G.D. Vajra the quiet achiever
As the popularity and acclaim for a wine region grows, so too can the hyperbole. Demand outstrips supply and some producers, assisted by effusive reviews, can quickly gain cult status. Just as quickly, the prices for such wines skyrocket.
Meanwhile, other producers continue to go about the business of making high-quality wines with a minimum of fuss, often flying under the radar. This situation is certainly true for the Barolo zone. And one of the producers quietly going about their business is Vajra.The family produce four Barolo wines under the Vajra label, plus three under the Baudana label.
The Vajra story is, as the family tells it, a simple one. In 1968, in an effort by his parents to curb some political activism, a 15-year-old Aldo Vaira (the family were spelling their name with an “i” at this time) was sent from the family home in Torino to stay with his grandparents on their property in Barolo. At a time when people were abandoning the countryside and moving to the cities in search of work, this seemed counter-intuitive. Yet it proved an epiphany for the young man; he had found his vocation, working the vineyards. Within a few years, whilst still a teenager studying agriculture, he took over management of the estate.
With the young man came fresh ideas. In 1971, the estate was the first of the region to gain organic certification. He created biotype (massal) selections to regenerate his nebbiolo and dolcetto vineyards, an important technique in nurturing the diversity and uniqueness of those vineyards. Speaking of dolcetto, young Aldo was willing to devote prime vineyard space to varieties that are lower in the Barolo zone pecking order.
Dolcetto is planted in the cru Barolo vineyards (known, since 2010, as Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva or MGA designated vineyards) of Coste di Vergne and Fossati, and the wine produced from these vines, under the Coste & Fossati label, is one of the best of its type that you will find. Innovation was mixed with tradition.
Vajra was the first to plant riesling in the Langhe, but Aldo also led the revival of freisa, a local variety that had been virtually forgotten. In later years, Aldo was one of the producers that pushed back against excessive use of oak in Barolo, redressing the market-led propensity to age the wines in new barriques.
One of the most recent developments in the Vajra story is the purchase of the Luigi Baudana property in Serralunga. Baudana is the name of the hamlet on the road going up the hill toward Serralunga from Fontanafredda, as well as the MGA name of a vineyard, as well as a family name. Even Luigi cannot say which came first in taking the name, the family or the place. Anyway, Luigi and his wife Fiorina were approaching retirement with no-one to whom they could pass on their small estate.
In 2008, Luigi and Aldo met with the aim of Vajra buying the business. But, so the story goes, the acquisition was made in a style typical of Aldo. Over the course of the summer of that year, there were many clandestine meetings between him and Luigi, walking the vineyards and tasting from the barrel. A bond was formed between the men. Only once there was a thorough understanding of the vines was the purchase finalised on the agreement that Vajra would maintain the Baudana name, continuing to make the wines in the small “garagiste” cellar in Serralunga and acting as a custodian of Luigi’s legacy.
Now the three children of Aldo and his wife Milena – Giuseppe, Francesca and Isidoro – are taking up the reins of running the company, maintaining their family tradition.
Following the outstanding showing of the two Barolo wines submitted by Vajra to the Nebbiolo Prima tasting, I recently visited their cellar in the middle of the small town of Vergne, on the very western edge of the Barolo DOCG.
Like many of the local producers enjoying the prosperity of the region over the last 20 or so years, Vajra has just finished renovating and expanding their cellar (At one stage, there were more cranes working on the renovation of cellars in the Langhe than you would see on the Sydney skyline!). It was Francesca who took me through a tasting which included, among others, the Langhe DOC Riesling Pétracine, the Dolcetto d’Alba DOC Coste & Fossati, and the Langhe DOC Freisa Kyé, and a barbera/freisa blend inspired by an old bottle found in the family cellar.*
There is undoubted quality across the range but the main focus was on the 2017 vintage Barolo and, despite the warm, drought conditions of that year (saved only by a good fall of rain in early September), it is with these wines that Vajra truly excels.
The family produce four Barolo wines under the Vajra label, plus three under the Baudana label, from holdings in a number of MGA vineyards.
Of the Vajra wines, fruit from the Fossati, Coste di Vergne and La Volta MGAs, all within the Barolo comune and at altitudes between 380 and 460m a.s.l., go into the gentler, earlier-drinking Albe Barolo.The jewel in the crown of the Vajra range is the Bricco delle Viole single-vineyard release.
Single vineyard releases are from Ravera, the premier vineyard in the neighbouring Novello comune and just 2km away as the crow flies, and from their most recent vineyard acquisition, Coste di Rose. Although it is the lowest in altitude of the Vajra holdings at 270-310m a.s.l., this site in the Barolo comune is interesting because of its Tortonian sandstone soils which are only found here, or at the top of the Cannubi hill and in a narrow vein between Rocche di Castiglione and Ginestra in Monforte d’Alba (the Barolo cognoscenti will recognise these names as amongst the best vineyards in the appellation), and which make the wine produced their most delicate and florally fragrant.
The jewel in the crown of the Vajra range is the Bricco delle Viole single-vineyard release. This vineyard, at 400-480m a.s.l. is, according to Vajra, “the highest in comune di Barolo and, historically, in the entire designation of Barolo”. Having a south-east to south-west aspect, it receives the full day’s sunlight, while at the higher altitude also getting the cooling breeze from the nearby Alps, leading to greater diurnal temperature variations. As a result the wine offers exceptional intensity of fruit combined with a flowing elegance that invariably places it amongst the best Barolo releases each vintage.
The Baudana wines from Serralunga, on the other hand, display the structure and power of the comune, more chiselled though not without a level of elegance. In this way, the Baudana wines both contrast with, and complement, the Vajra wines. Of the three Baroli produced, I tasted the two single-vineyard wines, the Comune di Serralunga wine not being available at the time.
The Baudana and Cerretta vineyards border each other but have different aspects and, as a result, quite different personalities. Baudana is richer and more fruit expressive, whilst the Cerretta is austere and architectural, often with a stony, mineral thread. Both wines can age magnificently. Like the Vajra wines, they are among the best of their comune.
Finally, apart from making outstanding wines, Vajra are also excellent communicators. For the 2017 vintage Barolo releases, they have produced a booklet that is a wealth of information and includes a simple but informative vintage chart, wonderful 3-D aerial views of the vineyards, accessed by QR code and created by the noted cartologist Alessandro Masnaghetti, and a very charming and poignant essay by the late Steven Spurrier—it is undoubtedly one of the last pieces he wrote. While the booklet will never be for sale, if you are offered one at a tasting or through the distributor, I heartily recommend you grab it.
Will this slightly effusive article lead to cult status for Vajra and a rapid rise in the price of their wines? I suspect not, though prices for Barolo will continue to steadily climb. One gets the sense that Vajra will carry on making their exceptional wines with a minimum of fuss, expressing both the terroir of their vineyards and the character of the family.
*The two freisa-based wines were served to me blind and, smiling behind her mask, Francesca asked me what I thought. I commented that maybe they were Barolo but from different comunes, one more rustic and old school. I was obviously wrong but, I will claim, not outrageously so—freisa has been found to be the nearest relative to nebbiolo, sharing some of the characteristics of its cousin. That, at least, is my story and I will stick to it!