Planning a week’s tasting in a region is a mixture of thorough preparation, chance meetings and recommendations, and sheer persistence. And there is the question of whether to visit wineries which you already know and whose wines are available in the UK as opposed to those you can only taste in situ. Our final day in the Langhe region of Piemonte had a large gap in the final afternoon but after a few phone calls, we arranged a visit to G.D.Vajra (pronounced VAI-ra), a very well established name, located above the village of Barolo since 1972. All the planning had paid dividends as this was also the only time in the week that we had to drive from our morning tastings in Barbaresco, well to the east of our base in Alba, to a visit at the opposite end of the region, via a very good if hurried lunch and a near disaster at a self service petrol station.
Vajra’s substantial winery has a workmanlike feel about it, with the exception of the charming stained glass windows which throw a slightly surreal glow over proceedings. But this is clearly a place of work, of focus on the goal of a quality across a largish range of wines. For whites they have a Chardonnay from the Luigi Baudana company which they are now directing and a surprise package in Pétracine, the Riesling which they have been making since 1986. They also have quite a serious Dolcetto from the two vineyards, Coste and Fossati, which can be aged for up to 10 years, a denser more structured wine with nice cherry and almond notes.
The use of barriques is interesting here. Usually expensive new wood is dedicated to the most important wines but here the new wood is matched up with the forceful Barbera grape and it is only when the wood has mellowed that it is used on the prized Nebbiolo. This means that you get the mild oxidising effect of small barrels for Nebbiolo but without the vanilla and toast aromas of new barriques. Very clever.
Barbera comes in two shapes, normale 2007 and riserva. The former comes from the younger vineyards and a part of it is matured in new oak for six to eight months. It has a gorgeous, fruity nose which covers the new wood – it needs to express itself, like an adolescent, says our host Sabrina. The Barbera riserva (or superiore) 2007 comes from 50 year old vines from the famous Bricco delle viole vineyard, the source also of one of the cru Barolo. However, the law being what it is, you can only put the vineyard name on the back label of Barbera, whereas of course it is allowed to be on the main label of the Barolo! This wine is aged in large traditional barrels and tonneaux for 18 months. It has a super concentrated nose of dark fruit and some oak ageing, wonderfully ripe, sweet fruit on the palate and is extremely long. An outstanding wine which makes the case for great Barbera.
After Barbera comes Nebbiolo of course, though in this case we could have gone next to that other native, Freisa, of which more anon. With the addition of Luigi Baudana wines, Vajra now has four Nebbiolo wines, the simpler Langhe Nebbiolo 2008 (quite a complex perfumed nose, no wood, quite tannic) and three Barolo. Grapes from three vineyards, La volta, Fossati and Coste di Vergne go into Barolo Albe 2005. These are relatively young vines, 20-25 year olds, though the wine making is very traditional – maceration of the skins in the young wine for 30 days followed by three years in traditional large botti. The label reflects the youthfulness of the vines rather than the traditional winemaking and seems a very loud statement next to the traditional main label. You can see the density of the ‘legs’ in this glass – 14.5? of alcohol and lots of extract. This is a good Barolo – structured, perfumed, with spicy notes, beautiful.
The final two Barolo are from the respective houses of Vajra and Baudana. Barolo Bricco delle viole 2005, that vineyard again, is the flagship wine getting the full 40 days of maceration and 40 months in large traditional barrels. It is rich and delicate simultaneously, already beautifully knit together, with layers of fruit, spice, balsam and further spice on the nose. By contrast the Baudana offering, Barolo Serralunga d’Alba 2005 has a much more obvious use of oak ageing (balsam, cloves), quite velvety in the mouth but still tough and tannic, typical of the Serralunga area.
Having tasted the heights of Barolo we are definitely on the descent from the tasting mountain, but there are various points of interest as we return. First off is Kyè 2006 (a play on words on chi è, who’s this?), made from the local grape, Freisa. Vajra are one of ten producers of this wine, though there is still, not the more conventional light, sparkling red wine. Sabrina says its a wine for the autumn, perfumed and tannic (it must be something in Piemontese soil that produces this combination), good acidity, could last 10 years. Then there is a version of Pinot Noir, called PN Q497, 2006, though our bottle had been open a while and perhaps wasn’t a fair test (slightly odd caramelly notes). Of course there is also Moscato d’Asti, all 5.5? of it, but delicious none the less. And finally – thirteenth in line – our first taste of Barolo Chinato, a digestivo, which is Barolo infused with herbs and beefed up with added alcohol. This had lovely bitter notes, a complex cocktail of herbs and counterbalancing sweetness.
This comprehensive tasting was a fitting climax to our week. As we drove back to Alba we enjoyed for a final time the great views across the ridges of the Langhe, this time around La Morra bathed in spring sunshine.
Many thanks to Sabrina and all at Vajra. The wines are available in the UK via Liberty Wines, eg Caviste.