February 18, 2011
From martedì, 28 settembre, 2010.
Certainly one of my favorite discoveries last fall was Azienda Agricola G.D. Vajra, which happens to be in the village of Vergne, just a couple steps away from my beloved agriturismo, Le Viole. In fact the family who owns Le Viole has the same last name as the owners of Vajra. The name is Vaira but as far as I know, the two families are not directly related. The “j” in the winery name is actually due to a printing error back when the winery started in the 1970s. The Vaira winemakers decided to keep the alternative spelling in order to distinguish the winery name from the family name.
My second week at Le Viole I was taking it easy, just visiting a couple of wineries and hiking a lot. One Tuesday evening I walked down the road (about 50 steps) for my 5pm appointment at Vajra and was greeted by the charming and friendly Sabrina, who works for the Vaira family hosting visits and tastings. One interesting thing (among many) about Vajra is that even though it is a family-owned and fairly small winery (25,000 case production per year), they are open every day except for major holidays. As a Californian, I was quite surprised by this fact. In California it’s like this, but in Piemonte, usually wineries are not so open to public visits! Anyway, as long as they’ve got Sabrina, every visit, every day, will be amazing – I am sure. That’s not to say the rest of the family isn’t just as amazing. I met all of them save for Aldo himself and his youngest son. They all express that Piemontese charm – of which I can never seem to get enough.
Sabrina and I started the tour in the winery where the middle of harvest kept everyone busy. Vajra produces wines from many different grapes, which I’ll talk about later, so harvest work continues solid for close to three months. In the cellar Vajra is a traditional Piemontese winery, aging their (red) wines in large Slavonian oak casks only.
Though they do have a few small French barrels here and there, those are used only for topping-off the main barrels throughout the aging process. Two of the most unique things about Vajra’s cellar are first, the filtered, natural light, brought in by a subterranean atrium garden and second, the stained glass windows. Those were designed by Padre Constantino Ruggeri from Pavia, who also did the artwork for the Albe Barolo and the Kyè Freisa, among others. (Unfortunately I neglected to get photos of the windows.)
All Vajra farming is sustainable, uses no irrigation, and takes advantage of organic and biodynamic practices. Grapes are picked by hand and sorted manually, while wild yeasts retained for natural alcoholic fermentation. Vajra’s winemaking philosophy follows tradition with long maceration times (at free temperatures) and adequate aging prior to release of the wines to the market. While a tour of the winery will certainly show this, it is really the wines, which preserve all the delicate nuances of fruit and terroir, which prove this to be true.
Aldo Vaira started the winery back in 1972 when he was a city guy but wanted to move back to the country and tend to the vineyards his family owned. This was strange at the time, as everyone was starting to move away from the farmland and into the city. But he was passionate about his mission. The Vaira family in the Barolo wine making scene dates much farther back, however, at least two centuries, and the winery itself is named after Aldo’s grandfather, Giuseppe Domenico Vaira. At the present time they have cru vineyard holdings in the communes of Barolo and Serralunga d’Alba. In Barolo they are clustered near the village of Vergne, namely Fossati, Coste di Vergne, La Volta, and the prized, Bricco delle Viole. Also they have started a new venture in Serralunga d’Alba, spearheaded by Giuseppe, Aldo’s oldest son. Over the past couple of years they have taken over the care of vineyards previously owned by Luigi Baudana in Baudana and Cerretta cru in Serralunga d’Alba and are currently offering Chardonnay and Barolo from this zone under a combined Baudana and Vajra label.
Luck was on my side on this day, as Sabrina offered me a try of nearly everything in their portfolio.
Langhe Chardonnay 2009. Langhe Chardonnay DOC. (Baudana) Chardonnay 90%, Sauvignon blanc 10%. Rich, nutty, apple, tropical fruit – very full in the mouth and fresh with a good acidity in the finish. I really thought that if this wine wasn’t at least fermented in oak, it would have had to go through at least partial ML but according the guys in the cellar, it hadn’t. Amazing. The richness is coming directly from the character of Chardonnay growing in Serralunga. I really liked this one. ★☆
Pétracine 2009. Langhe Bianco DOC. (mainly from Vergne, Sinio, and Serralunga d’Alba) White Riesling 100%. Pétracine means “the root in the stone,” referring to the evocative minerality in this wine, and Langhe Rieslings in general. A very mellow sweet mineral nose – river rock and cotton candy, with a lot of refreshing citrus and a dry chalky finish. Thankfully lacking in that canonical Riesling petrol, which I hate. This is my favorite Langhe Riesling ever. ★★★
Dolcetto d’Alba 2009. Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. These are young vines and the wine reflects that with a fresh and floral nose, with a little clove and nutmeg, and a fruity and dry mouthfeel. ★★
Coste & Fossati Dolcetto 2008. Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. A special Dolcetto, selected only from the red-stemmed vines (piccolo rosso) in Coste di Vergne and Fossati vineyards, which range in age 20-25 years. The grapes have a relatively long maceration: 15-20 days. A serious Dolcetto with scents of cologne and sweet berry pie. In my notebook I wrote “crunchy fruit” to describe the mid-palate on this wine but that probably needs clarification. When this Dolcetto is in my mouth I think of biting into an intensely ripe piece of fruit that is sort of bursting at the seams with juice and flavor. That’s what I mean when I say a red is “crisp.” The finish on this is fabulous with a healthy dose of age-worthy tannins. ★★
Barbera d’Alba 2008. Barbera D’Alba DOC. Coming from six vineyards in Sinio and Barolo, this Barbera spends about 6-8 months in new botti and barrel, in order to help prepare the barrels. This one is earthy on the nose with sweet rich cherry flavor – quite spicy and refreshing.
Barbera d’Alba Superiore 2007. Barbera d’Alba DOC. Coming from old vines in the Bricco delle Viole (Barolo) and Bricco Bertone (Sinio), some of which are 50 years old, this exceptional Barbera is given a maceration time of 15-20 days and ages 18-24 months in Slavonian oak casks. It shows off a fruity and fresh perfume, but one thing I love about Barbera is how serious of a wine it really can be. This one balances lots of flavor with good structure, spice, and mellow nutty tannins. ★★★
Langhe Nebbiolo 2008. Langhe Nebbiolo DOC. Vajra’s Langhe Nebbiolo comes from estate vineyards within the Barolo and Novello zones; the vines are younger than 10 years old but will be the source of Barolo in the future. Maceration is 15 days and the wine is left to rest in stainless steel tanks for 6 months. The color is true to Nebbiolo, a dark brick red and the nose is feminine with flowers and strawberry jam. Firm, ripe, and stimulating, this is a stand-out Nebbiolo – fresh with elegant tannins. ★★★
Albe Barolo 2006. Barolo DOCG. Maceration is for 20 days and aging for 42 months in Slavonian oak. Well, yes the label is cool, and the name even better, (Albe means sunrises), but I just really love this wine. The aromas are tar, roses, and cherries; the flavors are rich in dark fruit like blackberry and plum. Sabrina had recommended a great little place to experience tartufo bianco direct from the trifulao, called Tra Arte e Querce in the village of Monchiero. So I took Jeff there in November and he got to experience the real deal, along with a lovely bottle of Albe Barolo 2003. Magnifico! ★★
Bricco delle Viole 2006. Barolo DOCG. The beloved Bricco delle Viole vines date back to 1949. A unique vineyard, it sits at one of the highest elevations in the far west side of the Barolo zone and climbs up the ridge that looms above La Morra. A few paces after Bricco delle Viole, one can see farther into the next valley west, where the village Cherasco sits. With vines so mature, this wine is given a 30-40 day, free temperature maceration and ages in Slavonian oak for 42 months. An intensely structured wine, the BDV Barolo gives smoky aromas, flavors of crisp and ripe cherry fruit and finishes elegantly with chalky tannins and a ponder-evoking complexity. ★★
The last two Barolo from the former Baudana winery are serious wines and won’t be ready to show off their true potential without some years of aging. Two thousand six, as well, produced hefty and tannic Barolo in general, so I will remain curious to revisit these in 5-10+ years and to try the more feminine 2007 vintage later this year. Both spend about 36 months in large Slavonian oak barrels prior to bottling and the vines are over 40 years in age.
Baudana 2006. Barolo DOCG. (Serralunga d’Alba) South, southwest exposure at 250-350 meters asl. This one struck me as fruity and strong but it had just been bottled so I’d have to try it again after it had had a chance to rest.
Baudana Cerretta 2006. Barolo DOCG. (Serralunga d’Alba) Northwest to southeast exposure at 250-395 meters asl. The Cerretta is more masculine than the Baudana but has a great fruit structure as well. I preferred it. In fact, during a second stop to Vajra in October (to pick up more Freisa), Sabrina offered me a taste of the Baudana Cerretta 2005 Barolo, which I really enjoyed. ★ ☆
Kyè 2007. Langhe Freisa DOC. (San Ponzio in Barolo)† Kyè in Piemontese dialect is “chi è” in Italian, which means, “who is it?” in English. This name stresses the importance of Freisa in the Langhe, not only because of its capability to produce superior wine, but also since it is a genetic predecessor of Nebbiolo. Aldo Vaira planted this vineyard in 1976, the year I was born. As much as I loved the Barolo, I will admit, this is my favorite Vajra wine. If you’ve ever had Freisa you might be wondering why it’s appearing at the end of the tasting. (I certainly was.) Normally it’s made as a fresh, light, maybe even vivace (slightly sparkling) style wine, which is usually served chilled and accompanies antipasti. But Vajra’s Freisa is not any sort of fragile quaffer. Vajra’s Kyè is quite the champion of all the Freisas I’ve ever had. Coming from the San Ponzio vineyard, which lies south, below the winery, Kyè is bold and exquisite – black cherries, plums, licorice, and earth emerge, followed by a chocolaty finish with a hint of herbs and a balancing acidity. I brought home two bottles: one for my cellar and one for my tasting group. It was a hit with them and won favorite among many. ★★★
Moscato d’Asti 2009. Moscato d’Asti DOCG. The grapes come from a vineyard in the commune of Mango which sits at about 450 meters asl; the vines range in age from 5-15 years old. Lovely, light, delicate, floral, and sweet. I’d certainly choose this one over many others. ★
When I returned in October for that quick visit Sabrina offered me to try one of the newest and most innovative wines coming from Vajra lately. A special treat, this one made it home with me as well.
NS Della Neve. (Nebbiolo 50%, Pinot noir 50%) Della Neve means “snow.” This one is made in the méthode champenoise and should not be missed at any visit to Vajra! You can’t lose with a sparkler that is such a pretty pink color and has such a floral bouquet (reminiscent of the fresh aromas of Nebbiolo). Truly a great interpretation of Nebbiolo as a sparkling wine. I hope they keep making it! ★
† One of the coolest things about Vajra to me is this. A little birdy told me that a certain someone who is known to make wines in California from quite the gamut of esoteric varieties visited them some years back and quite possibly, lui è partito con un poco delle gemme de Freisa … Well, about four years ago I acquired two baby Freisa vines from said wine maker and planted them in my own backyard. So according to the smart little birdy, I had Vajra’s grandbaby Freisa vines growing in my yard before I ever even visited Vajra – and didn’t even know it. But now I do and that makes Vajra and Kyè extra special to me.