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Pieve di Santa Restituta Brunello

The story of Pieve di Santa Restituta is filled with history and promise. A Pieve is a parish church, and it is the parish church of Santa Restituta that stands on the property and gives it its name. The church itself is named for Santa Restituta, who was martyred in Carthage at the time the Christians were forced to flee Africa. In the late fourth century some of his followers settled in Tuscany, where they established a church, Pieve di Santa Restituta, in Montalcino. The church that stands on the property was restored in the Romanesque style in the twelfth century. The twelfth century also provides the first written record of wine produced on the property. Wine has been produced on the property for over seven centuries. Red wine from this estate was listed among those offerings that were presented to the Bishop of Arezzo, (the Diocese in which Pieve di Santa Restituta is located) in 1312.

In 1972 Roberto Bellini, a businessman from Brescia, and his wife Franca purchased the estate and carefully developed and cultivated the vineyards, planted new vineyards, and built a new winemaking facility. They named the estate and the wine La Chiesa di Santa Restituta. The Bellinis recognized the potential of this land and understood that it was capable of producing Brunellos of exceptional quality. In recent years they sought a partner who could help them realize their ambition of producing wines of exceptional quality that are the highest expression of the site. The man to whom the Bellinis turned was the inimitable Angelo Gaja.

Gaja has been called a restless genius; others have been less charitable in their characterizations of Angelo Gaja (pronounced GUY-YAH). Gaja is a fourth generation winegrower from Barbaresco, one of Italy's premier wine districts in Piedmont in northern Italy. As controversial as Angelo Gaja is, nobody disputes his great talents as a winemaker or his ability to generate interest in his wines. Gaja in his relatively short career has become the highest profile grower in Piedmont as well as Italy's most famous winemaker. He has accomplished this through consummate skill at both winemaking and public relations. He describes himself as "vain"; we translate that to mean that he is not the least bit reluctant to be an unabashed publicist for his own wines. Gaja has traveled extensively throughout the world hyping the Gaja name while also trying to learn more about how he might apply new technology in order to improve his own wines. He first visited California for this purpose in 1974, and it is presumed that it was there that he became fascinated with the "barrique" concept - the idea of aging his reds in small oak barrels. He has broken new ground in many areas, and even his critics begrudgingly admit that the results speak for themselves. Gaja is now regarded as Piedmont's leading producer of Barbaresco, and his wines command prices that rival those charged anywhere in the world.

The Gaja firm has been bottling wines since the early 1900's; in 1964 a decision was made to contract the size of the Gaja winery and produce only wines from the winery's own vineyards. The fact that the Gaja winery produces only estate wines is a most salient point in the gospel according to Gaja, for he feels that the consumer is willing to pay more for "authentic Gaja". Gaja is the largest private owner of vineyards in the Barbaresco zone with 153 acres. About half the annual Gaja production of 22,000 cases is Barbaresco - the rest is split between Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, a nouveau-style Nebbiolo called Vinot, several Chardonnays, a Cabernet, and a Barolo. The Cabernet and Chardonnay have been very controversial in this part of Italy where tradition and conservative values reign supreme. To plant foreign grapes in Barbaresco was heresy to some; but Gaja defends against those charges by pointing out that in the 1890's - before phylloxera destroyed the vineyards - there were Cabernet and Chardonnay vines planted in Piedmont. Even the retired Giovanni Gaja, Angelo Gaja's father (who is now said to like the Cabernet planted in the Gaja vineyards), referred to the Cabernet plantings as "darmagi" - "such a pity." He felt that it was a pity that Cabernet - not the native Nebbiolo - was being planted in a prime vineyard site by his son. The name stuck, and Gaja's Cabernet is called Darmagi. We have tasted the Chardonnay and the Cabernet with Gaja and on several other occasions and have been impressed with their quality; their price, however, is extremely ambitious.

In 1988 Gaja purchased a Barolo vineyard in the Marenca e Rivette area of the village of Serralunga. The property was well known to Gaja, for his father often purchased fruit from this vineyard in order to produce Barolo in the 1940's and 1950's. This long standing desire to return to Barolo was reflected in the name Gaja selected for the Barolo. The name "Sperss" is an expression in Piedmontese dialect that translates to "profound longing or nostalgia" (in this case nostalgia for Barolo.) The first two releases - the 1988 and 1989 Sperss - have met extraordinary critical reception. The 1989 was selected as the number two wine in the TOP 100 wines of 1993 and scored a (96) in The Wine Spectator! Gaja made his move into Tuscany in 1994 when he and Roberto Bellini formed a partnership. The Chiesa di Santa Restituta estate in Brunello was immediately renamed Pieve di Santa Restituta to underscore its local roots and the role that the property has played in local history. This was somewhat of a bad time to come into the Tuscan market with vintages like 1991 & 1992 to sell, but the keen eye of Angelo Gaja was admiring the splendid exposure of the vineyards and the bone-rich soil that contributes to the structure and rich bouquet of Brunello. Bellini’s estate had shown great promise with wines like the 1988 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, which garnered “three glasses” in the Italian “wine bible”- the Gambero Rosso. Bellini maintained responsibility for the winemaking until 1995 when Gaja took complete control of the winemaking and the marketing of the property. Under Gaja’s control these wines have become some of the most sought after in Montalcino, as well as some of the highest rated wines by the major members of the press. The 1993 was considered to be a very good vintage in Tuscany, the Gambero Rosso gave 1993 four out of five stars, and most of the wines are now drinking at their peak. It is truly a joy to drink a fully mature Brunello, and this is an excellent example of what these wines evolve into after ten years in the bottle.

by Andrew Lampasone


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