A trip to northern Italy for a wedding brought unexpected opportunity. The wedding was to be in Portofino, but we decided to go in a few days early and stay a few days after. A flight into Malpensa – Milan would bring us to areas of Northern Italy such as Piemonte and the Lake District that we had not explored. The area south east of Torino instantly came to mind as a possibility. Thinking of wines from that region the classic names all came to mind: Borolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera. The Langhe produces wines we enjoy and often look for when shopping for that one wine that will inspire a meal in a way that no other can.
Research showed that there are many options if one looks at Piemonte, and they are generally all off the beaten path. Cities such as Asti, Alba, and Alessandria come to mind, along with smaller regions such as LaMorra, Dogliani and Serralunga that come off bottles that have been discussed at one dinner party or another. But here we had the opportunity to actually visit where those grapes grew up, and where their essence was captured in a bottle some years before for our enjoyment. So what to do?
We found several interesting options in Asti, such as a bed and breakfast that also provides cooking classes. However, it had no availability on the dates of our visit. We looked at smaller communities to be closer to the wine areas of most interest: Barolo and Barbaresco. We settled on an interesting option near the city of Bra. Albergo Dell.
L’Agenzia di Pollenzo was founded in 1835 by King Carlo Alberto, to make wine for the Savoy royal estate that adjoins it. In the late 1990s, the international Slow Food association began to restore the associated complex of red brick towers and buildings and established multiple enterprises at this site. They include the fully restored and modernized hotel we chose to stay at, the University of Gastronomic Sciences and the Wine Bank that features more than 100,000 of Italy’s best wines, preserved and curated at this facility. Various activities await the visitor, which include guided tours and tastings at the Wine Bank and regional wine makers, workshops on a range of food and beverage topics, again which usually include tastings, along with group games and team building activities.
Associated with the hotel is an interesting Slow Food restaurant in the nearby city of Bra. (Osteria Del Boccondivino, via Mendicita Struita 14, Bra, 12042). Located on a back street, with the nearest parking a block away, it is only a few miles distance, but not easy to find. We drove in for lunch and instantly got lost. Somehow we turned down a one way street with a sign indicating limited entry trying to find our way back to the road that brought us here. We found the restaurant near the end of the street. It is set in a pleasant courtyard, with a young wait staff that generally speaks good English and is very knowledgeable about Slow Food. The menu is unexpected, featuring a range of dishes we’d not experienced in our prior travels to Italy. Since we were expecting a full dinner later, we only wished something light that would whet our appetite and open up our taste buds to the local cuisine. We settled in on a dish of baked Prosciutto style ham with an interesting side mayo salad with tuna, potatoes and peas and a dish of agnolotti in a sage butter sauce. The dishes ranged from good to excellent and we accompanied the meal with two fine glasses of wine, one a Barolo and the other a nice Barbaresco, which we shared to taste compare with the meal. The consensus was of the glasses we bought, Barbaresco had a softer and longer finish.
We bought a package from the hotel since we intended to stay three days that included one dinner. We chose to enjoy that on our first night, although waiting until 8 pm seemed long after a full day of travel from the US and wandering south from Malpensa to find the estate followed by wandering the grounds and buildings for a short time after lunch. The dinner followed the trend of the luncheon. Interesting dishes that are uncommon in Italy or particular to this part of the country.
With the hotel package we were served a Tasting Menu that consisted of four courses: a filled pepper with tuna and Salina capers, “40 yolks” hand cut Tajarin with Bra sausage sauce, which is like an angel hair pasta with a light meat tomato sauce, and Fassone veal rump from La Granda and Béarnaise sauce, a lot like roast beef with a béarnaise sauce. These courses were followed by a choice of desserts. We complimented the meal with an Albino Rocca, Barbaresco 2002, which was an excellent pairing with the first three courses, although our guide later informed us the 2002 vintage was a challenging years for producers in Piemonte.
Prior to our arrival, we contracted with a touring company to visit wineries. Tasting Tours di Aprato Silvia. On our first full day in Piemonte, we took the Grand Barbaresco Wine Tour which included visits to Bruno Rocca in Barbaresco, Marchesi di Gresy in Barbaresco and Pelissero in Treiso. On the second day we took the Grand Barolo Wine Tour which included visits to G.D. Vajra in Barolo, Renato Corino in La Morra and Azelia di Luigi Scavino in Castiglione Falleto.
We asked specifically that we visit small boutique style wineries, looking to sample wines not commonly available in the US. However, on the flight over American Airlines served a G.D. Vajra wine on the flight which we both found quite pleasant with airline food, never an easy task.
Our tour guide, Silvia and her driver, Fabio, met us at our hotel for the first day. She gave us a ten minute overview of the day and the region, filling us in on the differences in the wines we would sample and the different production methods and wine history of the area. She proved to be quite knowledgeable and was able to relate to us on many different levels, beyond just our mutual interest in wines and the region.
The first winery we visited was Bruno Rocca. It is a small winery, producing about 60,000 bottles per year which consists of four Barbarescos, Barberas from both Asti and Alba, a Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and a Chardonnay. At this tasting Elena, our host, told us that the Dolcetto is essentially the wine served with appetizers and for every day drinking. The Barbera and Nebbiolo often accompanies the pasta and secondi piatti at more formal meals, and the Barbaresco is the special occasion wine as it generally needs certain types of food to open up the layers of flavor within.
Bruno Rocca is a small family business and their wines reflect that approach to winemaking. They have a modern facility with the latest equipment. Impressively they are seeking organic status for the modern methods they are using to minimize sulfite additions and the production additives that change the quality of the wine. They are using ferromone dispensers in the vineyards to drive away pests and have weather stations spread throughout to monitor temperature, moisture and humidity levels, to better adjust the growing conditions to achieve consistent high quality. Elena informed us they are looking at Biodynamic processes and trying to incorporate proven methods that will improve the final products they sell.
Their top of the line wine is the Barbaresco “Maria Adelaide”, a DOCG wine which is dedicated to the mother of the owner, Bruno Rocca. It is described as “mouth filling, warm and elegant, very long and persistent with overtones confirming aromas perceived on the nose with a hint of cocoa.” Bruno Rocca has a distributor in the US, Dionysus Wines, which can be reached at email@example.com.
The second stop was very close by. Tenute Cisa Asinari Dei Marchesi Di Gresy. We were greeted by Jeffrey Chilcott, the New Zealand born cellarmaster who has been with the family for over twenty years. Jeffrey proved very knowledgeable, quoting weather conditions throughout the region during different vintage years, discussed weather altering cannons that were being fired that day to break up hail storms that could potentially damage the fruit on the vines and discussed specific year harvests where weather reduced production levels and made it difficult to produce quality wines, which they were still able to do. His knowledge of wines includes regions outside Piemonte and production methods and varietal types that different producers are experimenting with to continually offer something new to their customers.
One of the experiments we tasted was both a 2014 and 2015 vintage of Sauvignon. The two years were very different in taste, although 2014 was a hotter year than 2015. Jeffrey and Silvia were not aware of other producers of Sauvignon in the region. Martinenga is one of the largest and highest quality parcels in Barbaresco. We sampled Barbarescos from this parcel, and two subdivisions of it: Gajun and Camp Gros. The latter is the highest quality Barbaresco to come out of this particular winery. The family produces sixteen different types and styles of wine, four of which are white. We met the owner, Marquis Alberto di Gresy and his daughter, who are both actively involved in the day-to-day business. Jeffrey informed us that their wines are readily available in the US in both fine wine stores and better restaurants.
After our great conversation and tasting with Jeffrey, we went to Neive for lunch at Osteria LaRomatario. This restaurant, which is directly between the two cathedrals in this small hill town. We sampled Prosciutto with Burrata, a vegetable cassoulet and raviolini in a napkin. The latter was interesting in that they served a homemade raviolini without sauce of any kind. It was folded into a napkin to keep it warm. This approach was developed as a means of enhancing the flavor of the raviolini and its meat contents rather than a sauce. Everything was quite good.
After the downpour that settled over us while we ate, we proceeded to our last tasting and tour for the day. Pelissero has one of the best views in the Barbaresco region. From their tasting room you can see not only vineyards as far as the eye can see, but also the towns of Barbaresco, Neive and Alba, as well as into the Roero region which is another DOCG across the river from Barbaresco. Franchesca met us for our tour and tasting. This winery produces wines that are both modern and traditional. Interestingly 45% of their wines are consumed in Italy, a much higher percentage than most of the other producers in the region where it averages about 20%. They produce a blend of Barbera d’Alba and Nebbiolo called the Long Now, which is quite good. It also has a tendency to confuse people in blind taste tests. They produce a wide range of styles and types including a Riesling, which they are experimenting with and proved to be quite good, especially after having a bit of time to breathe. Pelissero also has parcel specific Barbarescos, which, because of differing soils offer vastly different taste experiences. Pelissero wines are available through Vinifera Imports email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Silvia provided a list of area restaurants from which to choose our evening meal. They ranged from wine bars in Alba to trattorias and even restaurants in the middle of vineyards. Selecting one proved to be a hard choice. Ultimately we decided to drive into Alba, which is a straight forward journey as the main road into Alba (SS231) passes by the hotel. Once there we found a parking lot that is free after 8:30 pm and is only a few blocks from Piazza Risorgimento (Cathedral Plaza), which is easily identified as three towers rise from surrounding buildings. So if you are looking for the Piazza, just look up. Silvia’s top recommendation is on the Piazza. We checked out the menu and found it to feature many of the same dishes we’d had either the day before or at lunch. So we decided to check out Silvia’s second choice, Enoclub (which shares the space with Caffee Umberto) with indoor seating one level down Tel: +39 0173 33994. We walked down Avenue Emmanuel Vittorio II, who was the first King of a united Italy, to the Piazza at the other end of the street, only a few blocks. This is Piazza Michele Ferrero and the restaurant was located at number 4, along the right side of the Piazza. On this evening all of the patrons were sitting outside under umbrellas, so we joined them after perusing the menu and finding a vegan set of offerings that sounded interesting.
Since we were going to tour Barolo the next day we ordered just a glass of Barbaresco and a glass of Barolo from the wine list to compare the two with the food we ordered. Between us we ordered the Insalad di Foglie, which consisted of leaf lettuce, and various crunchy pieces of apple, nuts and vegetables. It had a nice dressing and while we ordered one of each dish and split them, the portions were large enough to satisfy both of us. At the same time a dish of zucchini spaghetti with lemon, mint on a bed of sun dried tomato pesto arrived. This was also excellent and we convinced the waiter to tell us the secret of the sauce, which proved to be a mixture of lemon, olive oil and a hint of vinegar with mint and arranged mint leaves for appearance. The final main dish was a Tajarin Ragu, which was a combination of two dishes from the menu. It was handmade pasta, about double the thickness of an angel hair with carbonara and black truffle sauce. This too disappeared from the plate. We finished the meal with a cheese plate with chestnut honey. This was the perfect ending to this meal as the six cheeses provided a range of hardness and flavor, mixed with the honey in an enticing manner. Would highly recommend this restaurant and dining experience.
On our last full day in Piemonte we toured the Barolo region. Again Silvia and Fabio arrived to pick us up at 9:00 and we were off to the village of La Morra. We arrived at a point where we could look out over the valleys of the Borolo region. Silvia pointed out the three tongues of the Borolo valley and the cities that sit upon the peaks of the valley ridges.
Our first stop was at G.D. Vajra winery (Via Delle Viole, 25, 12060 Borolo, Italy. Info @gdvajra.it). This particular winery features stain glass windows created by a monk who happens to be a family friend. It sits just inside the DOGC. As our guide informed us, if the winery was across the street it would reside outside the accredited region. This particular winery is a family business, with the owner having bucked the trend in the 1970s when farmers were sending their children to Torino to work in the Fiat factory rather than work the family farms and wineries. This property was started in the early 1970s and has grown to about 80,000 bottles per year with a significant export market. This particular winery brought in Rhine valley Riesling grapes to create a Langhe Riesling which proved pleasant although young. Another year of aging would give his particular wine improved balance. As with most wineries, they produce a Dolcetta, a Nebbiolo and Barolos that are both classic (meaning sourcing grapes from more than one parcel) and single vineyard. The Dolcetto and Nebbiolo are very approachable and drinkable within a year or two of their release. The Barolos are very complex, best paired with red meats, strong fish or strong cheeses. They need a bit more time, being best between 7-12 years after release. Vajra’s wines are all quite good and will only improve with age. Their wines are imported to the US by Victory Wine Group in Irving Texas.
The second winery we visited was Renato Corino. Renato Corino wines are distributed in the US by Marc de Grazia Selections. Visiting Renato’s winery was like visiting family. We were greeted by Liliana who made us feel right at home, interested not only in telling us about the winery and wines, but listening to our stories and adventures. Renato left the family winery in 2005 to establish his own winery just up the valley from his brother. His son and daughter are both in the business and take pride in the quality of their low production wines. This was the only winery that offered us a barrel tasting of the wine they intended to bottle in the week after our visit. Every wine on their list proved to be the best of the tastings, at least to our palates, on this particular day. Recognizing that as each bottle ages it improves and changes, others we tried may well be better paired with certain foods or consumed as a sipping wine. But Renato’s 2012 Rocca di Annunciato Borolo was the clear winner on this day among the Borolos sampled. Their barrel tasted Nebbiolo d’Alba was also the best Nebbiolo, even though it won’t be released until the spring of 2017.
We stopped for lunch at La Terrazza wine and Food. The owner prepares platters of light foods for lunch. On this particular day the four dishes served included salumi of prosciutto and salami, a salad of celery, and other vegetables, a salad of chick peas, fava beans and Sicilian capers, followed by a platter of veal slices with a tuna salad and finally a dish of fried zucchini and egg. We also consumed glasses of Alto Langa sparkling wine which proved refreshing and complimented the variety of dishes nicely.
Our final stop for the tour was at Azelia Luigi Scavino. US distribution is through Ionia Atlantic Imports. Lorenzo Scavino, the fifth generation winemaker at this property greeted us. He proved knowledgeable of the history of the business and winemaking. The highlight of the tour was a visit to their cellar where they have bottles back to 1932 on display. Lorenzo informed us that these bottles had been hidden in the walls of the winery during the Nazi occupation and were only recovered after the end of the war. He said there are probably still other bottles hidden away where they have been long forgotten, but will be revealed during some future restoration. Another interesting feature is a large clock Lorenzo’s great grandfather made by hand, entirely of wood and with a date of 1930 on the face of the clock which still keeps accurate time to this day. Azelia produces a single vineyard Dolcetto that proved to be one of the best we tasted on this trip. Bricco Dell’Oriolo is the name of this Dolcetto d’Alba. They produce a Nebbiolo Langhe, a Barbera d’Alba and Five Barolos, three of which are single vineyard. Their premier wine is a Reserva Bricco Voghera, which is rarely produced and generally ages for ten years, five in barrels and five in the bottle. The current vintage is a 2007 and the next release will be a 2010 around 2020.
Silvia Informed us that in the neighboring city of Cherasco there are chocolate makers who produce a very high quality range of products. They are descended from confectioners who travelled with the King of Savoy in the 1800s and eventually settled in this city after many wars in the region. Apparently the King often retreated to this hilltop town to avoid the invaders, but always took his butcher, baker, chefs, and confectioners with him, among others. The shop we visited was Marco Barbero Confectioners. We bought Cherasco Kisses, bits of leftover wood fired toasted hazel nuts covered in rich dark chocolate, which have been in continuous production at this site in one form or another since 1881. We also bought a sampling of the baked goods on display which did not make it to dinner that evening.
Our final stop in Piemonte was at the Wine Bank, which is housed in the cellar under the hotel where we were staying. The wine bank has been described above and is a storage and display place for over 100,000 bottles of Italian wine. The tour is inexpensive and you have an option to do a tasting of 1-5 wines. The selection is at the discretion of the staff and not the guest, but they are all Italian wines from the region. The self-guided tour was interesting, learning about various aspects of wine production and origins, and seeing case after case of wine held one’s attention only through the sheer list of names reflected by the many producers who have provided wines for storage in this facility. It was interesting to find that some names we knew were not yet present and many others we had never heard of, were. At the tasting we sampled five of six wines on offer, all from the Piemonte and Lombardy region. We tried one red wine from a producer by the name of Santa Rita. It had a bouquet of grapefruit in a red wine from the northern area of Lombardy. I had never encountered grapefruit in a red wine bouquet before.
We found our time in Piemonte to be a wonderful introduction to an area we did not know all that much about. We had tried many Borolos and some Barbarescos, but did not have an appreciation for the people, the range of production methods or the drivers of variety in the products from this region. This is a region that is just being discovered and is one we thoroughly enjoyed.