The third in a three-part series on wines in Italy’s Piedmont.
BARBARESCO and Barolo are made from the same grape (Nebbiolo) in the same region (Piedmont), and both are among the greatest wines in the world. Yet Barbaresco, Italy’s so-called Queen of Wines, has long played runner-up to Barolo’s King—less expensive, less exalted—save, perhaps, for the Barbarescos of Angelo Gaja.
Mr. Gaja’s father, Giovanni, bought vineyards in the Barbaresco zone more than five decades ago, when it was a far from fashionable move. Angelo Gaja was one of the first to produce a single-vineyard, or cru, Barbaresco, Sorì San Lorenzo, and he followed with two others, Sorì Tilden and Costa Russi. He aged the wines in French barriques in addition to Slavonian oak, the traditional choice. These Barbarescos were unlike any of the time and remain ardently sought and praised.
Today Mr. Gaja’s son and two daughters work alongside him in every aspect of the business. The family also makes wine in Barolo and Tuscany, and soon in Sicily too.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Gaja’s eldest, 39-year-old Gaia Gaja, met me for lunch at Trattoria Antica Torre in the town of Barbaresco, accompanied by her small dog, Briss, whom she found wandering in a vineyard. “I feel like there’s always been less attention paid to Barbaresco,” she said. “But people often tell me they prefer Barbaresco because it’s easier to drink, delicate, more elegant.”
The Gaja style is unquestionably elegant, though it’s also powerful and rich. At the winery, we tasted the 2015 Barbaresco, an opulent wine of many layers. The single-vineyard Barbarescos were even deeper and more layered. The Costa Russi, tight and closed, was made to be enjoyed after some time in the bottle. The Sorì Tildin, though broader in scale, was a bit more accessible. And the Sorì San Lorenzo, my favorite of the three, was beautifully balanced and expressive.
Beauty and fame come at a price: The classic Gaja 2015 Barbaresco retails at around $ 200; the single-vineyard wines, at $ 400-$ 600. All are snapped up by collectors, who drink them young or cellar them a while. “I always say you need to drink [Barbaresco] in the first five or 10 years after the vintage,” Ms. Gaja advised. “When it’s young you can taste the style of the producer.”
The only Barbaresco producer widely regarded as Angelo Gaja’s equal was Bruno Giacosa, who died in January 2018. He was revered for his knowledge of the best terroirs in Barbaresco and Barolo (he made both) as well as his winemaking. His daughter Bruna Giacosa, who worked closely with him for years, now runs the winery in the village of Neive. When I visited, I remarked that the facility is quite modern for a traditionalist like Bruno Giacosa. “It was built to look like a barrel,” Ms. Giacosa explained.
“ ‘People often tell me they prefer Barbaresco because it’s easier to drink, delicate, more elegant.’ ”
Like Ms. Gaja, Ms. Giacosa finds Barolo an easier sell than Barbaresco. “People who don’t understand a lot about wine prefer to drink Barolo because it’s bigger,” she said. Indeed, the Giacosas’ 2014 Falletto Barolo and 2013 Falletto Vigna Le Rocche Barolo were bigger and more structured than their 2014 Barbaresco Rabaja and 2011 Barbaresco Asili Riserva. The last wine, lush and accessible, is a favorite of Ms. Giacosa’s. Both the Barbarescos and Barolos improve for years: I’ve had Giacosa wines from the 1980s that are still going strong.
Many other producers make both Barolo and Barbaresco; after all, the two regions aren’t far apart. Recently a good bit of praise has been lavished on one of these producers, Roagna, based in Barbaresco, with a winery and vineyards in Castiglione Falletto in Barolo, as well.
The Roagna portfolio is almost equal parts Barolo and Barbaresco, and the winemaking is a family affair. While Luca Roagna, the 37-year-old winemaker, and I tasted at their Castiglione Falletto winery, his father, Alfredo Roagna, was sitting at a bench pasting labels onto bottles.
Mr. Roagna compared Barolo and Barbaresco in terms of pairing with food: Barbaresco is an elegant wine to serve with white truffles and pasta, he said, while Barolo is best with braised meat. He added that both wines need time to show well—at least five years’ aging.
We tasted a range of Roagna wines from 2013 and 2014. The tiny-production (1,298 bottles) 2013 Roagna Montefico Barbaresco was produced from a small parcel Luca Roagna’s grandmother received as a wedding gift. The wine was beautiful, though a bit less accessible than the lithe 2013 Barbaresco Pajè, produced from 50-plus-year-old vines. To demonstrate its ageability, Mr. Roagna opened a 2006 bottling. I was impressed by how the flavors had deepened and broadened. “If people will wait a little bit the wines will improve a lot,” Mr. Roagna said.
Of course some Barbarescos are styled to be consumed sooner than others. Perhaps the best-known name in this more-accessible category is Produttori del Barbaresco, a high-quality cooperative of growers founded in 1958 by a priest concerned that farmers weren’t able to make a living selling their grapes.
At first the Produttori del Barbaresco sold one basic wine and had no official winemaker. A full-time winemaker was hired in 1984, and there are now single-vineyard bottlings in addition to the basic one. I tasted all of them with Aldo Vacca, the cooperative’s director. The single-vineyard wines were bigger and richer, but the 2015 basic Barbaresco—accessibly styled and priced—was also very good. With clear satisfaction, Mr. Vacca proclaimed, “Gaja made the world talk about Barbaresco, and the Produttori made the world drink it.”
OENOFILE / Elegant Barbarescos Suitable for Celebrating This Season Or Cellaring for Another
2015 Gaja Barbaresco $ 200
Famous for single-vineyard wines, Angelo Gaja also makes this gracefully crafted, elegant and expressive “classic” Barbaresco marked by lush fruit and bright acidity. Even better after an hour in the decanter.
2015 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili $ 145
Produced with grapes from the Asili vineyard, one of the most coveted Barbaresco crus, this 2015 wine is surprisingly accessible already. Marked by bright red fruit and fine tannins, it has a lovely silkiness.
2013 Roagna Barbaresco Pajè $ 90
The Roagna family sources from the best crus, including Pajè. Aged five years before release, this beautifully balanced wine with seductive spice aromas is one I’d happily drink now or in a few years.
2013 Cascina delle Rose Tre Stelle Barbaresco $ 58
This is a very well made Barbaresco from the excellent 2013 vintage at a reasonable price. A generously styled wine marked by plump fruit, it’s fully accessible now and a pleasure to drink.
2015 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco $ 40
From a cooperative known for quality, this affordable, medium bodied wine has lively ripe fruit and firm tannins. Buy a bottle to drink now (decanted) and one to drink in a year or two.