G.D.Vajra Part One, with Three Langhe Reds
The G.D. Vajra winery is one of the great Barolo addresses. It lies at Vergne, the highest community in the Barolo DOCG, towering over Barolo town, three km away. Indeed, one of their best vineyards is nearby, the famous Bricco Viole (the Violet Hill), the westernmost and highest Barolo cru vineyard, at 497m.
And the views from here are breathtaking. Look west to the Alps, dominated by the pyramid-shaped majesty of Monviso. Eastwards, the Barolo DOCG is laid out before you, frequently with its hilltop towns poking through the nebbia (fog) that lies in the valleys, and which gives its name to fickle Nebbiolo, one of the world’s most fabulous red grape varieties.
G.D. Vajra – in brief
The G.D. Vajra operation is relatively young compared to some of their peers. The winery was founded when Guiseppe Domenico (G.D.) Vajra planted vines in 1947 on Bricco Viola near his father’s farm. However, it has become prominent thanks to his son, Aldo Vajra, and his family. Aldo left Torino for his grandparent’s farm in 1968 at the age of 15, and his first vintage was in 1971 while studying oenology.
He is still in charge today, over 50 years later. However, this is a family winery where his wife Milena and their children (Giuseppe, Francesca, and Isidoro) play vital roles in realising the wines. Over the years, the size of the vineyard holdings has expanded. Today, it totals about forty hectares, of which ten are Barolo DOCG. Since 2009, they have also managed the tiny Barolo estate of Luigi Baudana in Serralunga, on the east side of the Barolo DOCG. That property has a contrasting terroir and wine style, so Vajra ensures that the typicity of those wines lives on.
An organic pioneer
G.D. Vajra has been described as traditional for its style of Barolo winemaking, using large old Slavonian oak botti rather than new French barriques. But look closer, and the winemaking is remarkably recipe-free, with each year’s harvest taken on its characteristics and with winemaking adapted to suit. Furthermore, many pioneering innovations make such descriptions inaccurate. For example, G.D. Vajra was the first certified organic winery in Barolo, all the way back in 1971. Furthermore, sustainability certificates have been added from SQNPI1 (2016) and Equalitas2 (2022).
In addition, while the Barolo wines are naturally the most prized, Vajra also ensures the local survival of Dolcetto (1979), Freisa (1980) and Barbera grapes. Those varieties do well in those parts of Barolo that are much less suitable for the notoriously fickle Nebbiolo grape. However, within the Barolo DOCG boundaries, a commercial temptation is to replace them with Nebbiolo because demand for Barolo is high, so it commands the highest prices. Hence, even a poor Nebbiolo wine may be more profitable than other wines from these other grape varieties, no matter how brilliant. But we’ll see that growing different local varieties besides Nebbiolo is essential when you respect the terroir and always aim to make the best wine with nature’s gifts.
While it’s not the only winery to preserve and realise the potential of other local grape varieties, Vajra makes spectacular examples. Vajra was also the first to vinify Rhine Riesling (Riesling Renano) from cuttings obtained from Alsace, Pfalz and Rheinhessen (1985).
Pinot Nero here dates from 1999, planted at the apex of Bricco Viole. At that time, that site was deemed too cold for Nebbiolo. Since then, climate change has made that site ideal for Nebbiolo. Indeed, the Vajra wines have been resilient to climate change thus far because so many of their vineyards are at high altitudes. Warmer temperatures have reduced the incidence of frost and encouraged ripening and earlier harvests. This has benefited Nebbiolo on such high sites because it’s an early flowering and late ripening variety.
The family has also pioneered the rediscovery of an ancient rosé (Chiaretto di Barolo) and an Extra Brut Metodo Classico Rosé Spumante. This being the Langhe, of course, there is an old-vine Moscato d’Asti as well.
Parts 1 and 2
With a range comprising nineteen wines, it’s a reminder that the Barolo area offers so much more than just Barolo DOCG because there are also exemplary expressions of other Langhe appellations. Much as it would be great to cover all nineteen wines here, six have been chosen for this article. Even then, this article has been split into two parts. Part One focuses on three Langhe varietal red wines by G.D. Vajra: Dolcetto, Barbera and Freisa. Three of their top Barolo wines are then showcased in Part Two. This split also ensures that the Langhe varietals can shine as much as the Barolos.
Three Langhe wines: Dolcetto, Barbera and Freisa
Each wine is discussed, comprising a brief introduction to the grape variety, a technical note on how Vajra makes the wine, and a tasting note with food matching suggestions, U.K. availability and price.
G.D. Vajra, Coste & Fossati, Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, Piemonte, Italy, 2022. 14%
A little about the Dolcetto grape
We usually think of Dolcetto as a purply, bright, youthful, inexpensive quaffing wine, perhaps similar in style to Beaujolais and an ideal accompaniment to pizza. All that makes it a great “everyday” wine with a valuable purpose in life. However, another much rarer style of Dolcetto is one with a bright red stem. This is Dolcetto del Pedunculo Rosso, which has much more power, acidity, tannin and complexity.
This Dolcetto biotype was from a massal selection of vines discovered in neighbouring vineyards that were about to be replaced with Nebbiolo. Those were then taken to the high vineyards of Coste de Vergne (1979) and Fossatti (1984/85). Dolcetto is a useful early ripener, ideal for exposed hilltop sites, so it’s harvested in early September. The wine is from the best selections from these two vineyards. There’s no wood in the winemaking, which would only mask the character of this delightful grape variety.
Vinification lasted approximately 20 days. Given the abundance of colour and tannins in 2022, it needed only very gentle extraction with fermentation in stainless steel. Maturation is for five months in stainless steel, with one racking before bottling on April 18, 2023. It was then released in November 2023.
The lively, deep purple colour is expected. What isn’t is the freshness, volume and power that are this wine’s hallmarks. That makes it stand out from the crowd of conventional Dolcetto, and it’s utterly irresistible.
The highly aromatic nose shows red berry fruit with a bit of white pepper, bay and thyme. Then, the palate offers vivacious blueberry, sour cherry and plum fruits laced with spices. This is balanced with fresh acidity, full-bodied alcohol, and smooth tannins. A long, elegant almond finish completes the package. This wine can still be opened now and is worth decanting for 30 minutes first. However, if you keep it for a couple of years, it will acquire forest floor and truffle tones and, unusually, could develop further for a decade or more. This Dolcetto is one of the finest, perfect for special occasions.
As for food, this is a gastronomic wine, so you can do much better than pizza! Instead, try Pasta (say pappardelle) tossed in sage butter with white truffle shavings. This is no ordinary Dolcetto and is terrific value. Xtrawine £18.85, VINVM £25.50
G.D. Vajra, Viola de Viole, Barbera d’Alba Superiore DOC, Piemonte, Italy, 2021. 15%
A little about the Barbera Grape
Barbera may be widespread in Italy, but Piemonte is its homeland. Barbera became commonplace in Piemonte after phylloxera, as it’s productive and relatively straightforward to grow. There are many styles (including fashionable barrique treatments) and DOCs. Barbera ripens after Dolcetto and before Nebbiolo, a valuable characteristic for winegrowers in the Langhe.
The Vajra Barbera Viola del Viole is from old vines with tiny yields, some dating to 1949. There are two vineyards, Bricco delle Viole and, since 2000, the steep and terraced Bricco Bertone, near Sinio, far to the west. It’s 100% Barbera (the DOC allows up to 15% Nebbiolo) and a Superiore (the rule requires more extended ageing of at least twelve months, of which four months must be in barrel). 2021 looks like being one of the great vintages, with picking on September 23 and 28. Vinification lasted 35 days, with a partially submerged fermenting cap of skins in the stainless steel vat requiring punching down and pumping over. The secondary, malolactic fermentation was also in stainless-steel vats and occurred spontaneously.
Initial maturation took nine months, including six in large Slavonian oak casks. Bottled on August 19, 2022, release was in March 2023. Sadly, Esca and Flavescence Dorée3 are diseases threatening the particularly susceptible Barbera vines, and those in the Bricco delle Viole vineyard are in terminal decline.
Dark ruby in the glass. The nose opens with intense dark plum and damson aromas and a little forest floor, with sandalwood and balsamic notes lurking in the background. As it opens up, floral notes appear, recalling the violets growing in this terroir. The palate reprises concentrated dark plum and damson fruit with some cinnamon and mocha complexity, a perfect balance of acidity and velvety tannin. The alcohol is high but does not intrude, providing fleshiness without any accompanying heat. The savoury finish lingers on. Take your time. Enjoy this rich and complex meditation wine now, but it will reward the patient with development potential over the years ahead. Barbera might be commonplace, but Barbera of this style and quality is certainly not!
It’s also a versatile, food-friendly wine with various meats a good match, whether roasted, grilled, or stewed. It proved a brilliant foil for a nut roast surrounded by roasted vegetables. VINVM £34.30, A.G. Wines, £35.25.
G.D. Vajra Kyè, Langhe Freisa DOC, Piemonte, Italy, 2021. 15%
A little about the Freisa grape
Freisa is an ancient variety once widely cultivated in Piemonte, and its name means strawberry (from the French fraise). Being productive and easy to grow, it often came in various wine styles, including sweet and sparkling. Particularly crucial was its contribution to red Vermouth, a drink with popularity in a long decline and eclipsed by white Vermouth. Sadly, despite genetics recently showing that it is Nebbiolo’s closest relative, Freisa has become a true rarity (with less than 2% of the Piemontese vineyard area). Hence, the name Kyé means “Who am I?” It’s time to find out.
The oldest Vajra Freisa vineyard is San Ponzio, located within Bricco delle Viole, close to the winery. This is a massal selection (again from neighbouring vines) planted by Aldo in 1980. The Bergera vineyard dates from 2016. The first vintage in a dry style by Vajra was in 1990.
Freisa, like Nebbiolo, is a late ripener, the harvest from late September to late October. Making it dry requires skill, as any unripe tannins in skins and pips will leave the wine green and tart. Hence, some use residual sugar and even bubbles in mitigation. Therefore, a dry Freisa needs a suitable site and harvesting at optimal ripeness, which may require more than one passage through the vineyard. The grapes are destemmed, and fermentation lasts for 25 days. It then matured for nine months, partially in large Slavonian oak casks and partly in French barrels. Bottled on August 26th, 2022 and not released until November 2023.
This is a big, dry red wine with an extrovert personality, yet with elegance and charm. In the meantime, If you ever want a definition of what “structure” refers to in wine, try this wine for size. There’s high acidity, plenty of overt (but elegant rather than rustic) tannins and considerable alcohol. These elements provide the framework for the wine and will ensure longevity. There’s concentration here, with strawberry, elderberry and plum fruits on the nose and palate, with a bit of wood smoke and hints of roses, tea and orange peel. There’s a long mineral finish, the slow fade showing some youthful tartness at the end, a characteristic of this variety.
Ensure it partners robust foods with intense flavours. Consequently, I matched it with Bagna Càuda, the result nothing short of Piemontese perfection.
In short, Kyé is an explosion of flavours and ideas and deserves rediscovery and celebration. It’s an outstanding must-try wine. Xtrawine £28.22
These are wines of pleasure, but also of intelligence, that speak of their place and their maker. Indeed, the Vajra family describe their wines as “Wines that do not need to talk out loud or flex their muscles, but will touch the hearts of all”. They certainly touch mine.
Meanwhile, we still need to get to their Barolo! Please visit Part Two for three Vajra Cru Barolos.
Azienda Agricola G.D. Vajra,
Piazza delle Vite e del Vino, 1
12060 Barolo (C.N.)
- SQNPI, Sistema di Qualità Nazionale Produzione Integrata, or National Quality System for Integrated Production in Italy.
- Equalitas covers Italian agrifood and wine supply chains.
- Esca is a fungal disease that attracts the vine trunk, for which no treatment exists. It’s one of the major causes of global vine mortality and vineyard dieback. Flavescence Dorée is a bacterial infection for which there is no effective cure, with the leafhopper insect as a carrier. This has spread globally, encouraged by climate change.