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Gaja 1998 Alteni di Brassica

The cork on this wine was a little soggy and had a little bit of mold on top, which made me think “Uh oh, it’s gone.” Then I smelled it and had the same thought. But now I’m not sure. The wine is clearly oxidized, but in a way that old white wine can get. At first, it kind of smells like aged white burgundy, but then a greeness comes out in the back — is it grapefruit? white pepper? grass? Is it just too weird. Make that over the top.

The wine comes from Piedmont-groundbreaker Angelo Gaja, the first in Barbaresco to age his wine like Americans, in small barrels of new oak — OK, the French do that, too — instead of botti, the traditional large, 600 to 650 liter, old oak barrels in the Piedmont cellars. The smaller barrels, known as barriques, are 225 liters. Boom, new world Barbaresco, and soon, Barolo was born.

This wine, which is 100 percent sauvignon blanc, gets the same treatment and undergoes malolactic fermentation. ML or malo is standard for reds and commonly used for chardonnay to give creaminess to that unaromatic variety. So malo for sauvignon blanc is unusal. Winemakers tend to make their sauvignon blanc as an expression of the fruit, rather than the winemaker’s art.

Back to the wine. Tasting note after the jump.

Clear, deep lemon to pale gold in color, fades to white rim.

Developing to over the hill aromas of almonds, butterscotch, white pepper, pine. These come after sulfurous smells I associate with reduced wine — wine that has been made in anaerobic conditions and needs some oxygen in order for the smell to blow off. But wine fermented in a barrel is the exact opposite of anaerobic. Maybe it was over-sulphured to preserve it. I’ll check back tonight to see if it’s blown off. The clue that’s it’s a developing wine is that all the smells are secondary aromas, the ones you get when the primary aromas of fruit are gone.

On the palate, however, this wine is pretty delicious. It’s dry with medium plus acid and high alcohol, light light tannins and medium body. It’s got a great mouthfeel that comes from the high alcohol and the malo. Pronounced flavors butterscotch, more nuts and candy followed by grapefruity acidity. It’s long on the palate and long on the finish. There’s a lot going on in this wine.

You can tell some money was put into the making of this wine and, indeed, on the shelf the current vintage sells for around $80. (High prices are a Gaja brand marker.) But it still would be great with food. Some scallops with a lot of butter, and maybe some toasted almonds?

It’s another wine with a whopping 14 percent alcohol, I guess the sauvignon blanc got hot that year, or he must have left the grapes on the vine, after green harvesting, to achieve maximum ripeness. Even after 10 years the wine is worth drinking, not everyday, but, aside from enjoying it, to sample some of the work of the iconoclast from Barbaresco. (I once saw the back of his head in a restaurant in Barbaresco. Anytime you eat out in an Italian wine region, ask the waiter if there are any winemakers having dinner. There always are. I met Elio Altare this way. Great guy.)

If Gaja has a website, I can’t find it. http://www.gaja.it is under construction, waiting for him to buy it, I presume.

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