For the first of the new “Wine Stars” series, “we begin with an Italian colossus—Angelo Gaja,” said Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews, introducing the maker of some of the most important wines in Piedmont.
Gaja presented the 1999 Gaja Langhe Sperss (92 points, $220), a single-vineyard Nebbiolo-based wine from Italy's Barolo region. With the 1996 vintage, Gaja replaced the Barolo DOC on the label with the broader Langhe DOC so that he would have more freedom in assembling the wine each vintage, and Sperss is among the top-rated Piedmont reds every year.
But Gaja chose to use his time telling a bit of a wine fable rather than discussing the Sperss. The 71-year-old—noting that he hates answering the question “What is the best wine you’ve ever had?”—recounted a story about the late Italian wine critic Luigi “Gino” Veronelli.
Gaja described how Veronelli spent a long summer’s day tasting in Portugal’s Douro Valley, in temperatures over 100° F—making the rounds in a car without air-conditioning and suffering considerable fatigue as he visited one estate after another, going between the baking sun in the vineyards and the damp chill of the cellars. Finally, he could take no more; succumbing to the heat, he retreated back to his hotel room for respite.
After a few hours, Veronelli felt refreshed and ventured out into the cooler evening weather, winding his way up the Douro’s steep slopes until he found himself at the very top—the “king of the hill,” Gaja said—where a dinner had been prepared. There, a beautiful woman with black hair and green eyes was waiting for him. She ushered him through a small door surrounded by flowers, to a view of the stars and the vineyards and river below. She served Veronelli a wine, chosen especially for him, and as he sipped, he concluded that this was the best wine he had ever tasted. He hadn’t seen the label, he had no idea what it was, but, not wanting to disrupt the magic of the evening, he never brought himself to ask.
Gaja’s point was that the wine was just one element of the day, and every element leading up to it contributed to that wine being the best ever—that a wine’s specialness is more about the moment than the name on the label. As for the 1999 Sperss, Gaja concluded, “You can taste it. If you don’t like it, pour it out. I have nothing else to say about wine!”
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