier sentiment of “wine is a good wine when it sells,” Giorgio stated “sometimes good wine doesn’t sell.” The ultimate argument is whether or not a wine can sell if it is not a rich, oaky, low acid, soft tannin fruit bomb. Many winemakers seem to be making this type of wine because it sells, because this is what people seem to want to drink whether it be from Chile or Australia, Spain or Italy. They want it to taste the same every time, no surprises. Therefore the market is becoming saturated and homogenized with these wines and thus the vicious cycle is born. And perpetuated.

the man, the legend

Which brings me to our next Top Dog- Angelo Gaja of Gaja. We arrived bright and early in the morning to a sun soaked Barbaresco and the opulence and grandeur of the Gaja winery. A hand selected tasting by Mr. Gaja himself and his daughter Gaia awaited us. He spoke to us with excited hands and enthusiasm of this land he knows so well and the wines he has spent his life trying to put on the international “wine map.” Which he most certainly accomplished. He was the first to bring French barrique into the cellars of Piedmont and the concept of producing single vineyard cru nebbiolo. And to charge molto bucks for those wines.

A few things Mr. Gaja spoke of stayed with me. He named every single vintage since the 60’s one by one and stated the weather conditions for that year. Up until the 90’s there were more consistently bad or just OK vintages than great ones. But in the past 2 decades, Piedmont has seen many back to back grandslam vintages and Mr. Gaja is attributing that to global warming. Nebbiolo is a stubborn grape and is late to ripen, so the higher temperatures are the best thing to ever happen to him and the grapes. Global Warming: It Does A Gaja Good.

gaia gaja

Gaia Gaja looking on as her father speaks (I have to admit that I have a crush on Gaia… I kind of want her to be my new BFF.)



The beautiful and mesmerizing faded orange crimson of a 36 year old Barbaresco.

He also spoke of tradition- the thing at the epicenter, really, of all the debates and arguments over the course of the week and often discussed in response to the modernization of winemaking and resulting lack of typicity. He says “a producer should give his own interpretation of tradition” and that tradition is essentially “a culture of memories.”  He is always interested in the evolution. He waxed poetical about Danny Meyer’s new Manhattan restaurant Maialino and how it is Italian “in style.”  The dishes were not exact and authentic replicas of what you would find in Italy but they were damn good. I am assuming he told us this because somehow he feels the restaurant is like his wines- Italian in style. Don’t get me wrong, Gaja wines are very good wines. But I get the feeling they are meant to be an interpretation of Italy for a larger audience. And most everyone outside of Italy, perhaps has a very different understanding of what Piedmontese tradition really is.

the real top dog

The real top dog in Barbaresco. I named him Milo.

Coming up in Top Dogs:Part 2- Produttori del Barbaresco and Brovia…

  • adrian
    March 20, 2010

    Tremendous photos, Whitney.

  • Thor Iverson
    March 21, 2010

    I read this and it’s almost like I was there.

    Wonderful photos, as always, and a fine report as well. I really think you nailed the “feel” of both places and their wines. Looking forward to the rest.

  • Fredric Koeppel
    March 22, 2010

    Whitney, I have to echo feebly the God of Thunder: a lovely evocation of our visits to these “top dogs.” Thanks for taking me back …

    • whitney
      March 22, 2010

      thank you, kind gentlemen! and demi gods.

  • Thor Iverson
    March 22, 2010

    “Demi-“?!? Neither half-measured nor married to a Kutcher. Offend not the Norse pantheon, lest thou be smited in thy turn by the mystic mallet Mjǫllnir, which…

    (Oh, I just cannot pull this sort of thing off.)

  • J M Darkly
    March 23, 2010

    Really enjoyed this article and great photos, thanks!

  • LivefromTuscany
    March 23, 2010

    Great article and loved the 36 year old photo. I found it so hard to capture that color but clearly my camera is nowhere near as great as yours!

  • Christina Pickard
    April 6, 2010

    Whit! So jealous of these fab tastings! I was just tasting some Gaja the other day though not as old as yours..and of course not with the man himself (I’ve heard he’s quite a character!). And is his daughter really called ‘Gaia Gaja’? Aren’t they both pronounced the same way?!?!

    • whitney
      April 6, 2010

      yes they are pronounced the same way! She made a joke and said she should start making wine in Walla Walla.

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