Text and photos © Scott W Clemens
For the epicurean traveler, Northern Italy is a revelation of spectacular vistas, romantic hill towns, unexpectedly diverse cultures, wonderful food, and a plethora of finely crafted wines from indigenous grapes. To get an idea of the geography, draw a line from east to west from Trieste to Genoa. Everything above the line (the top of Italy’s boot) is considered Northern Italian. These mountainous regions are bounded by France, Switzerland, Austria and Croatia, each of which has had some historical influence on its neighbor. In this regard, Northern Italy is more cosmopolitan than the South. But Italy’s northern regions are far from homogeneous; they’re divided by dialect, food, wine, historical ties and culture. On the eastern side you have Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and the Veneto. Lombardia makes up the center portion. The Valle d’Aosta, Piemonte and Liguria lie in the Northwestern corner of Italy.
The tourist who concentrates on architecture or gastronomy while ignoring the people is missing a large part of the charm and fascination of Italy. However, if your impression of Italians comes from Fellini movies, or even from the Food Network, you’re in for a shock. Not only is Northern Italy so drastically different from the South, but Italian culture and society is in the midst of a profound cultural evolution.
The prevailing impression that most Americans (Italian-Americans included) have of Italy is based on the large influx of poor southern Italians to this country in the first three decades of the 20th century. The stereotypical Italian family is large, easy-going, passionately opinionated, multi-generational, and has a dominant Mama presiding over the kitchen, where family affairs come together over a boisterous made-from-scratch meal.
The stereotypes may have had a basis in fact in the 1940’s, but just as the U.S. of the 1940’s seems like a foreign country from the perspective of the 21st century, the same is true for Italy. The truth is that today Italian families are no longer large; in fact, Italy has a declining population. Just as in the U.S., there has been a huge shift from single to double wage earner families, they are starting their families later and having fewer children. As to the family coming together over the dinner table, fully half the population now eats dinner while watching television, and the trend is toward convenience foods. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that an astonishing 83% of Italians still eat lunch at home.
Northern Italy is a borderland, and the people there share some of the characteristics of their cross-border cousins. For Piemonte that means the French, for Val d’Aosta and the lakes region that means Swiss; the Alto Adige shares a large Austrian influence, and Friuli has ties to Slovenia.
PIEMONTE – Part One: Langhe, Roero, Barolo
Piemonte (foot of the mountains) or Piedmont (English spelling), in the Northwestern corner of Italy, is an area of rolling hills and hilltop castles. These are the foothills of the Central Alps to the north, the Maritime Alps to the west, and the Ligurian Appenines to the south. Though often lost in haze, the alps provide a dramatic backdrop on clear winter days or after a summer shower.
Piemonte’s population is largely urban, as 60% live in Milano (Milan) and Torino (Turin). I prefer to fly into Torino, the center of Italy’s automotive industry, the home of Fiat, of Lavazza espresso, hot chocolate, and the vermouth of Martini & Rossi and Cinzano. It’s a fine city to visit, with upscale shopping arcades, inviting cafés, the best collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt, and the Salone del Gusto food fair in October each year, where you can indulge your appetite for Piemonte’s famous white truffles (http://www.salonedelgusto.com/welcome_eng.lasso). The wine tourist may want to linger a day or two in the city, but the real interest for the oenophile is east and south of Torino.
Piemonte is home to several of Italy’s best known wines, as well as some more obscure varieties that are worth getting to know if you visit the area. Among dozens of indigenous grapes, the reds include Nebbiolo, Barbara, Dolcetto, Malvasia, Freisa and Grignolino, while indigenous white varieties include Arneis, Cortese, Favorita and Moscato. Grapes have been growing in the area since long before human cultivation. Archeologists have found fossilized vine leaves 25,000-years-old.
The two regional centers of wine production are Asti and Alba. Asti (known for its Barbera and Asti Spumante) is the principal town of the Monferrato region, east and south of Torino, while Alba is the principal town of the Langhe and Roero hills, another 25 kilometers south of Asti. Though local wineries often make wines from both areas, for our purposes of wine and food tourism, we’ll start with Langhe, Roero and Barolo, then move north to Monferrato.
LANGHE AND ROERO
Originally settled by Celts and later by Romans, Alba is a small town with a well-preserved center of Medieval to Renaissance buildings, interesting shops and many events promoting the local wine and food culture.
Produce at Alba’s Saturday open-air market
In April, when cottonwood flurries fill the air like snow, the wine producers stage the Alba Wines Exhibition, which is open to the public and is well attended by people from across Europe (to inquire about next year’s exhibition, email firstname.lastname@example.org). The exhibition, held at the city’s modern exhibition hall, is hosted by producers who hope to gain champions of the newly released vintages in general and of their own wines in particular. September sees the Festa Del Vino, a vast outdoor wine tasting that winds through the streets and squares of the town, and Gianni Gagliardo’s Barolo Auction (see sidebar). During the truffle fair in early October the buildings are decorated with colorful flags of the competing districts that participate in the Palio (a race through the streets on mules). Saturday is market day, when the streets and squares are filled with vendors of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, clothing, perfume, tools, kitchen equipment, rugs, draperies, books, bedding, electronic gadgets, toys, handbags, luggage and anything else I may have forgotten to mention. Alba is a vibrant town, as well as one of the centers for enological and viticultural study in Italy.
The two hotels closest to the city center are I Castelli, a modern affair across the street from the Ferrero candy factory, a couple of blocks from the cathedral, and the Savona, an older European-style hotel near Piazza Savona in the thick of the restaurant, coffee bar and shopping district. I love Alba, but it’s easy to see in a day, and if you want to really immerse yourself in the countryside, there are excellent bed-and-breakfast inns either associated with wineries or adjacent to vineyards (see below).
Most wineries here produce a range of red and white wines from the local varieties, but the area’s reputation is firmly staked on Barolo, which vies with Tuscany’s Brunello for the crown of best Italian red wine. Barbaresco’s reputation isn’t much behind. Both Barolo and Barbaresco are made from Nebbiolo, the grape grown in the hills between Alba and Monforte 15 kilometers to the south. The same grape is responsible for the far less expensive Nebbiolos of the Langhe hills around Alba and of the Roero hills across the Tanaro River. All four Nebbiolo based wines are grown within a few miles of each other on some of the hilliest, most convoluted landscape in Italy, providing tremendously diverse exposures, soils and microclimates. But comparisons are nearly impossible to quantify because despite overlapping appellations, the wines of each are subjected to different aging regimes by law. So in reviewing the Nebbiolo wines from this area in any particular year you’ll find different vintages available from each wine type; for instance, the newly available Barolo will be a year older than the Barbaresco, which will in turn be a year older than the currently available Nebbiolo di Roero and Nebbiolo D’Alba (sometimes labeled simply Roero or Langhe without the grape appended). So you see, it’s apples and oranges; the vintages are different and the time they spend in barrel and in bottle are different; they’re even handled differently in the vineyard. Nonetheless, classic Nebbiolo has in common the glorious scent of red roses and truffles, while the fruit may wander the spectrum from strawberry to cherry, to raspberry and plum.
The price differential between these wines is huge; with few exceptions Barolo is more expensive than Barbaresco, while the Nebbiolos of Roero and Alba are downright cheap. The wines of Roero are usually more supple, faster maturing wines that are in balance from the get-go, and in that respect they not only represent a good value, they are more in line with most consumers’ tastes.
If you want to learn about and appreciate Barolo, the area’s most famous wine, tasting young wines (such as those available during the Alba Wines Exhibition, or at winery tasting rooms) is probably not the best idea. The problem is this: young Nebbiolos are incredibly tannic and hard to judge. They are, in short, ugly babies. They can be charming toddlers and elegant adults, but at the onset they’re a difficult lot to love. Tasting wines six months before they hit the shelves, and three to five years before consumers should be drinking them, is problematic. Thirty or forty years ago Barolo was made incredibly tannic, undrinkable for the first decade, and only showing its best after twenty or thirty years, by which time there was little fruit character left. Times have changed and young Barolos are less tannic than their traditional counterparts. Still, tasting young Nebbiolo requires a different mind-set than Cabernet, Syrah or Sangiovese. Nebbiolo starts out with enormous tannins (those astringent compounds that make your tongue feel like dry sandpaper). It doesn’t seem to matter whether the wine is dark and full bodied, or light in color and body; the tannins are always substantial. Tannin is a positive influence in wines that are meant to be aged; it acts as a preservative and gives the wine some structure. Over time these astringent compounds precipitate out with some pigments, leaving the aged wine smoother and better balanced. This process is often referred to as “resolving the tannins.” However, a young Cabernet, Sangiovese, Merlot or Syrah with the same level of perceived tannins one finds in a young Nebbiolo, would most likely never “resolve;” the tannins would remain overpowering as the fruit dried out. As a professional taster, I’ve found I have to recalibrate my scales when I taste young Nebbiolo. I’ve made notes on wines that say, “unbearably tannic,” “undrinkable,” “so tannic it will never resolve” — only to find that after two or three more years in the bottle the wine is beautifully balanced, smooth and elegant. It defies logic, but that’s the way Nebbiolo behaves; it drops tannin faster than any other wine I’ve ever experienced. After just a few years of aging Nebbiolo becomes “elegant and delicate,” having far more in common with Pinot Noir than with Cabernet Sauvignon. While it’s true that modern Barolo is more approachable when young, you’ll be disappointed tasting any Barolo five-years-old or younger. But why ruin the experience? — That ugly baby and awkward toddler grows into a raving beauty between 8 and 10 years after the vintage, and will continue to develop for another decade after that. So give the wine the time it needs, because you’ll be well rewarded. A properly aged Barolo is one of the most stunning wines produced on the planet.
The younger wines show at their best in tandem with the typical dishes of Piemonte, such as vitello al tonno, stuffed and breaded zucchini blossoms, agnolotti al plin, and the wonderful local cheeses — Castelmagno, Gorgonzola, Toma, Ciabot and a host of others. Of particular note, The Enoclub restaurant off of Piazza Savona in Alba has a wine list that is guaranteed to make any wine lover salivate. Older vintages of the local wines, as well as a large selection from the best producers from all around Italy, are a fraction of the price you’d pay in the states. However, if the younger wines are best experienced with food, the very best Barolo, properly aged, is best left to satisfied contemplation one sip at a time.
If you find Barolo or Barbaresco too daunting, other more approachable local wines include Dolcetto and Barbera (considered the local everyday reds), and the whites made from Arneis and Favorita. Other Piemontese wines of note are the whites of Gavi, made from the Cortese grape grown a little further east in the province of Alessandria, and the light non-sparkling Moscato d’Asti, as well as the sparkling Asti Spumante, mostly grown in the area between the towns of Asti and Canelli.
|Castello Grinzane Cavour, site of the Enoteca Regionale for all of Piemonte|
Any Enoteca Regionale is worthy of a visit. These should be differentiated from the enotecas (wine stores) you see on every street. An Enoteca Regionale presents for tasting and sale the wines of many local producers. The wines must pass through a selection process by a commission that guarantees the quality level. In addition, many of the Enoteca Regionale today have very good restaurants associated with them. These restaurants vary from formal to informal, but all serve variations on Piemontese cuisine.
There are, in the area around Alba, Enoteca Regionale specific to each production area: Barbaresco, Barolo, Roero, Canelli and Moscato. However, if you have time to visit just one Enoteca Regionale, it should be the one at Grinzane Cavour castle, just a short drive south of Alba. Located in a beautifully preserved castle built between the 12th and 16th centuries, this enoteca allows you the opportunity to taste from an entire range of 300 wines and 40 grappe (the distilled product of grape skins) from the surrounding area. Hour long guided tours of the castle take place throughout the day. The castle also houses a professional cooking school and a restaurant. If you have time to visit another Enoteca Regionale, make it the Enoteca Regionale del Roero in Canale, about 20 minutes north of Alba. Here you can taste an exceptionally wide range of Roero wines, from the red Barbera D’Alba and Nebbiolo D’Alba, to the white Arneis, Favorita and Gavi, as well as more obscure varieties such as Bonarda. Upstairs is the one-star Michelin restaurant, all’Enoteca. Chef Davide Palluda, who was born in Canale, presents typical Roero dishes with a flair.
WINE TOURING BY TOWN
If you only want to taste the wines I recommend the various Enoteca Regionale. However, if you’re interested in absorbing more local color, you will want to visit some of the wineries which are scattered among the 11 wine towns of the Barolo area, which include Grinzane Cavour, Ciano d’Alba, Roddi, Verduno, La Morra, Novello, Cherasco, Monforte d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Barolo. Many wineries are small enough that you will need an appointment to visit, while larger wineries may have a visitor center with a tasting room and gift shop. Do not suppose that the following vignettes apply to the only wineries worth seeing; they are merely a representative sampling of some of the wineries where I know you’ll be well received.
If you’re staying in Alba and you don’t have a car, you can still visit one of the area’s most famous wineries, which is located within the city limits. Established in 1881 by Pio Cesare, the winery that carries his name is run by his great-grandson, Pio Boffa. Boffa creates a full line of Piemontese wines from the winery’s 125 acres of vineyards spread among the various districts, from sparkling Asti Spumante, and the whites of Arneis, Gavi and even Chardonnay, to the indigenous reds of Freisa, Grignolino, Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo. The winery’s top wines are the single vineyard “Ornato” Barolo, and my favorite, the Il Bricco vineyard Barbaresco. Call ahead for an appointment.
If you have time to visit only one winery in the Barolo area, I recommend you visit Fontanafredda, which has an excellent visitor facility, winery tours, a restaurant, and a bed and breakfast inn.
The estate was built in 1858 as a hunting lodge of the first King of Italy, Victor Emanuel II, a member of the Savoy family. All of the buildings are striped with the brown and ochre Savoy colors.
Fontanafredda with its distinctive stripes of the Savoy kings
The winery was established in 1878 by Count Emanuel Guerrieri di Mirafiori, first son of Victor Emanuel and his mistress, Rosa Vercellana (Countess Mirafiori). In Serralunga d’Alba, in the Barolo production area, the winery was originally named “Mirafiori Vini Italiani.” It went bankrupt in 1931 and was taken over by the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Pashi di Sienna (founded 1472). The bank sold the rights to the name Mirafiori and renamed the winery Fontanafredda (cold fountain). Being owned by a distant corporate entity is rarely a formula for success, but this is obviously a very unusual bank. The directors have seen fit to fund improvements, and they leave the day to day running of the winery to the very able team of General Manager Giovanni Minetti and Oenologist Danilo Drocco, who have been at the helm for many years.
Today the estate is a self-contained hamlet, with a church and school for the twenty families of workers living on the estate. Fontanafredda is the largest winery in the region, producing 6 million bottles (500,000 cases), of which a little more than half is sparkling wine, mainly Asti Spumante. The balance is made up of Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Pinot Nero, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Arneis, Gavi, Moscato and Chardonnay. Its 450,000 bottles (37,500 cases) of Barolo account for about 8% of the total Barolo production. The winery owns 170 acres of vineyards in Serralunga, Diano D’Alba and Barolo, which is immense in an area where most vineyards are divided into small plots of a half acre or less, and recently bought another 55-acre Barbera vineyard in the Monferrato region. Yet its own vineyards supply just 10% of Fontanafredda’s production, the balance coming from long term contracts with 500 small growers overseen by Vineyard Manager Alberto Grasso. Despite its relatively large size (it’s a medium-sized winery by California standards), Fontanafredda has an enviable reputation for quality. The production facility displays a thoughtful balance between tradition and innovation. The wines are organized into three tiers, from the most expensive single vineyard designated Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto and Moscato, to wines from a particular comune, such as Barolo di Serralunga D’Alba, to wines that are blended from many comunes and vineyards for consistency.
Multi-lingual guided tours of the winery with wine tasting are available from 9:30 to 11:00 and 3:30 to 5:00 every day of the week, but reservations are recommended (tel. 0173.626191, or email email@example.com). In 2003 the company built Villa Contessa Rosa Ospitalita, an eleven room hotel set beside the Royal Villa which houses the restaurant. A large tasting room and gift shop round out the winery’s many attractions.
The Rivetto family entered the wine business 104 years ago in the center of Alba. In 1939 they purchased the 89 acre estate of Loirano of Count Vassallo, on top of a hill facing the 14th century Castello Serralunga D’Alba. The castle, incidentally, is open to the public every day but Monday and affords fantastic views from its two towers. Sergio, the patriarch, is assisted by his sons Alessandro and Enrico in producing small amounts of Arneis, Dolcetto, Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Nebbiolo D’Alba.
The Rivettos show signs of becoming innovators. In a highly unusual move in this traditional area, they turned their property into an agriturismo (agriturismo refers to a tourist oriented working farm), and if you are lucky enough to visit Piemonte you will want to spend at least a couple of days at Rivetto’s agriturismo, where you can enjoy the view from your luxury accommodations, tour the cellars, taste the wines, walk among the vines and hazelnut trees, and relax on your terrace overlooking the valleys and hills beyond — all for a mere 70 Euros a night with breakfast (400 Euro for a week). An adjacent restaurant is in the planning stages. The Rivettos also recently opened a tasting room on Piazza Garibaldi in Alba, twenty miles north of the winery. I like Rivetto’s Nebbiolo-based wines, though Dolcetto and Barbera seem to be Rivetto’s strength.
Hillside vineyards below the town of La Morra
If you visit Piedmont you must make the drive up to La Morra, a tiny hilltop town with a giant view, and a big impact on Barolo, as 34% of all Barolo comes from the surrounding hillsides. At the very top of the hill you’ll find the church and the aptly named Ristorante Belvedere (Beautiful View), a fourth generation restaurant where you can take in the panorama while enjoying some of Piedmont’s exquisite cuisine with the local wines.
Just down a narrow street below the main square is an unassuming two story building that houses the Rocche Costamagna residence and winery. The winery is tucked into the basement. Because of its size, it’s imperative that you make an appointment or you may find no one at home.
The Costamagna family began growing grapes in the early 19th century, and founded the commercial winery in 1841. It operated continuously for more than 100 years. In 1948, a few years after the death of Riccardo Costamagna, his widow Maddalena closed down the winemaking operation. She did, however, continue to sell grapes to other wineries.
In the 1960s Maddalena’s niece, Claudia Ferraresi and her husband Giorgio Locatelli renovated the winery, planted new vineyards and revived commercial winemaking. Today, their son Alessandro runs the winery, concentrating on organic farming and winemaking.
The winery owns a total of 35 acres of vineyards (some more than 1,000 feet above sea level), and produces about 7,000 cases of two different styles of Barolo, one aged in large old casks in the traditional manner, the other in small barrels. Rocche Costamagna also makes about 3,000 cases of two single vineyard Barberas, as well as Dolcetto D’Alba, and a Nebbiolo from the Langhe. Whites include an Arneis and a Chardonnay, both of which are kept from undergoing malolactic fermentation to retain their crisp acidity. The Arneis is aged six months in stainless steel on the yeast lees. The Chardonnay is partially barrel fermented with six months on the lees. Alessandro is also experimenting with Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Without a doubt my favorite of Rocche Costamagna’s wines is the Barolo, Rocche dell’Annunziata, an elegant wine with uplifting plum and cherry fruit and subtle minerality, which is understated in the best sense.
The winery has just added four guest rooms with the same magnificent views you’ll find from their terrace, so when you come to taste the wines, stay the night and enjoy the panorama.
Below the town of La Morra, on a bump of a hill above the valley floor, lies Gianni Gagliardo’s winery and restaurant. Like so many of the wineries in the area, this is a family affair, with Gianni at the helm, his elder son Stefano as winemaker, and his younger son Albert as viticulturist. Gianni founded the winery more than 30 years ago, and in the ensuing years has added vineyards in La Morra, Barolo, Serralunga, Monforte and Monticello d’Alba. Gagliardo makes a full range of local wines (many with fanciful proprietary names) that include a Nebbiolo d’Alba called San Ponzio, a blended Barolo called Preve, a Barolo from the famous Cannubi vineyard, an unusual blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera called Batié, a blended Barbera called La Matta, a Dolcetto d’Alba, a Barbera d’Alba, a Langhe Arneis, a Favorita called Fallegro, and a Favorita from the Casà vineyard that may remind you of Marsanne. Of the 25,000 cases produced, 70% is exported to 25 countries. Gagliardo’s top bottles carry a distinctive mask design molded into the glass.
For the wine tourist the Gagliardo winery has the added appeal of a first class restaurant on the premises. It’s a cozy little bistro where you can indulge in both the food of the area, as well as Gagliardo’s wines and an excellent assortment of local grappe. While you can stop by without reservations, you may want to make an appointment to assure that one of the Gagliardos is there to show you around — Stephano speaks excellent English, and Gianni speaks better English than he’ll admit.
The Asta del Barolo Wine Auction
Since 1997 Gagliardo has been promoting Barolo with a wine auction. It’s an intimate affair by U.S. standards, with just 200 invitees, but if you’re a devotee of Barolo and in the area in September, you might ask for an invitation. It takes place at the winery, and is preceded by a party catered by the on-premise restaurant. The view from the terrace takes in the town of La Morra above, and the castles of Castiglione Falleto, Serralunga, and Grinzane Cavour on nearby hilltops. Some of the auction lots go for charity, which last year included two of Gagliardo’s barriques (barrels that hold enough wine for 300 bottles) that went for 9,000 Euros each. Older vintages from some of the area’s most prestigious producers are also available, but don’t expect any bargains, as the auction is connected via internet and video conferencing to Singapore and Hong Kong. At the 2006 edition Hong Kong collectors snapped up the most desirable lots.
Luca Currado of Vietti
Another of Piedmont’s hilltop towns in the Barolo district is Castiglione Falletto. Here at the top of the hill, across the street from the old castle fortress and literally underneath the bell tower, is the home of the Currado family and Cantina Vietti. The Vietti family began making wine in the mid-nineteenth century, and began bottling it for sale in the early 20th century. Alfredo Currado married Luciana Vietti and began working in the winery in the late 1950s. He became winemaker upon the death of his father-in-law in 1960. Alfredo was one of the first to bottle single vineyard designated Barolo, and in the late 1960s he also elevated the status of the local white grape, Arneis, making the first dry version. Today Alfredo and Luciana’s son Luca is winemaker, and their son-in-law, Mario Cordero is in charge of marketing and sales. The winery, built under the family home, produces about 15,000 cases of wine annually. The Currado family owns 26 acres of Barolo, 24 acres of Barbera d’Alba, 17.5 acres of Barbera d’Asti, as well as a few acres of Moscato and Dolcetto. The vineyards are located in Castiglione Falletto, Barolo, La Morra, Serralunga, Novello, Agliano d’Asti, and Castiglione Tinella. Grapes for other wines, such as Arneis and Barbaresco, are purchased. Vietti produces a number of vineyard designated Barolos, Barberas, and Dolcettos, each a little different, but all of similar high quality.
Newcomers to the area, the Boroli family is noted for publishing atlases and guidebooks. Achilles Boroli, 32, is the son who decided to follow his passion into the wine industry, and with the backing of his father Silvano he has made a spectacular beginning, investing in some of the best properties in the region and bringing in the father-son team of enologist and viticulturist Enzo and Daniele Alluvione to manage the grapes and the winery. The release of their first Barolos from the 1998 vintage made everyone sit up and take notice, and after Boroli’s 2003 Barbera came out on top of our blind tastings I decided I should pay a visit.
I arrived on a dreary, rainy day in September, with clouds obscuring the hilltop town of La Morra across the valley, and rivulets of water streaming downhill between the rows of Nebbiolo and Barbera at La Brunella estate in Castiglione Falletto, where the Boroli winery sits atop a ridge with some of the most spectacular views imaginable. The tasting room affords a spectacular panorama of the castle at Castiglione Falletto on the east, to La Morra on the northwest, to the castle of Barolo to the south. The winery, designed by Achille’s architect brother Guido, sits atop a 28-acre property on a ridge that divides the southwest facing Villero vineyard (which supplies Barolo to other top producers such as Vietti and Fennochio), and an east facing vineyard that supplies Boroli’s non-vineyard-designated Barolo. The property is planted to Nebbiolo and Barbera, as well as a little Chardonnay at the very bottom of the hill. Boroli also makes a Barolo from the Cerequio vineyard in the town of Barolo, and the Bussia vineyard in the town of Monforte.
The Boroli’s other farm of note is the 50 acre Cascina Bompè, a steep property on top of the Madonna di Como hill above the town of Alba. The farm is planted to Dolcetto, Moscato, Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and is the site of Locanda del Pilone, an inn and restaurant (see below).
Total production is about 12,000 cases, of which 70% is exported, with the U.S. being the biggest export market.
When Seagrams invested millions in Bersano wines in the late 1960’s, Arturo Bersano hired respected winemaker Luigi “Gigi” Rosso to find him some good vineyards. The opportunity allowed Rosso to look over the entire area for choice vineyards that were for sale, and gave him a good feeling for where he could look to buy vineyards of his own. He established his own winery in 1971 at the bottom of the hill below Castiglione Falleto. Today Gigi Rosso has 72 acres (a large holding by Piedmont standards) and a beautiful new winery in Castiglione Falletto on the main road toward Barolo. In fact, as you travel south from Alba, the Gigi Rosso winery is the first you will come to after turning off on the road to the town of Barolo. It’s the perfect place for the traveler to stop, with a spacious tasting room and a museum of historical winemaking implements. Rosso, with his sons Claudio and Maurizio, produces Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto and Arneis.
The Rossos have four vineyards in the Langhe area, but the crown jewel is the Arione Vineyard in the township of Serralunga, which produces wines of great class and longevity, combining feminine allure with masculine power, the quintessential attributes of Barolo. With 50 years of experience making wine, Gigi Rosso has a sense of tradition and history, but tradition doesn’t impede his quest for perfection. He is constantly experimenting and fine tuning his techniques. His wines are fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel and aged in both large Slavonian oak casks and French oak barrels, depending on what suits the particular grapes. The winery produces about 21,000 cases of DOC and DOCG wines each year.
Gigi’s sons are an integral part of the operation. Claudio is in charge of the vineyards, while Maurizio handles marketing, which in this era involves a lot of exportation. The multi-lingual Maurizio is well-suited to the job. He and his wife Mia, an American from Carmel, California, met at U.C. Santa Cruz when Maurizio was in California doing research for a book he was writing about the lives of Piemontese immigrants. He is also a novelist, and author of The Myth of Barolo, profiling the history of Barolo through interviews with some of the area’s most famous winemakers.
As you climb the hill toward the town and castle of Barolo, which gives its name to the wine, you’ll pass the steep slopes of the famous Cannubi vineyard on your right. To your left you’ll see the new, but classically designed Sandrone winery and residence.
Luciano Sandrone is one of the great success stories of Barolo’s modern era. Beginning as a cellarman in the 1970’s, he decided that wine was his calling. He saved his money and bought a 5 acre plot of the Cannubi vineyard called Boschis. Barolo in those days was still made in a very traditional way, with little heed paid to tannin management. As a result, the wines needed a couple of decades to mature, and they were little appreciated outside of the area. Luciano had some modern ideas about how to minimize the tannin and make the wines fresher and more in line with wines accepted in the international arena. In 1978, still working as Cellarmaster at Marchesi di Barolo, Luciano made 1,500 bottles of his own wine on the side. Totally unknown, he took samples to the VinItaly wine fair, looking for a U.S. distributor. The wines were an instant success and his business grew year by year until he was able to quit his day job by the late 1980’s.
In 1998, twenty years after his first vintage, he was able to move from cramped quarters in town, to a spacious new winery/residence directly across the road from his beloved Cannubi Boschis vineyard. Over the years Luciano has acquired 11 more vineyards scattered around the Barolo production area, for a total of 53 acres, now under the supervision of his younger brother Lucca. The winery produces approximately 8,000 cases a year, divided between various bottlings of Barolo, both blended and single vineyard; Nebbiolo d’Alba; and a Langhe Rosso blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo.
The winery is ably managed by his daughter Barbara, who speaks fluent English and will be happy to show you around. Do call ahead, to make sure she is available.
On the September day I visited, as Barbara was pointing out the innovative aspects of the winery, we came upon a worker shoveling pumice from one of the fermentation tanks into a small, very traditional basket press. It was her father, Luciano! The internationally acclaimed winery owner is still very much a hands-on winemaker.
CASCINA ADELAIDA di AMABILE DROCCO
When Amabile Drocco dreams, he dreams big. The son of a local peasant farmer, Amabile grew up to start his own business making equipment for the bakery industry. Decades of hard work saw his business thrive. The plant in Roddi now employs 120 people and the equipment is sold all over the world. In his early 60’s Amabile handed the business over to his son and son-in-law, and turned back to the family traditions in a grand way that his father could not have imagined.
His 17 acres of vineyards include plots in the prestigious Cannubi and Preda vineyards in Barolo, the Fossati vineyard in La Morra and Montegrillo Costafiore in Diano d’Alba. His young winemaker, Sergio Molino is assisted by oenologist Fabio Corradi. Though production is a tiny 2,500 to 3,000 cases of year of Barolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, 80% is exported, with the U.S. as the largest market.
The roof of Cascina Adelaida appears as a grassy knoll below Castello Barolo
Constructed in 2003, Cascina Adelaida lies in the shadow of Barolo castle. Architect Ugo Dellapiana has created a masterpiece of art and functionality, its design an expression of respect for its surroundings; the historic farmhouse has been restored, and the thoroughly modern cellars lie underground beneath a roof of grass, blending into the landscape like no other winery in the region. Even though the building is underground, strategically located skylights and discreet windows let in a flood of light. The rooms are light and airy, separated by glass, and the business end of the winery is a mixture of ultra modern and traditional, stainless steel and wood. Metal trees hold up the roof.
But design would be nothing if the wines were lacking. Happily, the wines are quite good and there’s an obvious commitment to growth and improvement.
Unless you speak Italian, it’s best to call ahead to make sure a translator will be available when you arrive. You’ll probably be met in town and guided down to the winery, as the turn off is not well marked.
The Cogno family has been making wine for four generations. They began in La Morra in partnership with Marcarini, and opened their own winery in 1990 on the mountainside below Novello and above Barolo. The completely restored 17th century farmhouse sits above the winery’s cellars, surrounded by 23 acres of vineyard.
The winery is currently managed by Elvio Cogno’s son-in-law, Valter Fissore alongside his wife Nadia Cogno. They produce about 6,000 cases of the usual Piemontese red varieties — Barolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, plus a nearly extinct Novello white grape variety known as Nas-cëtta (only 6 acres remain), that may be related to Vermentino.
Valter has shown an ability to produce excellent wines in difficult years, as was the case in 2002. I was particularly taken with Cogno’s Vigna Elena Barolo, named after Valter and Nadia’s daughter, made from the nearly extinct Rosè clone of Nebbiolo. It’s powerfully floral, with forward fruit and background spice and minerality. The Montegrilli is a 50/50 blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera, displaying the red rose overtones of Nebbiolo, coupled with the richness of Barbera. The Anas-cëtta is an appealing dry white wine with a curious nose of wildflowers, herbs and apricots.
After you’ve visited the wine towns of the Barolo area you’ll find Canelli a worthy side-trip. A slow forty minute drive east on the winding road from Alba will bring you to the Enoteca di Canelli, which provides you with a one stop shop where you can taste and purchase wines from many of the local producers and sample the local cuisine in the basement restaurant.
Several wineries fall within the city limits. L’Armangia is a small producer with excellent Sauvignon Blanc and Barbera. Gancia, across the street from the Enoteca di Canelli, invented Asti Spumante in the 19th century, and offers a public tour. And you will be well received if you make an appointment at Coppo, whose Barbera is among the very best in Piemonte. Next door to Coppo on the tree shaded Via Alba is the intimate Ristorante San Marco, a one-star Michelin restaurant run by husband and wife team PierCarlo and Mariuccia Ferrero. Mariuccia is the chef, serving up all of the typical Piemontese dishes, while PierCarlo is in charge of the outstanding wine list. He’s also the President of the truffle hunters’ association, and during the November truffle fair the restaurant is packed with devotees.
WHERE TO TASTE WINE
Enoteca Regionale “Piemontese Cavour”
Via Castello 5
12060 Grinzane Cavour (CN)
Wide selection of wines to taste. Castle tours. Restaurant.
Enoteca Regionale del Roero
Via Roma 57
12043 Canale (CN)
Wide range of Roero wines. Chef Davide Palluda’s one-star Michelin restaurant, all’Enoteca.
Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco
Via Torino 8/a
12050 Barbaresco (CN)
A huge selection of Barbaresco, and only Barbaresco.
Enoteca Regionale del Barolo
Piazza Falletti, 1
12060 Barolo (CN)
Interesting wine museum. Barolo and Barbera D’Alba are offered for tasting and sale.
Enoteca Regionale Colline del Moscato
Piazze XX Settembre, 19
12056 Mango (CN)
Moscato (non-sparkling) wines only.
Enoteca Regionale di Canelli
Corso Liberta 65/a
14053 Canelli (AT)
A good restaurant and a selection of wines from the Asti province (Moscato, Barbera and Grignolino).
THE FOOD OF PIEMONTE
Just as the Alto Adige region has historic ties to Austria, Piemonte has historic ties to France, ties which still show through in the food and the local dialect. Its inhabitants are passionately parochial, and are quick to point out that Italy has only been a unified country for a little over a century, a mere blink of the eye in Italian time. Like all classical Italian cuisine, Piemonte relies on fresh seasonal produce. Unlike other areas there is more of an emphasis on meat, while tomatoes are used sparingly, adding a little color, but never presented as a heavy sauce. While it’s possible to find a few ethnic restaurants in Torino, in Piemonte’s countryside the food varies little from restaurant to restaurant; they each serve interpretations of the same menu. I’m grateful there are such places in the world where gastronomic traditions are so narrowly defined, but imagine for a moment living in a town where there is no place to go for Chinese, Mexican, French or Thai cuisine! Lunch or dinner (the only difference seems to be in the size of the portions), begins with three to five antipasti, each nearly a meal in itself, followed by a first course of pasta or rice, a meat course, a cheese and sausage course, and dessert. If you’re feeling really decadent, the final touch is grappa made from Nebbiolo or Moscato grapes, or a bitter digestive such as Chinato (Barolo with sugar, spices and bitters). The cuisine is known by such standards as Agnolotti al Plin (plin in the local dialect means “pinched” and these are small ravioli filled with pork and veal, vegetable and rice), Bagna Cauda (anchovy flavored hot olive oil fondue with red Bell peppers), Vitello al Tonno (veal with tuna sauce), Beef slow-braised in Barolo, rich tagliatelli, white truffles when in season (late September to February), and by the best cheese in all of Italy (Gorgonzola, Castelmagno, Toma, Ciabot etc.). One local delicacy that may take some getting used to is lardo, thin slices of pork fat. Locals sometimes roll the slices around bread sticks; I’ve even seen a lardo pizza!
When I asked Chef Maria Cristina Rinaudi, of Ristorante Le Torri in Castiglione Falletto, for the secret to her fabulous tagliatelli, she told me that she makes it fresh each morning, and added that a pound of pasta includes a dozen egg yolks! Needless to say, they don’t count calories in Piemonte.
Bue Brasato al Barolo – Ox Braised in Barolo Wine
This traditional recipe is a combination of one from Il Grande Libro della Cucina Albese, published by Famija Albèisa in 1998, and another from Luciana Vietti. Like Luciana, you may substitute beef for the ox, and frankly I find Barolo a bit too expensive to use in cooking. If you’re of the same mind, you may easily substitute Zinfandel or Barbera (indeed, there is a local variant that uses Barbera).
Ox loin (or 2.5 pounds of beef round)
Barolo wine (not too old, preferably the same wine that will be served with the meal)
5 Roma tomatoes
3 cups beef stock
3 cups cold water
2 T. finely chopped Lard
1 Carrot, 1 large onion, 1 stalk of celery, juniper berries, rosemary, thyme, 1 clove garlic, 1 bay leaf, a pinch of cinnamon, 10 cloves, olive oil, butter, salt.
• Take the boned meat, pierce it to add lard and carrot sticks.
• Keep it for 8 days in a marinade of Barolo wine , onion and the above mentioned spices. If the wine evaporates, add some more.
• Remove the meat and save the marinade.
• Dry the meat on a cloth, and brown it in the oil and butter.
• Add the marinade, and simmer. When the marinade reduces, add the water one cup at a time, waiting until each is absorbed before adding the next. Cover the meat with beef broth and cook over moderate heat for another hour or more. Remove the meat and strain the liquid in the pot. Let the meat cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Slice and return to the pot with the strained liquid in. Add the fresh tomatoes, and some tomato paste if desired.
• Heat until the sauce/gravy is quite thick. Serve immediately.
WHERE TO EAT
There are more than 200 restaurants in Alba and the surrounding towns. Here are some of my favorites:
All’Enoteca Ristorante A rather formal restaurant at the Enoteca Regionale of the Roero area, run by husband and wife team Davide and Ivana Palluda.
Via Roma, 57; 12043 Canale (Cn), tel and fax: 0173-95857
Ristorante Belvedere This is a destination restaurant with good food and a 270 degree view of the entire Barolo region. The meat dishes are especially good. Piazza Castello, 5; 12064 La Morra, tel: 0173-50190, fax: 0173-509580 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Osteria La Cantinella One of my favorites is built into the side of the hill under the great castle of Barolo. It’s a small place, just 36 seats, with a friendly, family atmosphere. The food is beautifully presented and innovative without being pretentious, and you’re sure to find a number of wines from smaller wineries that you’ve never tried before. Via Acqua Geliata, 4/a; 12060 Barolo Tel: 0173-56267 Fax: 0173-560017
Ristorante le Clivie A small restaurant at the Tenuta Carretta winery. Closed Monday evening and all day Tuesday. 12040 Piobesi D’Alba (Cn) – loc. Carretta, 4, tel & fax: 0173-619261
Enoclub I always make a point of going to the Enoclub when I visit Alba. The Enoclub is below Piazza Savona, in two subterranean vaulted brick rooms. The food is excellent, the atmosphere romantic, and the wine list is incomparable. Here you’ll find a wide array of local and foreign wines at a fraction of the price you’d pay at a retail store at home. Piazza Savona, 4 12051 Alba, tel: 0173-33994, fax: 0173-220629
Ristorante Le Torri This restaurant has a wonderful view overlooking the vineyards of Castiglione Falletto. Over the last decade the food has been very good, but it has become outstanding since Maria Cristina Rinaudi became the chef in 2003. She has a knack for pulling out the most flavor from the seemingly simplest food. Highly recommended. Piazza V. Veneto, 10 Castiglione Falletto, tel/fax: 0173-62849 Cel: 35819189
Pomodoro Ristorante Pizzeria On the road between Alba and Asti, Pomodoro is a great place for pizza or pasta. It’s a thoroughly modern casual Italian restaurant. Call for directions: 0173 66464
Locanda del Pilone Occupying the bottom floor of a luxury hotel owned by the Boroli family (see “Where to Stay”), this one-star Michelin restaurant is presided over by chef Maurizio Quaranta and his sommelier wife, Sabrina. Excellent views. Frazione Madonna di Como, 34; 12051 Alba (Cn), tel: 0173-366616, fax: 0173-366609, www.locandadelpilone.com
Guido To pay homage to Piemontese cuisine, you might well pay a visit to Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, once a Roman settlement, about 20 miles west of Alba on the road to Bra. Many of the buildings date from 1832 when King Carlo Alberto of the House of Savoy had his “hunting lodge” built there. The elaborate parish church and other buildings have been restored, and now house the new headquarters of The Slow Food movement and The University of Gastronomic Sciences, as well as the 26 room hotel La Corte Albertina and the Michelin-starred Ristorante Guido. The restaurant, built in the King’s carriage house, features traditional Piemontese cuisine, along with a few dishes from the nearby Ligurian coast, and the largest selection of grappe that I’ve ever seen. Piazza V.Emanuele 3 Via Amedeo di Savoia; 12060 – Pollenzo (CN), tel. 0172/458410, fax 0172/458921
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Savona The Savona is an older hotel just around the corner from the train station, and perfectly situated to enjoy Piazza Savona and the shopping on Via Vittorio Emanuele. Tel: 30-0173-440440 Fax: 0173-364312
Hotel I Castelli An ultra modern hotel across the street from the exhibition center where Alba Wines Exhibition is held. Tel: 0173-361978 Fax: 0173-361974
La Corte Albertina La Corte Albertina is a 26 Room hotel in one of the most romantic spots in Piemonte, Pollenzo, a short drive from Alba. www.LaCorteAlbertina.it
Locanda del Pilone Owned by the Boroli family, this six bedroom luxury hotel is a renovated Piemontese farmhouse at Cascina Bompè, perched above Boroli’s steep Madonna di Como vineyard, 1,200 feet above Alba. It also houses a one-star Michelin restaurant. See “Where to Eat.” Frazione Madonna di Como, 34; 12051 Alba (Cn), tel: 0173-366616, fax: 0173-366609, www.locandadelpilone.com
Hotel Casa Pavesi
Via IV Novembre, 4; 12060 Grinzane Cavour (Cn), tel: 0173-231149, fax: 0173-230983 www.hotelcasapavesi.it This beautiful hotel stands just below the castle of Grinzane Cavour. Rooms on the north side overlook the vineyards.
Rivetto Agriturismo Loirano, 2; 12050 Sinio (Cn), tel: 0173-613380, fax: 0173-61397, http://www.langhe.net/agriturismorivetto/
Rocche Costamagna Four beautifully appointed, fully rennovated “Art Suites,” in the hillltop town of La Morra. Ask for room number 4 with the panoramic view. Via Vittorio Emanuele, 8; 12064 La Morra tel: 0173-509225, fax: 0173-509283, cel: 335-7206458, email: email@example.com, http://www.rocchecostamagna.it/RoccheCostamagna/eng/artsuites.htm
WINERIES TO VISIT
Azienda Agricola Elvio Gogno Localita Ravera, 2; 12060 Novello (CN), tel: 0173-74-4006 Fax: 0173-74-4921 email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.elviocogno.com
Cantina Gigi Rosso Gigi Rosso is one of the easiest wineries to visit, as it is right on the road to the village of Barolo, just after the turn-off to Castiglione Falletto. The winery has an on-premise tasting room, as well as a wine museum and English is spoken. The winery doesn’t limit itself to Barolo, producing a range of typical Piemontese wines from Arneis and Dolcetto, to Barbera and Barbaresco. Strada Alba-Barolo, 20; 12060 Castiglione Falletto (CN), tel: 0173-262369, fax: 0173-262224 www.gigirosso.com
Rivetto Visits to the winery are by appointment, but you may have free run of the property if you are staying at the agriturismo. The Tasting Room is in Alba: Piazza Garibaldi, 2; 12051 Alba (CN), tel: 0173-613380, fax: 173-613977 email: email@example.com, www.rivetto.it
Rocche Costamagna Tasting by appointment only. Via Vittorio Emanuele, 8; 12064 La Morra tel: 0173-509225, fax: 0173-509283, cel: 335-7206458, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rocchecostamagna.it
Vietti Tasting by appointment only. Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 5; 12060 Castiglione Falletto, tel: 0173-62825, fax: 0173-62941
Boroli Cascina Bompè – Fraz. Madonna di Como, 34; 12051 Alba (CN), tel: 0173 365 477, fax: 0173 35 865