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Partial Eclipse: Gaja's Ca' Marcanda
By Jim Clarke
Dec 19, 2017
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It couldn’t be correct to suggest that any of Angelo Gaja’s wines have been ignored or overlooked, but there is definitely a tendency to start all conversations about the wines in Barbaresco.  Given the quality, history, and the attention that Gaja’s Barbarescos have brought to that region, they certainly deserve the limelight.  However, sometimes that leaves less light than is deserved for other projects – such as Ca’ Marcanda, in Bolgheri, for example.

Ca’ Marcanda was Gaja’s second Tuscan purchase, after Pieve Santa Restituta, in Montalcino.  Gaja purchased the property in 1996, after lengthy negotiations.  According to his son, Giovanni, Angelo targeted the property after an examination of geological maps; the soils suggested a potential similar to that of Bolgheri’s leading pioneers, but the vineyards there were underachieving in the hands of the former owners.

The latter were not interested in selling; at best, they were willing to consider a partnership, with Gaja making the wines.  Over the course of 18 different visits, Gaja slowly wore them down, and was eventually able to purchase the property in 1996.  Hence, the name:  Ca’ Marcanda in Piedmont’s dialect translates as, “The House of Endless Negotiations.”  With 1997 as their maiden vintage, this year marks their 20th anniversary.

At all of Gaja’s properties they’ve been adapting over those two decades to the clear signs of climate change.   Giovanni Gaja says the warmer weather has made consistency easier to achieve, but has also pushed up alcohol levels and increased pest pressures -- several varieties of parasites are surviving the milder winters when the cold would have decimated them in the past.  “We focus on resilience, growing vines that are able to defend themselves even when we can’t be there.” Among other things, that’s meant a change in pruning procedures, and a push to maintain low yields.  “Low vigor means a long life.  High-yielding vines are more susceptible to disease.”

A change in rainfall patterns has also made it harder for the soils to retain moisture; while overall rainfall remains the same, fewer but stronger storms mean more run-off.  Cover crop management has helped with containing that moisture, and limiting erosion.

With the most recent releases, however, change has come not just to the vineyards, but to the winery.  In short, while the blend of the Promis will remain the same, the other reds will put more of an emphasis on Cabernet Franc, in the case of the Magari, and Cabernet Sauvignon for the eponymous Ca’ Marcanda itself.  The changes are effective as of the 2015 vintage.

The white, Vistamare, also changed a few vintages ago, shedding Sauvignon Banc and Chardonnay and leaving a 60/40 blend of Vermentino and Viognier.  The 2016 is concentrated and smooth, a medium-bodied wine with a mix of lemon, floral, and wild herb aromas.  It treads an elegant middle ground, fresh without being vapid, present but not ponderous or “trying-too-hard” heavy.

The Promis remains consistent in terms of its blend; the 2015 contains 55% Merlot, 35% Syrah, and 10% Sangiovese.  It’s designed to drink well in its youth, with a soft but not lush texture, but there are still tannins and structure on hand.  It’s generous with its aromatics, with floral, black cherry, and plum notes.  The finish is pleasingly long, with the floral touches dominating.

With 2015 the Magari, the middle child of Ca’ Marcanda’s three red wines, has turned to Cabernet Franc as its base; the grape comprises 60% of the blend alongside Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) and Petit Verdot (10%).  In the past Merlot would have played a large part -- 50% or so.  While this is a denser, more muscular wine than the Promis, it’s by no means austere; the tannins are silky and refined.  It’s less aromatic, at least at this point of its life, with classic “Bordeaux-blend” aromas of cassis and black plum up front and some supporting touches of spice.

It remains to be seen how the change in the Ca’ Marcanda flagship wine will manifest themselves; the 2015 is yet to be released.  In fact, Gaja chose not to make a 2014, so the 2013 is the most recent vintage available.  It’s another Bordeaux blend:  50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc.  That blend will change dramatically, again shedding the Merlot for an 80/20 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  Giovanni says that, as with the other wines, its fundamental character, especially in relation to its siblings, will stay relatively unchanged.  The 2013, if it’s any indication, promises a full-bodied structured wine, with fine tannins and good length.  Cassis, cigar box, and graphite aromas dominate.

While these sound like drastic changes in composition, the underlying soil characteristics remain the same, which may account for the consistent character of the wines, across vintages and in relation to one another.  The 250-acre Ca’ Marcanda property includes two soil types:  Darker, sandier soils nearer to the sea, with substantial amounts of clay, and lighter, rockier limestone soils further inland.  The Promis-Magari-Ca’ Marcanda spectrum moves from all dark soils to a mix to all light soils; and the character of the wines moves toward greater depth and power across that range, regardless of the blend.  So how does one say “plus ça change” in Piemontese?