When it comes to ageless art, the Italians certainly understand sensuality. A catalog of the masters, from Anguissola to Zandomeneghi, is a showroom of sumptuousness; a busty, broiling fleshpot.
Though radical for its time, Renaissance art wasn’t a discovery of physical voluptuous so much as a resurrection of it. The glory inherent in the naked form—its sheer vitality, passion, turgidity and especially, its sexuality—had been a defining theme of the Greeks and Romans for millennia. Greco-Roman figures, sculpted and painted during the centuries before and immediately after the birth of Christ, are vigorous and poised, athletic and graceful, both beautiful and threatening, and as beings, quintessentially virile.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, this style was repressed for a thousand years, giving rise to the solemn, shadow-free art of the Middle Ages. The most striking feature of Byzantine art, for example, is its flatness. Depth is shunned; there are no three-dimensional people. Human beings are seen as saint-like and pious, not lusty creatures driven to fruitful multiplication by our time-honored tradition of hanky-panky. The subjects in medieval art are never nude—instead, they are clad resplendently in robes and often crowned with golden halos. As a representative whole they are serene, stylized and sexless people, which means, by biological standards, they are not people at all. Unlike the squirming figures depicted in Renaissance art, Medieval paintings contain no roiling, hyper-pumped physiques, no bounteous breasts, no impending physical energy from flexing muscles—and no penises.
The celebration of human anatomy by Renaissance artists—especially (and specifically) Christ’s penis, was not an appeal to our baser instincts, but the opposite. Christ is portrayed as totemically human, a godhead on a brief earthly hiatus—and the most fundamental demonstration of his manhood is his manhood. His assumption of a mortal coil is not meant to be sexual except, perhaps, in the abstract; Christ is eternally chaste. But it is an embrace of our physiology and is meant to demonstrate his indelible link to humankind.
As such, the non-divine, non-chaste characters in Renaissance art, writhing and tactile, pressing flesh into flesh and churning with lust, demonstrate an indelible love for the experience of living and loving.
This aggressively naturalistic style of painting is often referred to as ‘Florentine’ because its seeds were sown in the 13th century by Florence-born artist Giotto di Bondone. Giotto’s figures were among the first to wear genuine human expressions rife with drama and emotion. Like most progress of the era, this interpretive style was derailed during the Black Death (1346-1353), but the Florentine School re-ignited in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with the emergence of the movement’s most lauded geniuses, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Lippi, Masaccio and Botticelli.
Meanwhile, fifty miles south of Florence, the town of Montalcino enjoys one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany. The region’s heralded wine is produced from Sangiovese—the grape that is to Tuscan wine what fresco is to the Sistine Chapel: Raw material awaiting the master’s caress.
Brunello de Montalcino was the first Italian wine region to be awarded the designation of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), and today, there are about two hundred producers who make it. The unscored history of wine in the region probably dates to the Etruscans, who domesticated these hills ten thousand years ago, but the first mention of the potent wines of Brunello occurred in the 14th century—the era of the Renaissance’s blast-off. That was the point when people were still calling the grape itself Brunello, which means ‘brown’, and it wasn’t until 1879 that the Province of Siena’s Amphelographic Commission realized the grape was actually Sangiovese.
Sienna, according to my Old Masters oil painting kit, also means ‘brown’, although what ‘Amphelographic’ means is anybody’s guess.
In a perfect incarnation, Brunello di Montalcino is big, fleshy and voluptuous, never angular, ever rotund and powerful—the Rubens of reds. And in Tuscany, as convincingly as in the Piedmont, nobody comes consistently closer to hedonistic perfection than Angelo Gaja.
At 76, Angelo Gaja still works his family’s eponymous estate as he has since 1961, the vintage that produced a Barbaresco hailed as ‘the most profound bottling of its designation ever produced.’ By that point, the Gajas had been making wine in the Piedmont since 1859, and enjoyed an unwavering reputation for their commitment to quality. Angelo inherited a legacy, and he might have gone the path of least resistance: That of the dutiful heir following protocol, heralding in another century of solid, reliable, traditional wine. In general, creative trailblazing has been frowned upon in Italy—as mentioned above, it took hidebound Italian artisans a millennium to rediscover the scrotum. When it comes to cutting edges, wine has been no exception.
But Angelo Gaja is an innovator—this is a man who in 1978 ripped out an established Nebbiolo vineyard in the middle of Barbaresco and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, then named the plot after his father’s horrified exclamation ‘Darmagi!’, Italian for ‘What a pity!’.
Of course, Angelo’s goal was never change for the sake of change—quality wine is the lifeblood of the Gaja name and the eternal objective of the estate. His boldest moves have been with an eye, nose and palate to upping the end game. Besides re-introducing Cabernet Sauvignon in Nebbiolo country, he pioneered the use of small barriques to soften the contours of rough, tannic Barbaresco, the better to extenuate the fruit-focused, titillating beauty he saw as intrinsic to the component grape. He idealized the rousing elegance and demure dignity of the region’s superstar and instilled a new interpretation within it, a new life—not dissimilar to the way Sandro Botticelli took the heavily robed female stick figures painted by his predecessors and gave them curves and personalities.
In Botticelli’s magnum opus, The Birth of Venus, the goddess stands in dynamic contrapposto, poised and relaxed, bold and modest simultaneously. Meanwhile, Wine Spectator proclaimed 1985 Gaja Barbaresco ‘the finest wine ever made in Italy’.
And true to Italy Angelo Gaja remains. In 1989, approached by Robert Mondavi for a joint venture in California, Gaja concluded that it would be like ‘a mosquito having sex with an elephant: very dangerous and not much pleasure’. But Tuscany proved a different matter. In 1994, Angelo Gaja bought a controlling interest in Pieve Santa Restituta in the southwest subzone of Brunello di Montalcino. Named for the 4th Century parish church of Saint Restituta, the property consists of forty chalky acres of hillside a thousand feet above sea level. The considerable energy of the Piedmont-based Gaja clan has been funneled into Montalcino for this project, and the first release came in 2005 to the same plaudits they’ve received in the north. The wine is blended from the estate’s top sites in Sugarille, Santo Pietro, Castagno and Pian dei Cerri, and sees twelve months in barriques and another year in large, thirty-year-old casks.
Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino, 2011, about $75
2011 was an interesting growing season in Tuscany, with heat from Africa pushing temperatures so high through August that harvest happened three weeks early. This was to preserve freshness, as grape acids tend to fall off quickly during prolonged heat waves. Some drought conditions were observed in central Italy, but in the deep soils of Montalcino, Sangiovese remained crisp and crunchy and nicely resistant to fluctuations in the water table.
Structure and polish are table stakes for a Gaja Brunello, but the lusciousness here is astonishing: There is cold red brilliance in the nose, and I imagine that if the Sunrise Ruby cast a scent, this would be it. Luxe, concentrated fresh cherry notes are underscored by red currant and wood smoke; the mouth is whistle sharp and layered with fruit and tertiary notes of juniper, truffle, and cinnamon. The tannins are settled, but by no means restrained—this is wine to survive another decade in the cellar, but if you serve it tonight, go with a slab of red meat—the color of both the wine and the flowing locks of Botticelli’s Venus.
Is Angelo Gaja the Giotto of the Italian wine renaissance? In my mind, the question is rhetorical. Of course he is. In Tuscany, he is also the Botticelli, and perhaps he is also his namesake, Michelangelo, rolled into a single, vital, contemporary package.
His wines have the heft of the Deity’s finger extended to Adam, the carnal candor of naked David poised with his weapon and the svelte sensuality of Venus rising heavenward from her symbolic, scallop-shell vulva.