Jay Whiteley hears how Gaia Gaja is dealing with Global Warming in her family’s vineyards.

Gaia Gaja in Brunello

Gaia Gaja captured by Jamie Drummond this March in Brunello.

Gaia Gaja is Angelo Gaja’s daughter and the fourth generation in the family to become the face of the Gaja wines. She was in Toronto recently speaking about what has been taking place in the vineyards and how this is affecting the quality of wines.Gaia spoke about the social changes happening in the vineyards of Italy. Over the last 20 years, fewer Italians are working the vines, as there are many other opportunities for young people. These days many Eastern Europeans living and working in Italy are growing the indigenous grape varieties. By having to train new workers, the team has been forced to look more closely at what is happening in the vineyards.

The biggest change is the climate and its unpredictable affects. Seasonal diseases are happening at different times, pests are coming at different times and the team is looking at making the vines in the area naturally more resilient.

As the earth becomes warmer and drier so does the soil where the vines are grown. Like most farmers they are looking at ways to combat this threat and one solution they have found effective is grass. In some vineyards the grass grows very long and instead of cutting it, the team at Gaja has taken large rollers and pressed it down. This acts as a natural blanket and keeps everything underneath cool and damp. In the heat of the summer, the top layer can be hot to the touch, but beneath it the soil retains moisture, keeping things cool.

In addition to grass, the team has planted flowers and beans in the vineyard. With more numbers and varieties of plants the vines and vineyard as a whole become healthier. This is what Gaia says is happening when plants talk to each other. Though there is more and more monoculture happening in the vineyards around the world, it is important for plants to be exposed to different species to help them grow and become stronger. Plants, she explains, give and take from each other through a large underground network of fungus. Gaia made reference to  this Ted Talk by Suzanne Simard that explains this.

Another way is to have better clonal diversity in the vineyard. Over the last 50 or 60 years about 15 different clones of Nebbiolo have been identified as being the best. However, Gaja believes that having only one clone of Nebbiolo can be detrimental. The clone may be the best one, but it is not perfect and those imperfections are highlighted when the climate changes. If one part of the plant becomes sick, chances are many more vines will become sick simultaneously, forcing the farmer to work harder to correct these problems. She questioned that perhaps mono-varities are not ideal for one vineyard and that this practice has weakened the Nebbiolo varieties, resulting in more sick plants world wide.

With more clones in a vineyard, plants are able to live longer and not have to struggle to ripen fast in order to produce more and more fruit. The vine itself becomes balanced, easing the pressure on the entire vineyard. Natural competition between plants is restored and the ecosystem of the vineyard is better equipped to better manage stressors through self-regulation.

Like any change in the wine world it takes many years to fully appreciate the impact. But the best people in many different areas of expertise are all contributing ideas to ensure suggested change is well thought out before being implemented.

Even though Gaja is best known for the wines of Barbaresco and Barolo in Piedmont, Gaja also has two wineries in Tuscany: Pieve Santa Restituta winery in Montalcino and the Ca’Marcanda winery in Bolgheri. Through these they are able to expand their knowledge base of indigenous grape varieties and explore better ways to grow grapes around Italy.

Of all of their wines, the single vineyard wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are the most sought after and command the highest price. But change is coming to one of the wines. The Contiesa wine comes from a single vineyard in Barolo called Conteisa Cerequio. The name of the wine refers to a dispute between the communes of La Morra and Barolo each laying claim to the land. Even though the wine comes from a single vineyard in Barolo it has been labeled Langhe Nebbiolo because it comprises a touch of Barbera. However after 2011 that will no longer be the case. The wine will return to Barolo status with the legally required 100% Nebbiolo. Gaja has said that the name of the commune will not be featured, but rather it will simply be labeled ‘Barolo’.

Though the labels are simple with a few words, the wines inside are anything but. Many years of innovation and forward thinking will keep the Gaja family on the forefront of wine making and producing some of the best wines in all of Italy.