I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with Gaia Gaja, daughter and heir to the famed Gaja Wines estate founded in 1859 in Barbaresco, Italy. Gaja wines are first rate and are considered some of the best Barbaresco in the world, consistently rating above 90 points (usually more than 93) from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. After tasting a few of their newest releases with Gaia at NoMI restaurant at the Park Hyatt in Chicago, I understand why. Gaia was in the U.S. meeting with various people in the wine trade to help keep the Gaja name flowing. She was a wonderful hostess—engaging, entertaining, funny and incredibly knowledgeable about her family's history and wine.
This wasn't my introduction to Gaja, mind you. I've known about and have had some of their wines in the past. But getting to taste these during a one-on-one lunch with a member of the family was a real treat. Gaia, one of three children to Angelo Gaja (the current owner and innovator), is a fifth-generation wine producer of her family's treasured wines. During a lunch overlooking Chicago and Lake Michigan, Gaia and I tasted through the 2005 Barbaresco, 2004 Rennina and 2004 Sugarille, the last two both from the Gaja's estate in Montalcino, Pieve Santa Restituta. Angelo Gaja acquired this estate, named for the small church located in the heart of the estate, in 1994 to help grow the Gaja name throughout Italy. By adding these two Brunello di Montalcino wines (both 100 percent Sangiovese), they now have bragging rights to even more of the best wines coming from Italy.
The Barbaresco, the flagship of the Gaja portfolio, is produced from Nebbiolo grapes sourced from 14 vineyards on the Gaja Estate in Piedmont, specifically in Barbaresco and Treiso. It was light and elegant with prune notes up front. As it enters the mouth, you can feel it progress as it rolls back across your tongue. At first, its tannins were not as pronounced, but grew as the wine was open. The long. layered finish was filled with raisin and raspberry notes (and maybe even some pine) and paired, surprisingly, beautifully with our apps: shiro maguro sashimi and beet salad with arugula and goat cheese. Nebbiolo does not overpower food, but rather reflects and partners with it. Such was the case with the tuna and goat cheese. Each time I had either in my mouth and took a sip, I was happily surprised with how interesting the wine tasted and brought out the flavors of the food.
Since I was having Brunello next, I knew I had to have something that could hold up against the wine. Fortunately NoMI has a flat iron steak sandwich on the menu. It's topped with a chimichuri sauce and accompanied by goat cheese and piquillo peppers. This combination of flavors on the plate were a good test to see what the Brunello would do. It didn't disappoint. The Rennina is blended from three vineyards on the estate. It was gentle and easy to drink with bold cherry, spice and clove notes to help maintain the chimichuri, and it was velvety making it easy and pleasurable to drink. The Sugarille on the other hand, was bigger, bolder and more tannic with flavors of dark purple fruit like plums, but also gave off notes of soft violets and some tobacco. This is a wine could stand to be cellared for about five years to become more expressive over time and the '04 vintage is one to seek out. That said, it's too bad Gaia didn't send me home with a bottle to store!
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