Inside Gavi: Piedmont’s White Wine Town
For a wine-obsessed tourist, it seemed our guide at the Fortress of Gavi was overlooking the most intriguing sight. She was going on about the fort's origins in the 10th century; its strategic location between the warring city-states of Genoa and Milan; its cutting-edge design by Fiorenzuola, the most famous military architect of the day and a priest, to boot; and its eight-month stint as seat of the Holy Roman Empire in 1177, when Emperor Frederick the Redbeard hid his family and entire court inside this impenetrable rock compound.
But she never said a word about the tiny vineyard planted beside the fortress battlements—a sight one would never encounter at a national monument in the U.S. "It's probably the caretaker's," whispered my husband, who grew up in this mountainous zone where Liguria and Piedmont meet.
The fact is, the caretaker's miniscule vineyard speaks volumes about Gavi today. Wine is the lifeblood of this sleepy little town tucked in the southeast corner of Piedmont, where a good percentage of its 4,500 residents make their living in some way connected to Piedmont's most famous white wine, Gavi di Gavi, now properly called Gavi del Commune di Gavi. Made from Cortese grapes, this was Italy's first white wine to gain international fame and is still deemed to be among the top ranks of Italian whites.
The caretaker keeps good company. "The people of Gavi, many are producers of wine—or their fathers are, or their uncles," says Antonio Paolillo, proprietor of Enoteca La Cave, a wine shop at the foot of the fortress. With over 200 wine estates belonging to the Gavi DOCG consortium, few local residents need to venture into his shop, except to purchase the occasional Barolo for a holiday feast. Instead, Paolillo's well-stocked shelves lure buyers from surrounding towns, or Genoa residents with summer homes here, or tourists from Germany or Switzerland. "Americans are not so many," Paolillo notes.
Indeed, Gavi is largely overlooked by travelers from the States. Unlike the Langhe hills an hour-and-a-half to the west, where Barolo and Barbaresco are steady magnets for enophiles, Gavi seems a quiet backwater. There are neither gourmet food shops nor ubiquitous wine bars nor postcard vendors catering to foreign tourists. The town seems, well, normal. Its narrow medieval streets are lined with clothes stores, opticians, real estate offices, pastry shops, butchers—the stuff of everyday life. Which isn't to say that tempting food items aren't everywhere; storefront windows beckon with trays of fresh ravioli, baskets of fragrant porcini mushrooms, and piles of soft, sugar-dusted amaretti cookies, a Gavi specialty. But these are standard fare for the locals, who, like all piemontesi, know how to eat well.
If Gavi seems off the beaten track, it wasn't always so. During the Middle Ages, Gavi was strategically situated on two main thoroughfares: the "salt roads" that connected the port of Genoa with Turin, Milan, and the plains to the north. Sea salt made its way over the Ligurian Apennines along these roads, as did other goods, armies, and marauders. Over the centuries, the fortress of Gavi expanded and exchanged hands repeatedly as Genoa and Milan tussled for control over the roads and territory.
The first mention of wine in Gavi dates back to 972. Like much early documentation related to wine, this was a land contract. It testified that the Bishop of Genoa would rent church property with vineyards and chestnut woods to Pietro and Andrea, two free men of Gavi. The piece of land was called Meirana. Exactly 1,000 years later, Bruno Broglia signed another land contract purchasing that same property and founded Broglia, now one of Gavi's leading wineries. Its classic Gavi del Comune di Gavi, appropriately called La Meirana, is an excellent expression of Gavi's character: pale straw in color, with delicate floral and stone-fruit scents, pleasing acidity, and a slight almond aftertaste.
But the history of Gavi wine as we know it today begins in the 19th century with the Marchese Cambiaso, a nobleman with a predilection for white wines. At the time, the region of Gavi was awash in reds, like the rest of Piedmont. In order to set himself apart from the simple farmers who drank Barbera and Nebbiolo at their supper tables and to make something special for his titled guests, the Marchese planted his vineyards with Cortese, a white grape indigenous to Tortona and Novi a few miles to the north. Soon other nobles followed suit, and gradually Gavi became a region of whites. By the turn of the century, many of these private vineyards had become commercial enterprises and were selling their wine in bulk to Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, and other vermouth houses, which used Cortese as a base wine for their spumante.
La Scolca was one of those vineyards. Founded in 1919 by Vittorio Soldati, a manager at typewriter manufacturer Olivetti, La Scolca was originally a weekend hobby. After World War II, the bottom dropped out of the market for Gavi wine as spumante.makers turned to Puglia in the south for cheaper base wine. Many Gavi producers reverted to reds, but Soldati, encouraged by Martini & Rossi, bet on creating a world-class white. The first La Scolca Gavi was bottled in 1950, but Soldati's work had only just begun. No consumer market existed at that time for Gavi wine, so Soldati had to create one from scratch. Immediately he aimed high. His breakthrough was getting La Scolca's wine into Paissa, a luxury food shop in Turin, located on the elegant Piazza San Carlo in the historic city center. Soon thereafter, La Scolca's trademarked Gavi dei Gavi was being served to heads of state, Popes, and passengers on the Orient Express. The wine had cachet, just as Soldati intended, and by the 1970s Gavi was Italy's most famous—and expensive—white wine.
Three decades have passed, and the landscape for white wine has considerably shifted. Italy's northeastern regions of Friuli and the Veneto are producing stellar whites, as is Campania to the south. Piedmont itself offers new competition in the form of Arneis, once a blending wine and now a popular stand-alone with a lovely floral bouquet and a host of admirers. Although Gavi was granted DOCG status in 1998, it is no longer king of the hill.
One man who's determined to inject new energy into Gavi is Stefano Moccagatta, business manager of Villa Sparina. He and his siblings, Tiziana and Massimo, have made great strides since taking over the family winery in 1997. By dramatically reducing yields, introducing French barrique, renovating the cellars, and hiring up-and-coming enologist Beppe Caviola, they've managed to put Gavi back on the map. Their 1999 Monterotondo cru is more full-bodied and complex than most Gavis, exhibiting honey, toast, and other tertiary aromas over the floral and fruit bouquet, and it was the first Gavi del Comune di Gavi to win the prestigious Tre Bicchieri (3 Glasses) award from Gambero Rosso and the first to break 90 points from Wine Spectator. What's more, the estate turns out an excellent basic Gavi, a delicious spumante.version, and two opulent Barberas, both Tre Bicchieri winners.
In the past few years, the Moccagattas have also spent millions turning their 250-acre estate into a destination for eno-tourists and nature lovers. The brick-lattice hayloft next to the family's 18th century villa has been transformed into an elegant, airy restaurant called La Gallina, and the three-story building that once housed harvest workers and their families has been gutted and remade into L'Ostelliere, a 4-star hotel with country-rustic charm, which opened last year.
"We imagined a gastronomic-enological-tourist project: a wine cellar to have something to drink, a restaurant for something to eat, and the hotel to sleep," says Stefano Moccagatta, 35, sitting on the restaurant balcony and savoring a small dish of yogurt gelato topped with wild strawberries. He looks out at the rolling expanse of vineyards rimmed with woods. "When I was a child, I told my parents I would be a wine producer as an adult. I did not want to be a doctor; I wanted to be a wine producer," he says.
A burly man with long hair and mischievous eyes, Moccagatta sports a pale-orange bandana around his neck—a decidedly bohemia touch in staid Piedmont. His artistic leanings are felt throughout the property, which is dotted with sculptures and huge contemporary paintings of farm animals. It's also felt in Villa Sparina's distinctive bottle design, a bulbous shape with transparent neck. "We wanted a wine with recognizability, a wine both good and beautiful," explains Moccagatta, whose marketing savvy is on par with that of Vittorio Soldati a generation ago. "I am passionate about contemporary art, so I wanted the bottle to be a nice, beautiful object. We got inspiration from Morando, a great painter of still lifes. We also found a bottle very similar to this in a museum. So between research and inspiration, this form was born. It is also like my paunch," he says with a laugh, patting his round belly.
Since receiving the Tre Bicchieri award for it Gavi, Villa Sparina has not been resting on its laurels. They've been making changes in the vineyard, harvesting the Cortese earlier to create a greater equilibrium between fruit concentration and refreshing acidity—one of grape's primary characteristics. "When we got recognized for our 1999 Monterotondo, we understood that the future of our wine was not going in that direction," says Moccagatta, "because it was not the expression of the territory." And territory— or terroir—is a critical factor in Gavi wine. "This is a particularly good area," says Moccagatta, surveying his ancient property. "The land is very calcareous, therefore, the plant suffers. And you have rich minerals, so when you drink the wine, you feel the acidity, the freshness of the minerality."
What should a good Gavi del Comune di Gavi taste like? "There's a perfume of white flowers," he responds. "When it ages, it becomes a bit like pumice stone. In the mouth, it should have a sort of pleasantness and acidity right off. Then it should end with a slight finish of almond. The barrique—we use only used barrique—helps with this. It becomes a white that expresses its territory. To me, Gavi means equilibrium. Cortese doesn't have great potential for alcohol, but it has a great potential for aging. That's important to us."
Now that the winery has been overhauled and the hotel and restaurant are open and awaiting a Relais & Château designation, Moccagatta has turned his sights beyond Villa Sparina's large stone gates. Outside lie 11 communes that produce Gavi wine, and as wine regions go, they're rather lackadaisical about collectively promoting their product and territory. Moccagatta wants to change that. Among the plans he's nurturing is the creation of a wine-road map. Nothing currently exists that shows the location of all the vineyards in the Gavi DOCG zone. Moccagatta hopes to collaborate with the DOCG consortium, Gavi city officials, and—most strategically—the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet. Located just down the hill from Villa Sparina on the outskirts of Serravalle, this five-year-old shopping outlet draws four million visitors per year from as far away as Japan. Moccagatta's goal is to have the outlet serve as a distribution point for the wine map, tapping in to the influx of tourists and creating new synergy.
Should this plan come to fruition, visitors could find their way to some of Gavi's loveliest country manors. La Giustiniana, for instance, not only offers excellent renditions of Gavi del Commune di Gavi, but the winery also provides a taste of nobility, with its stately villa from the 1600s surrounded by ancient chestnut trees and marble statues. Tourists would also be able to find their way to smaller estates like Azienda Picollo, a 17-acre, family-run farm that produces an excellent boutique Gavi. A wine map would also lead to large historic farms like Broglia, now on the cutting edge of research. In collaboration with the DOCG consortium, Broglia planted an experimental vineyard in 2001 with various clonal selections of Cortese. Researchers are trying to identify those with the best characteristics for Gavi, and the results are bound to pay off for all local producers, as did comparable projects in Montalcino and Chianti.
Meanwhile, there's change afoot in town. A new Enoteca del Gavi is under construction in an old, abandoned macello or slaughterhouse. Like government-sponsored enoteche in Barolo, Barbaresco, and elsewhere in Piedmont, this will be a showcase for wine from the DOCG zone. The structure, scheduled to open in late 2005, will house a tasting room, wine shop, display area, and restaurant, allowing one-stop shopping and sampling of multiple Gavi labels.
While waiting for the enoteca and restaurant to open, visitors aren't going hungry, however. A hundred yards down the street is one of the best restaurants in town: the Cantine del Gavi. Housed in the 17th century home of a successful grain merchant, the dining room is frescoed with elephants, camels, and other remembrances of the merchant's commercial voyages. Today tourists and locals gather to dine on regional specialties like risotto made with Gavi wine; ravioli stuffed with white meat, sausage, and spinach; and charbonade or thin strips of meat cooked at the table in a fondue pot and served with various dipping sauces. Such elegant cuisine attracts a clientele from Milan, Turin, Germany, Switzerland and beyond. "Many people come to Gavi to eat at the restaurant, without knowing where Gavi is," says proprietor and chef Alberto Rocchi. "They call, reserve, and say, 'Where's Gavi?' They learn about the restaurant through word of mouth or guide books. We do zero publicity."
Will there ever come a day when people don't have to ask, when Gavi will have the same name recognition as Barolo, Alba, and the Langhe? "It would be nice, but seriously, I think it's difficult," says wine-shop owner Paolillo. Most people agree. Says Rocchi, "They're 20 years ahead of us in terms of wine and wine tourism. And they have Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto—the primary wines of Italy. We have only one wine: Gavi."
For his part, Moccagatta is betting on that wine. "We are coming out with one of the most important vintages for Villa Sparina—the 2003—and with this cru Monterotondo, we believe that we can stand with a lot of international whites." He's also gambling on his new Relais & Château and Gavi's proximity to Milan, Genoa, and Turin, which makes this wine region a convenient weekend getaway. So who does he imagine future eno-tourists might be? "There's not one type," Moccagatta replies. "It could be the Prime Minister of Germany, or someone who has a shoe factory, or someone who makes eyeglasses or sells flowers. The important thing is that he's happy and says, 'I was in Gavi and it's a nice place. There are nice people and I'd like to return.' That's the fundamental word: return."
Certainly people seeking an authentic piemontese town will be back. So will those whose travel is inspired by wine. Still unspoiled by tourism and undistorted by fame, Gavi and its bucolic surroundings are a gourmand's best-kept secret—for now.
Published in the July 2005 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.