Note: Back when I reviewed them, I set aside a few wines to taste when they matured. In this occasional series I report on what they’re like now.
Angelo Gaja was Mr. Barbaresco until 1988, when he purchased a vineyard on prime land in the heart of Barolo wine country. The Gaja family winery had made Barolo from purchased grapes (including that vineyard) until 1961, when a young Angelo convinced his father to go all-estate and build their reputation on Barbaresco, grown on their own land.
By 1988, Gaja had become one of the best-known names among high-quality wine producers in Italy. Heck, in the world. It was all based on the heady, complex wines, mostly from Nebbiolo but also from other varieties grown in his vineyards in Barbaresco. Buying a Barolo vineyard was the first step in a series of acquisitions that extended Gaja’s reach elsewhere in Italy, including properties in Montalcino, Bolgheri and another Barolo site.
That first purchase, a 70-acre vineyard in Serralunga, had extra resonance as it was a source for the family’s Barolos pre-1961. Gaja renamed it Sperss, Piedmontese dialect for “nostalgia,” as he explained at the time. But there’s little nostalgia in the wine, made in Gaja’s defiantly modern style.
In the early 1990s I was visiting Piemonte regularly to review the upcoming vintages for Wine Spectator. I recall huddling in a corner of the winery in Barbaresco in 1991 with Angelo to taste from a stack of barrels holding Barolo from the “new” vineyard. Gaja had purchased the property too late in the year to train the vines as he wanted for the first vintage, 1988; all he could do was drop some of the crop to encourage more concentrated flavors. It wasn’t until 1989 that he could manage the vineyard through its entire annual cycle, fine-tuning to produce a smaller, more intense crop. I vividly remember how much more complete and harmonious the 1989 seemed to me, even from the barrel.
At the time a small war was going between the traditionalists and the new wave making wines from the Nebbiolo grape. Arguments over fermentation techniques and maturation processes (barrel vs. vat) got the most attention; the biggest difference I saw was in the vineyard. Training the vines for lower yields—anathema to the previous generations—developed richer, deeper flavors that, the younger guys believed, would stand up to the long maturation times Nebbiolo needed and produce something more graceful to drink.
Back in 1993, when the ’89 Sperss came out, I acquired some in a mixed case of the Gaja reds. (Back then they were more affordable than they are now.) I drank several early on, but I pulled out the last one for a late dinner after a 6:30 p.m. symphony concert in San Francisco. I could decant the wine in my own cellar at 5 o’clock, return it to the rinsed-out bottle, and the extra air exposure before our 9 o’clock reservation at Quince should only do the wine good. Older Barolos notoriously want to breathe.
A sample tasted from the decanter was tight in structure, with gravelly tannins and strongly earthy aromatics. But underneath, it had beautiful fruit, classic Barolo cherries along with rose petal notes and a hint of root beer in the background. I wouldn’t have wanted to drink it at that moment, but in a few hours it should be fine.
And it was. In Quince’s big glasses designed for Nebbiolo, the now-rested wine came to life. The earthiness was still there at first, but within 10 minutes the rich fruit character took center stage. All the other elements—whiffs of truffle, smoke, rose petal, peppermint and sassafras—added to the harmony. The tannins subsided and the texture got magnificently creamy. Non-blind, 97 points, but this was one of those wines where scores really didn’t matter much. It was simply a phenomenal experience.
It tasted great with Quince’s agnolotti del plin, a classic Piedmontese pasta, and my fork-tender pork chop. Oohs and aahs around the table, even with a sautéed fish. I sure am glad I saved that bottle to get a few extra years on it. The texture was the main beneficiary as the tannins faded away to reveal the pure essence of the place.
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