Good Tuscan Wine from the King of Barbaresco

Acclaimed winemaker Angelo Gaja proves that he can make excellent cabernet-based wine from a region far from home

Angelo Gaja modernized Italian red-winemaking.

Angelo Gaja is King of Barbaresco, the man who brought that great Piedmontese red wine out from the shadow of its originally better-known and more highly regarded next-door neighbor, Barolo, modernizing Italian red-winemaking in the process — and also, incidentally, the man who, decades ago, started selling his wines for what he thought they were worth and helped elevate the price levels of Italian wines in general in the process. (At the time he did this, Gaja was the distributor for the wines of Burgundy's venerated Domaine de la Romanée Conti, and it was always my fantasy interpretation of events that one day he tasted some of those wines and said to himself "Mine are just as good, if not better, so why am I selling them at a fraction of the Romanée Conti price?" If that's the way it happened, he had a very good point.)

His primary association with Barbaresco aside, though (his family has been in the wine business there since the mid-19th century), Gaja has expanded beyond the region, and now has important properties in Barolo and in two corners of Tuscany, the Montalcino region and Bolgheri, in the Maremma. His estate in the latter area is called Ca'Marcanda — the name is a local dialect term meaning something like "house where people always negotiate but rarely make a deal," a reference to the complicated process Gaja had to go through to purchase the property — and I recently tasted three vintages of the estate's top-level wine, called Camarcanda (without the apostrophe), with Gaja over dinner at a New York City restaurant.

Though Barbaresco and Barolo are made from one of Italy's noble grapes, nebbiolo, Gaja has been a firm believer in the potential of Italy to produce first-class wines from French varieties as well, a belief he first expressed in 1978 when he planted a Barbaresco-area vineyard to cabernet sauvignon (the vineyard and its wine are called Darmagi, dialect for "what a pity" — which was supposedly Gaja's father's comment, on realizing that his son had installed an interloper grape in what he considered to be an excellent nebbiolo vineyard). There was precedent for growing these varieties in the Maremma (the first commercial vintage of the region's now legendary cabernet-based Sassicaia was released in 1971), so there were presumably no disparaging comments when Gaja bought his Bolgheri property in 1996 and planted it to merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc. The blend for Camarcanda, which remains constant from year to year, is 50 percent merlot, 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 10 percent cabernet franc.

We tasted the first vintage that came out of the vineyard, the 2000. "You must remember that the vines were very young," warned Gaja, an amiable sort who loves talking about his wines, his region, his family, and the food he loves ("not complicated, like a perfect spaghetti al pomodoro, which is very simple, and very difficult to make well"). For a 13–plus-year-old wine made from young vines, it was surprisingly bright and full-flavored, though without a lot of structure, with a nicely developed clean but earthy bouquet, and good fruit with a hint of licorice on the palate.

As Gaja recounted the tale of his real introduction to wine — it was at the family dinner table when he was 14, and his father poured him a small glass of Barbaresco; his mother wanted to dilute it with water, as was the custom for young drinkers, but his father insisted on serving it unadulterated, and eventually won out — we sampled the 2009 and currently available 2010 vintages. The '09 had a less developed bouquet, but was rich and plummy on the palate, with an appealing softness supported by mild acidity and well-integrated oak. The 2010 (available around the U.S. at a list price of $165 a bottle, though some merchants sell it for less) seemed closed up to me, and was definitely lighter in body than the '09, but had good acidity and offered an intimation of good fruit, still locked in a little. "I like this one the best," said Gaja, "because it's an elegant wine."

Who am I to argue?

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