Poised like a hawk on a rocky ledge, the FORTRESS OF GAVI has a commanding view of the Val Lemme. Below lies the village of Gavi, bisected by two medieval roads, while in the hazy distance the Lemme River and its flanking hills oscillate towards Genoa some 30 miles south. Since 973, this fortress has stood sentinel over the valley and its salt roads, those vital arteries that carried goods inland from Genoa’s port. It’s the Cerberus on the borderland between Liguria and the Po Valley, which the warring kingdoms of Genoa and Piedmont vied over for centuries.
A borderline personality
Gavi now belongs to Piedmont, but it was part of the Republic of Genoa until the 1800s, and locals still refer to it as Gavi Ligure. My husband, a native son, has as his proudest possession a silver coin from the Republic of Genoa that he extracted from his kitchen wall during renovations; dated 1796, it was probably hidden by some terrified paesano when Napoleon’s army bore down from the north.
Though the fort has lain dormant since World War II, Gavi is still a border zone—but now it’s a linguistic and gastronomic threshold, and a porous one at that. The local dialect is a mashup of Genovese and Piemontese. Gavi’s trattorie serve both pesto alla Genovese and Piedmont-style ravioli stuffed with meat (though the condiment here is wine—red dolcetto or white cortese—poured straight from the bottle over the heaping bowls of agnolotti).
All this helps explain the puzzle of Gavi wine, an isolated oasis of white in a sea of Piedmont red. Made from the CORTESE grape, the straw-colored, delicately perfumed Gavi (or Cortese di Gavi) feels more Ligurian in nature, a cousin to vermentino, pigato, or albarola. But cortese is not related to any of those seaside grapes. (Piedmont’s more obscure favorita grape is, being genetically identical to vermentino). Instead, cortese’s birthplace is just up the road near Tortona—well inside Piedmont’s boundaries. In essence, Gavi wine shares the same borderline personality as its namesake town.
Gavi's 19th century origins
As an Italian wine, Gavi has had its moments in the sun. Now is not one of them. But in the late 1800s and again in the 1960s, it was Italy’s most famous white wine.
It first gained cache thanks to Marchese Cambiaso, a nobleman who aspired to serve his titled guests something more distinguished than the rustic barbera and nebbiolo his own farmhands drank. White wine was more difficult to make, thus more special. So in 1876, Cambiaso initiated the first large-scale plantings of cortese. Other nobles followed suit, and gradually Gavi became a region of whites. This high-water mark ebbed a generation or two later, when grapes started being redirected to Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, et al to create the base for spumante.
Gavi’s second wave crested a century after Cambiaso, when Vittorio Soldati created LA SCOLCA’s black label Gavi dei Gavi. A savvy marketer, Soldati managed to get his wine into the trendsetting hotspots like the Orient Express and Paissa, a luxury food shop in Turin. By the 1970s, Gavi was Italy's most famous—and expensive—white wine.
Today, if asked to name the best white wines of Italy, chances are Gavi wouldn’t be the first to jump to mind. It’s facing stiff competition from the Veneto, Friuli, Campania, even Piedmont itself, where Arneis has become the new darling of the white-wine set.
That’s in part attributable to Gavi’s wan marketing efforts. The inability of local winemakers and their DOCG Consortium to muster a collective presence on the international stage is a real handicap. A constant reminder of this neglect sits forlornly at the end of town: the Enoteca di Gavi, the DOCG’s official showcase. Housed in an old slaughterhouse, the building was redone, painted a cheery pink, decorated with flowers, and officially inaugurated in 2006 before the scaffolding came down. But the enoteca has yet to open to the public—a symbol of inertia, if there ever was one.
Individually, however, Gavi winemakers are doing terrific work. If you ignore the bulk wines (and please do, since mass-produced Gavi is totally insipid), you’ll find plenty of great examples. Take BROGLIA’s La Meirana Gavi del Commune di Gavi. This cru has the distinction of coming from the oldest documented vineyard in the area—1041 years old, to be exact. According to a land deed in the church archives, a property called Meirana containing “vineyards and chestnut trees” was sold by the bishop to two freemen of Genoa in 971. La Meirana is textbook Gavi, with shimmering veils of white flower, citrus, and honeydew, followed by a long trail of minerality.
Another name to look for is LA GIUSTINIANA (above), which makes a good basic Gavi, plus two splendid cru from the chalky soil of the Rovereto subzone. This is a gorgeous property to boot, its stately neoclassical villa flanked by marble statues and towering chestnut trees. Built in 1625 by Captain Guistinana, a defender of the Fortress of Gavi, it evokes the patrician lifestyle once enjoyed in these hills, a summer escape from Genoa’s heat.
Cortese’s high acidity makes it a natural for sparkling wines (a fact recognized by Louis Oudart, the enologist who helped give birth to Barolo in the 1800s and the first to use cortese in a sparkler). Today only a few wineries make frizzante or spumante Gavi. Fortunately, VILLA SPARINA’s lovely Brut is exported. Made using the laborious metodo classico technique, this wine sits on its lees for three years, sharing space in the groin-vaulted cellar with homemade salumi dangling from iron hooks. Charming when young, the Brut gains an alluring creaminess and hazelnut character with time. I’ve tasted one that’s 12 years old, and it’s the best argument yet for Gavi’s ageability.
That longevity question was the theme at the premiere event of GOLDEN GAVI, a new promotional group (at last!) formed by nine wineries, with La Guistiniana winemaker Enrico Tomalino serving as president. The initiative launched in 2010 with a vertical tasting of 10 vintages at the Fortress of Gavi, and the group has started appearing at international trade events. More uniquely, these winemakers are promoting local enotourism by designing hiking and biking circuits that pass through their vineyards and presumably end up in someone’s cellar.
It gives hope. Meanwhile, I’ll grab a bottle for my pasta primavera and do my part to keep Gavi’s thousand-year history going. To do yours, try some of the following:
Villa Sparina, NV Brut, $27
La Giustiniana, Lugarara Gavi del Commune di Gavi, $15
Broglia, La Meirana Gavi del Commune di Gavi, $17
Picollo, Gavi del Commune di Gavi, $10