Keeping it in the family, Gaja wine feels the love in Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 3:50pm

Italian wine heiress Gaia Gaja has been coming to Hong Kong for at least 15 years, shuttling in and out on official family business. She not only checks in with her friends, but also makes the rounds of the upscale bars and restaurants that carry the distinctive Gaja black-and-white labels.

There have been bottles with the legend "Gaja" on them for four generations, a legacy started by her great-grandfather and, like so many of Italy's most famous brands, entrusted only to blood. Decisions affecting the Gaja winery, which are now a global matter, are still made around the family table.

She's the family's window to the world, constantly travelling and gathering intelligence on the market's reaction to the growing collection of wines. Her mother still oversees all the accounts, her sister manages the family's three estates in northern Italy, and her father, Angelo Gaja, watches over it all.

The producer, whose wines include Gaja Barbaresco (which is made using the nebbiolo variety native to the denomination), San Lorenzo, Barolo Dagromis, Sperss and Rossj-Bass, is one of Italy's best-known winemakers.

Gaja is following in her father's footsteps with her trips to Hong Kong. Angelo was an ambassador for the label in the early 1990s, keeping in touch with his family by fax, according to then Post writer Kevin Sinclair, who noted in 1993 that Gaja wines were venerated, although expensive, with some fetching HK$230 a glass.

Gaia is in town to meet her new distributor, Altaya's founder Paulo Pong, one of the city's leading wine merchants. Altaya also runs the three etc wine shops, which represent France's three most famous wine regions, and other retail outlets.

"It's difficult to find people who love wine, are passionate about it and are commercially minded," says Gaia.

Pong fitted the bill, and after a couple of recommendations from other winemakers already represented in Hong Kong by Altaya, she travelled east to meet him. Then she returned the invitation and introduced him to her family in Piedmont.

Located to the northwest of Italy's most famous wine growing region, Tuscany, Piedmont is home to the nebbiolo grape and the Barolo denomination. Gaja produces a Barolo, but has made its name in the lesser-known Barbaresco DOC, also with nebbiolo wines.

It was Angelo Gaja's efforts in the Piedmont winemaking community that led to a new era of winemaking, in the region that influenced Italian oenology.

"My family, my father especially, contributed strongly to the renaissance of Italian wine," she says.

"We contributed to the renaissance of Piedmont, but then [we] became an example for all of Italy. My father paid a lot of attention to detail in managing the vineyard.

"He was the first one to work with short pruning, green harvesting techniques, higher density of plants per hectare, maceration done in a different way, and ageing in new casks.

"So it was not a wind of change, but a hurricane of change. My father was inspired by France, he was inspired by California, and he started to introduce a lot of innovation. This was an example for a lot of people, an example that things could change. That we could become known throughout the world with a local variety, nebbiolo, makes me proud."

Hong Kong has long had a connection with Italian cuisine. But only recently has it fully explored the upper end of the spectrum, with world-class Italian restaurants and chefs making names for themselves. This shift has improved the image of Italian wines.

"In Hong Kong our greatest ambassadors are restaurants," she says.

"The best Italian restaurant outside of Italy is here in Hong Kong. [Umberto Bombana's 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the only Italian restaurant outside of Italy to be awarded three Michelin stars.] Bombana promotes olive oil, parmesan, balsamic vinegar, wine, all the Italian culture, so that helps."

She has high hopes for her customers' appreciation of Italian wines across the border, too. While there are some who "drink the label", she says that she will often meet people at events and dinners who drink her wine because they love it.

She attributes the Asian affection for Gaja's wines to an understanding and appreciation of elegance and delicacy.

She says most coveted ingredients in Chinese cuisine are more important for texture than flavour, and that her signature wines also embody this subtlety.

Gaia says nebbiolo not only gives wines great structure but also a delicate taste. "I think it's a mindset that is there."