Gavi: Piedmont’s age-worthiest and most underrated white wine

Long before Arneis, Erbaluce and Timorasso started grabbing the headlines, Gavi was the go-to appellation for white wine in Piedmont: one of the few reliable sources of impeccably made whites in times when production in Italy was dominated by rustic quaffers that would oxidize in a heartbeat. 

Pioneers of quality Gavi like Giorgio Soldati, Nicola Bergaglio or the Moccagatta Family (Villa Sparina) started earning recognition early on, and they are often mentioned by other key producers as a source of inspiration. “ Gavi di Gavi by La Scolca was the benchmark white wine in Italy in the 1980s”  explained Renzo Cotarella, the CEO at Antinori and the man behind a critically acclaimed white from Umbria, Cervaro della Sala, during a visit to the Castello della Sala a few years ago.

Unfortunately, the appellation as a whole didn’t follow the same path: between the late 1980s and early 1990s, most producers took advantage of increasing demand for tart crowd-pleasers to sell grapes to big players from other parts of the region who were looking for something simple and cheap that could generate a quick cash flow or simply exploit the high-yield Cortese variety to make hoards of cheap wine for short-term consumption. 

The result is that Gavi has been partially overshadowed by some of its neighbors. It continues being one of the best-selling everyday Italian whites in a few countries –  most notably the United Kingdom and Germany –  but struggles to achieve higher positioning.

The good news is the overall quality has been steadily improving over the last two decades, and the best wines overdeliver for their price point. Even beyond the previously-mentioned names, you will find a good number of under-the-radar gems by a mix of recently established wineries and long-running ones that have leveled up their game.

Most importantly, quality Gavi ages gracefully. Like many whites made with neutral grapes and seeing little or no oak, it starts quite discreetly and then blossoms with bottle aging, gaining volume and breadth without losing its typical brightness. Although still limited, the availability of older vintages is constantly growing, with an ever-greater number of producers offering late releases or including multiple vintages in their portfolio.

Discovering Gavi 

Location

Lying in the southeastern corner of Piedmont, the Gavi appellation encompasses ten towns, with the namesake village at its core. Bordering the city of Genoa in Liguria, it is one of the few wine-growing areas in northern Italy where the climate becomes cooler and the elevations higher as you head south. The snow-capped peak of Monte Tobio stands on the southern limit, and the hills get steeper as you approach Liguria. 

The landscape is still rugged and almost pristine: woods surround the vineyards, which lie on tongue-like hills ranging between 180 to 450 meters above sea level, with no traces of intensive agriculture and very little building speculation. It gives you an idea of what more densely planted districts such as Langhe or Monferrato used to look like half a century ago. 

History 

Neoclassic villas, imposing medieval fortresses and Romanesque churches hint at the historical prominence of this area, which used to lie on the salt route, a key artery for trade in the Middle Ages. 

The Genoese influence is over all the place, and some of the aristocratic dynasties from the Ligurian chief-town founded the longest-running estates in the area. The earliest witnesses of viticulture in Gavi are actually found in the state archive of Genoa: a document dating back to 972 refers to a vineyard that was leased by the bishops of the Ligurian city to two citizens of Gavi. The first mention of the Cortese grape appears, instead, in a letter sent by the genoese Marquis Doria to the Monaldeo Castle in 1659.

Climate 

The Ligurian sea lies only 27 km (16 miles) away from the heart of the appellation as the crow flies, so the climate is less continental than in most other areas of Piedmont. “ Valleys in the middle of the Appennines allow maritime breezes to reach Gavi – explained Gianni Fabrizio, the Piedmont reviewer for the Gambero Rosso guide and a renowned Gavi expert – their influence has a fundamental impact on the climate of this area”. 

Temperatures remain mild throughout the crucial months of the growing cycle of the vines. The proximity to the Ligurian mountains means heat spikes are relatively rare, and that diurnal swings are meaningful (but not extreme). Although Piedmont has suffered from one of highest drops in total annual rainfalls over the last decade, showers continue to abound in Gavi. 

“ In general, the Gavi area suffers less from climate change than many other parts of Piedmont – stated David Ferrarese, the agronomic consultant of Consorzio Gavi – the rich biodiversity plays a crucial role, and the fact Cortese is one of the few white grapes that are able to recover from hydric stress quickly also helps. Still to this date the wines retain moderate alcohol by volume, weighing in between 12 and 13.5%, while in the past they would struggle to reach 11%”.

Even so, the Consorzio vino  Gavi is working closely with Ferrarese to develop useful resources for its members. For instance, they  planted five weather stations among the vineyards, allowing any producer to monitor the situation in real time. They also conducted thorough studies during each of the crucial moments of the growing cycle to evaluate variations on a yearly basis. 

Geology

Like in Langhe, Colli Tortonesi and Oltrepò Pavese, the vineyards in Gavi lie on the ancient seabed of the Adriatic sea. But the unique geology of Gavi is evident by just glancing at the hills: red and white soils create a patchwork of different colors.

Producers often refer to these soils as “terre rosse” (red lands) and “terre bianche” (white lands). The former contain higher proportions of iron and clay, while the latter mostly consist of limestone and sand. Even though geology is just one of many factors shaping the profile of a wine, examples from parcels on terre rosse tend to taste a bit richer and more textural, while those from vineyards on terre bianche are lighter and more acidity-driven. 

Gavi retrospective

The Consorzio Vino Gavi has finally understood the importance of showcasing the wines’ ageability to prove what Gavi is really worth, so they organized multiple retrospectives during a recent event.

Starting from the young wines, it is by no means difficult to understand why entry-level Gavi enjoys so much success as an everyday wine: light, taut and neutral, it stands out a reliable option for consumers who favor crisp acidity over fruit richness, making a perfect aperitif or matching light seafood dishes. 

In the early stages, you really feel the difference between Gavi and Gavi del Comune di agavi. The latter originates from the sole township of Gavi, which is where you find the greatest concentration of top-notch vineyards, and usually shows a tad more refinement and complexity. 

But things get completely different with longer aging – even the simplest versions may turn into something considerably more attractive with a little cellaring. Cortese contains noteworthy quantities of TDN, the same molecule that shapes the tertiary aromas of Riesling, so the wines tend to develop Riesling-like nuances of smoke, marzipan, and diesel fuel. On the other hand, mature Gavi also retains a distinctive savory bite – describing it a happy medium between Mosel and Chablis might sound like an exaggeration yet the best versions mix elements of the two styles.

The cellaring potential of Gavi highly depends upon the outcome of the vintage: those from warmer ones tend to develop tertiary aromas at a faster pace, with examples from the scorching hot 2017 vintage already starting to approach their peak. Conversely, milder vintages like 2016 and 2013 are evolving slowly. 

Anyways, the most surprising wines I tasted on this occasion were the 2007 and 2008 GG by Cantina Produttori di Gavi: still intact in their pale straw color, anticipating youthful profiles with just a touch of diesel fuel complicating fruits and florals. Still glaringly energetic, these wines still have a long life ahead of them. Considering how affordable the latest vintages are, my suggestion is to buy them now and forget them in the cellar.

One of the big questions is how do you recognize a late-release Gavi from one that has been stored for too long? Well, the truth is you shouldn’t be too afraid of leftover bottles, as they still offer a lot of enjoyment if they have been properly kept. Technically, however, late-release Gavi should sport a Riserva denomination. Unfortunately, those who created the category overcomplicated the rules, making it compulsory to pair the Riserva mention with a single-vineyard designation. 

Regulations have recently been revised but producers are still reluctant to label their top wines as Riserva. “ The problem is you have to choose which wines to make Riserva from already during fermentation – stated Michelangelo Ghio, the owner of Binè – and with Gavi you aren’t sure about which lot has the best potential for the long haul until the end of aging”. Only four producers currently produce a Gavi Riserva, while the vast majority of quality-oriented wineries simply offer a late-release Gavi without a specific designation.

So, in the end, the best way to discover which back vintages of Gavi you should go for is by knowing the producers. 

Four Gavi producers to know

Cult – La Scolca – Celebrating the 105th anniversary of its foundation in 2024, La Scolca is the leading estate in the Gavi area. Now led by Chiara Soldati, the great-granddaughter of founder Giorgio Soldati, the estate spans roughly 40 hectares and produces good volumes of classically-styled Gavi, plus an outstanding top-shelf wine, D’Antan, which spends 15 years on the lees before release.

Big – Cantina Produttori Gavi – Founded in 1951, this cooperative winery gathers over 65 growers and manages 240 hectares. While it supplies large quantities of Gavi to other producers, the wines sporting the “Produttori del Gavi” brand are absolute best-buys, drinking well upon release but also evolving slowly, as shown by an eye-opening vertical tasting held during our visit 

Up-and-coming – Binè – The Ghio family stopped selling grapes and started producing their wine in 2016. They farm eleven hectares organically, making no more than 40,000 bottles of high quality Gavi, including one of the few Riserva on the market. The winery also houses a B&B. 

Natural – La Raia – The Rossi Cairo family manages this estate and wine resort in the heart of the appellation, farming 48 hectares biodynamically. Low-intervention winemaking means the wines often show a bit of tertiary complexity at an early stage but that doesn’t detract from their cellaring potential.

Hospitality in Gavi

The strategic location has made Gavi one of the most important areas for wine tourism in Piedmont. La Raia, Villa Sparina and La Bollina are just a few of the many estates that house a wine resort and an osteria (and even a golf course in the latter case!). There are many activities to do within a short distance, including strolling in the woods, hiking in the Ligurian Apennines, visiting the city of Genoa and the seaside villages of Camogli, Portofino, and Santa Margherita Ligure. Other wine-growing areas such as Colli Tortonesi and Oltrepò Pavese are also easy to reach from Gavi.

The tasting report

In this tasting brief, you will find a mix of new releases and back vintages proving the aging potential of Gavi. 

Check out the report with the best Gavi to try