Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Visit to G.D. Vajra

Grapes from the 2012 harvest greeted us at G.D. Vajra.

I have been drinking the Vajra wines for several years now, but this was my first visit to the winery.

The big news around the cantina is that Giuseppe Vaira (family name with an i, winery name with a j) will soon welcome his first child.

And it was easy to recognize that Milena, Giuseppe's mother, is eager to see her first grandchild.

It would be hard not to be proud of Giuseppe. He was representing his family's wines at tastings abroad in New York when he was 17 and not himself old enough to drink. And here he is now, an adult, recently married to wonderful young woman and soon to be a father.

It was Giuseppe's father Aldo who started the family winery in the early 1970s. The "G.D." initials are in honor of Aldo's own father, who had owned the Bricco delle Viole long before Aldo decided he'd rather make wine than live in the city.

The Vajra winery is of significant size today, controlling as it does 60 hectares of vines since the recent purchase of the Luigi Baudana vineyards.

And the scale of the labor involved is also significant. This is a winery that employs 60 people at the height of the season each year. Employing just 1 person in Italy can be challenging. 

The organization that is necessarily involved is evident everywhere you look.

It's a large cellar, but even with its large size it is still completely filled with future releases.

There will be a few changes coming to the American market fairly soon. The Riesling, for example, will now be labelled as a Riesling instead of the "Langhe Bianco" nomenclature it has trafficked under for years.

And there are some new wines that we won't see in the States, such as this Langhe Rosso bottled under stelvin, which is only available in the European markets. There is also a Chardonnay bottling from the Baudana property that stays within the confines of the Continent. Something else that I found interesting is that in Italy, where there is no stigma attached to "Langhe Nebbiolo," the Albe Barolo of Vajra is more expensive than it is in the States. In the US the price of the Albe is kept unusually low, and has been since the start of the American financial downturn, to encourage pouring by the glass. In Italy the restaurants are content to pour the Langhe Nebbiolo, and the price of the Albe there is higher.

Another wine that should probably be poured by the glass more often is the Coste & Fossati Dolcetto d'Alba, which is more deep and mineral laden than Vajra's quaffable Dolcetto d'Alba normale. This 2011 Coste & Fossati was bottled just 15 days before I tasted it, but you could already see how special it is. And the 2010, tasted recently in New York, is completely delicious. I often find myself on a soapbox these days, preaching the Dolcetto gospel. It is decidedly unfashionable to admit a fondness for Dolcetto, even among Piemonte geeks, but there are several bottlings from a broad range of different producers that I truly love. Dolcetto can speak with a directness that I find very evocative of what I like about wines from the Piemonte, and it is not afraid to flash a little mineral steel, either. I am not saying that Dolcetto is a "better" or more complex grape than Nebbiolo. I am saying that I enjoy to drink the wines and find that they can be very real, both in the flavors they present and the happiness that I take from them. And the price of this enjoyment is low.

Unfortunately my iPhone batteries were running on fumes during most of the tasting, and I was unable to take  pictures of all the bottles I wanted to. Which is a shame, because Aldo Vaira is a collector of old letter presses and typefaces, as well as a stained glass enthusiast, and you can see in the various labels how wonderfully those interests become manifest.

But I can tell you that Vajra Albe Barolo 2008, from vines that are about 15-20 years old, is plusher and more accessible than you might expect from a 2008. The 2008 Albe was just recently released, and has not made it to the US yet.

The Bricco delle Viole Barolo 2008 was very good, as it always is, with subtle aromatic notes that may have an origin in that vineyard's fairly high elevation (unusually high for the Barolo commune).

Giuseppe said something interesting about the Baudana wines, in that he thinks that the Cerretta Barolo comes from the more noble site than the Baudana Barolo from the Baudana cru. I myself tend to prefer the Baudana cru. As the Baudana and Cerretta Barolos from Baudana are the same price, you may decide for yourself. The Baudana parcels in Cerretta contain 25-30 year old Nebbiolo vines, and Cerretta is also where the Baudana Chardonnay vines are planted. All of the Baudana wines are now made at the Vajra facility in Barolo.

As regards the Barolo Chinato from Vajra, the reason you haven't seen it for a bit is that the distillery where it was being made has closed down. The Vaira family has asked the master distiller from the old distillery to help them make their Chinato at a new distillery, however. The base Barolo for the Chinato is generally from one vintage, or at least mostly from one vintage, and they look for big and ripe fruit to balance out the strong character of the alpine herbs that are used in the recipe. Those herbs are local to Italy, and the old distillery had employed a team of foragers to find them. Once found, the herbs were gently pressed, and never crushed by hand, lest the infusion be too bitter. The Barolo Chinato was then aged in stainless steel after the infusion took place. The trials to determine the Vajra recipe happened fairly recently, and many several different sample batches were prepared from different stages in the process for the Vaira family to consider in their selection. I await the Chinato from the new distillery with anticipation.

I also wish the Vaira family many happy returns in the expectation of their newborn.