Angelo Gaja’s family has been producing quality wines made from the unique Piedmontese Nebbiolo grape in the Barbaresco and Barolo areas of Piedmont, Italy, for four generations. More recently they have acquired two vineyards in Tuscany, expanding the family business to include more of Italy’s regional varieties as well as non-indigenous varieties such as Chardonnay. Executive met the master winemaker in Beirut as he visited Vintage Wine Cellar to talk old worlds and new markets.
E Firstly, what’s your opinion on the current state of the international wine market?
We consider Europe to be the cradle of wine, but in the last 30 years there was an expansion of interest in many different countries — what we call the new world. Many producers in new countries — Chile and Argentina and Australia and so on — now compete with France in producing… wines made through international grape varieties… basically Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot noir and Chardonnay.
These countries initially started producing wines for [domestic consumption], but now they are producing wines for export. So today, even France is facing competition, Bordeaux is facing competition — but not the top Bordeaux, top Bordeaux is fantastic quality and is very strong…
And what about the [financial] crisis? In the last two years, we have seen, especially in the United States and England — which were mostly affected by the crisis — and partly in Europe, consumers wanting to drink less expensive wines.
On the other hand, in Asia, in Brazil, in Russia, where consumers are relatively new and they have new money, there is an interest in consuming high price wines and quality wines. So this year, Bordeaux is selling future Bordeaux and the main market is China.
E How does Italy stay competitive in comparison to the new world wine producers?
Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world in terms of volume, and has the second highest price per liter after France. France has a higher average price per liter, but Italy in terms of volume sells 40 percent more than France, so it’s a big difference.
Italy improved enormously in the last 30 years. I believe that this is due to different factors. First of all, in Italy there are 35,000 wineries, which is an enormous number, and the large majority are small wineries. This is a very important human factor — these people are able to take their suitcases and fly over the world to talk about their wines. This is very important in growing the culture of Italian wines [abroad].
The second factor is that Italy has the largest number of grape varieties in the world. This means we make wines with a different taste, with a different provenance, made in a different way, and this diversity is very important to match with different kinds of cuisine.
E You mentioned smaller wine producers taking their suitcases around the world to discover new markets – is that what you’re doing here in Lebanon? Do you see the Lebanese market as receptive to Italian wine?
My goal is to build a brand. It’s important that the wine is in many different markets, and it’s important to find good people that have the culture of selling such a wine, that are not pushing me to provide a huge quantity, because we can’t, but is proud of having a bottle of Gaja and is able to introduce it in a few restaurants, a few wine shops and to some special private customers.
E How do you think Lebanon could go about better promoting and selling its wines internationally?
I believe it’s the same for every area. First of all, it’s important to have producers with personality, with character, dedicated to wine. Then after, for these people to survive, they must understand that they cannot only sell their wines in the domestic market, they have to travel. This is what we Europeans did. So it is important to start travelling and to find in the free market, maybe in Asia or Europe or the US, customers who are interested. Because they exist absolutely.