Piemonte – January 2020: the first of many

25 January  – 1 February 2020

Saturday sadly was our last if brief moment in the UK as an EU member state. We clambered off an Easyjet flight from Nantes to eat a leisurely lunch in a Lebanese outlet in Gatwick North, before clambering on another Easyjet flight to Turin. We arrived as the light was failing. The car rental office and carpark is directly opposite the Arrivals exit. (Note: counter-intuitive moment needed when one returns it; follow the Arrivals signage on the left, NOT the raised Departures ramp on the right, to achieve the correct level) 

The SP 2 leads south for 10 km before joining the southbound, anti clockwise Tangenziale, to circumnavigate Turin itself.  Some 30 km later, we picked up the SP 29 to Canale, through the Roero to Alba, passed the Hotel I Castelli and the posh flat where we’d stayed in 2014 and 2010 to where Beppe met us on the small roundabout at the entrance to the pedestrianised city centre. 

This is Italy. Beppe led me and the luggage to the foyer of the apartments; then he returned to lead David to the nearby carpark, while I awaited the ‘ ragazzo’ who showed me into the apartment, demonstrated the dodgy coffee machine, proudly pointed out the highly processed contents of the fridge, and left. Senor Corino, the owner of the apartment and name on the bell push,  was nowhere be seen. 

David had already booked dinner in the elegant Osteria del’Arco close by the Duomo, and we strolled through a conspicuously smarter and more prosperous Alba than we had remembered, before returning to the basic but economical apartment (€400 for the week).  It felt more homely once I’d turned up the radiator thermostats. We never improved the water pressure, and the coffee machine packed up but once Beppe’s text had pointed out the ‘luce blu’ switch we did restore the hot water, which was just as well, given the return on Sunday evening of last week’s tummy bug…

The weather was cold and dry; occasionally sunny. It has been a dry and abnormally warm winter, and the growers we met were universally anxious about too early bud-break followed by late frost. 

David’s idea to spend Sunday walking in the vineyards took us (after a lazy start) to Barolo. We strolled along the upper road out of town, towards Novello, between the Terlo and Le Coste vineyards, and overlooking Boschetti on the other side of the valley, getting our eyes in, before falling into Brezza’s ristorante at 13.45 and a stunning window table overlooking the spectacular landscape. 

An enormous Bagnola Cauda was the meal’s highlight. All the food was delicious, if very rich and I fear David suffered the consequences of his missing gall bladder later that evening. We did walk in the vineyards; surprisingly passable in ordinary town shoes – another sign of the strange winter. These paths should have been ‘bagnato’. 

As the light failed we returned to Barolo and drove south towards Monforte d’Alba, then turning west to follow the Tanaro as it flows north.  We turned east for Novello,  and beyond to Elvio Cogno’s winery with its magnificent position. 

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We retraced our route along the SP 33 bis to Alba, where we went in pursuit of an aperitivo, failing at Voglio di Vino (formerly a wine bar with food, now a serious ristorante and where unnoticed by us, Alessandro Masnaghetti was enjoying his dinner) but succeeding at De Gustibus. 

A rough night for David, unfortunately just before the first busy and hot day at the nearby Fiera for Grandi Langhe. 200 producers were from all four regions within the Langhe: Barolo, Roero, Barbaresco and Dogliani, some of whom we were to visit later in the week. 

We ran into several of David’s fellow students or contacts: Robin Kick, Clare Love, Michele Shah and extraordinarily, Martin Hudson , looking very dapper with his golden MW lapel pin on his very fetching tailored jacket. 

The queues were manageable, the cloakrooms accessible; the local food samples serving very well as lunch, close by an area with a modest amount of comfortable seating. The actual wine stands were more difficult to negotiate; alphabetic order leaves a lot to be desired! 

No matter, we had a useful day, with Masnaghetti’s presentation of the geo-viticultural map of Barolo a real high spot. He was all over the place; tired and garrulous, but none the less charming. And he remembered us from the failed aperitivo the night before! We managed supper at Aldente, with 30% off courtesy of the Fork booking app. The gambaroni in hazel nuts stole the show. Hazel nuts are everywhere.. 

Fortunately David rallied after a good night’s sleep and Tuesday was much less crowded, the sommeliers having largely returned to work. Another Masnaghetti presentation – this time on Barbaresco – persuaded us that the newer two volume version of his magnum opus was indispensable and was duly ordered from his website. We had supper with Martin at Aldente and tried to picked his brains on the trends. He’s giving them some thought ! 

 Wednesday 29 January 

We had resolved the ‘where to park the car on market days?’ issue by settling for a strip of spaces alongside the main road into Alba, little more than 100m from the apartment, and which served us well at the end of each day of visits. Our first was to Nino Costa in Borgata Benne, Montà, near Canale, due north on the SP 29. His was a tiny estate with fabulous views which showed vividly the impact of aspect and height on the reach of the sun, especially in winter. At 09.15, the shadows were deep while pockets of sun-bathed vineyards basked. 

His stove gobbled oak pellets and roared in the background as he explained the four ‘doors’ of the Roero: Bra in the west, Montà to the north, Govone to the east, and Mussota to the south. 

The view from the balcony was stunning. When his enologist arrived, David had a very full account of the region’s and its wines’ distinctions. Sadly we somehow managed to lose the bottle of wine Stephanino gave us…

On from here, back to Canale and a little beyond to Cascina Ca’Rossa where we were greeted by Angelo Ferrio’s son, who had been instructed to begin with whites but hold the reds until Angelo himself arrived. He was warm and welcoming and proud of his wines. On the opposite side of the valley a huge factory dominated the landscape but caused little offence in the winter sun; Italian life and industry so typically interwoven. 

We headed next for nearby Malvirà where Roberto Damonte, on his 42nd vintage, showed us round the winery with its curious Carot card characters and decorated pillars, and offered us aperitivi – his Arneis. We reminisced about Mollie (our host in 2010), while we waited for two others to join us for lunch.

These were a young Japanese sommelier, presently working at a very smart and expensive  ristorante in Barbaresco, and a Korean business woman who was staying in  Malvirà’s agriturismo, who alternated flirting with lamenting her doctor husband’s lack of interest in alcohol. Lunch was a long affair, and Roberto was a generous host. Roberto’s boisterous brother and friends arrived to finish off the bottles as we beat a retreat. 

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Our final visit was to Angelo Negro in Monteu. Giovanni Negro greeted us warmly, leading us to the terrace to admire the vineyards in the fading light, talking continuously about the sheer endurance of his parents whose stoicism and grinding graft still moves him to tears, and who built up the business from a standing start. 

He now presides over a very prosperous business and winery, with very high-spec traditional architecture and oak doors to die for. A generous, warm, emotional man whose tasting was informative and comprehensive; his homely PA making sure his guests were comfortable – if an opportunity arose – when he stopped to take breath. 

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We returned to Alba, to meet Valerie Quintanilla at the Enoclub (her favourite). She certainly enjoyed the burger with fois gras(!) though we had some reservations about the international ( even touristy) style that the ristorante had adopted. We first met Valerie in Alba in 2014, and again briefly in Montalcino in 2016.  She now runs a wine tours business in Alba and gave us suggestions of wineries she had enjoyed visiting before heading off to babysit a friend’s brand-new infant. 

Thursday 30 January 

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Chiara Boschis at E Pira is something of a legend in Barolo; the only girl in the ground-breaking Barolo boys of the 1980s. And she is still as innovative and adventurous now; trialling drones (not airborne)  for spraying in the vineyard (less compaction, less labour and greater safety).we arrived at 09.00 to be greeted by a still pyjama-ed and embarrassed neice (ostensibly working on her eneology studies on her laptop in bed) who tracked Chiara down by phone in a distant vineyard. ‘She says she’ll be 10 minutes – but that means at least 15…’ 

We sidled off to Barolo’s bar for a quick cup of coffee.

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Chiara was well worth a wait! So informative, so helpful with David’s questions, still experimenting. She showed us some of her nearby vines in the Terlo vineyard, patiently explaining the distinctive training system that we had noticed on Sunday, and the mixed value of the netting increasingly used against the hit-and-miss  hail. 

We were joined by local language teacher who (we learned later) had come for a conversation about how she might deploy her many skills as a general factotum and diary keeper for Chiara. She spoke excellent English, Italian, German of course, and some French. It occurred to us that she might just be a little too organised for a spirit as free as Chiara. 

We set off for Neive, in the hope that La Luna nel Pozzo might still be open. Indeed it was. The Padrone and a staff of at least four were in attendance for our two covers. We assume the evening trade is busier. Another exceptional meal in a charming dining room. 

So relaxing was lunch that we were ten minutes late for a visit to Piero Busso, five minutes away, where our intended host’s wife provided us with a comprehensive tasting amid apologies for his absence.

Close by was a final destination of the day: Cascina delle Rose at Tre Stelle in  Barbaresco, where Riccardo greeted us, showed us the surrounding landscape in the failing light, And and passed us over to his son Davide to show us the winery and taste wines. 

We admired the cellar first, its humidity preserved by the continuously weeping walls; then the newly painted concrete tanks that Davide and his brother were lovingly restoring, and of course, tasted their delicious wines. The sun set behind the fabulous hills as we drove the back route into Alba and supper at the popular Ape wine bar, one time classy cafe, to judge by the fine mirrors and internal decor.

Friday 31 January 2020 (The UK’s last day as part of the EU – lest we forget) 

We headed south east for the narrow valley described so clearly by Massnaghetti: a steep-sided wind tunnel with a distinctive set of ridges running E – W which resembled a fish bone cartoon (think Top Cat’s trash cans!) dominated on its eastern flank by Serra Lunga. Its valley was flat, marshy and scarcely populated; markedly different form the more populous and accessible rolling hills to the west in the triangular bowl between La Morra to the west, Barolo to the south and Castiglione Falletto to the east.  

First up was Forte Masso where we met Lucca Rosso, one of only three people presently based there. An old property has been transformed into a statement winery with elaborate ceilings, highly decorative lighting and stunning views. It was eerily empty and we were puzzled by its Marie-Celeste feel. Even the Director and his admin assistant looked pleased to see other human beings.  It felt a lonely place which has yet to become a hub of wine-making activity. Early days? 

From there we crossed the valley to meet Paolo Manzone at Cascina Meriame, close by Serra Lunga. 

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Paolo comes from a wine-making family, and has skillfully transformed his wife’s family’s property without detracting from its traditional layout or spaces, now making outstanding wines in innovative ways. His use of existing spaces coupled with contemporary design and technology is very striking and successful.

Paolo is a warm, hospitable man, only prevented from giving us hours of his time by his wife keen to get him to the airport for his flight to Denmark. She had an uphill struggle – but then still found time to phone round the local ristoranti for our lunch booking. 

We made it just in time to a newly-opened, very stylish Osteria Tre Case on the Via Roma in the middle of old Serralunga. Though we saw not a soul on the tiny, windy streets, the ristorante was busy and thriving, with the castle towering above.

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We re-traced our journey back across the valley to exactly the same road on which we had travelled that morning, past the entrance to Forte Masso, and climbed to the top of the ridge to achieve Azienda Agricola Giovanni Manzone with its fabulous views on both sides of the ridge that it sits astride. Here Mauro Manzone spent the afternoon showing us the cascina, explaining the family’s history and tasting wines.

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The cellars held a recently discovered well where a diviner many years previously had claimed water was present; its depth was unknown on the grounds that to investigate it might compromise the clay bowl in which it rested.   We were intrigued by the modified Coravin he was using. Attached to a large canister of argon (an inert gas used in a variety of ways in agriculture), Mauro explained that a handy amateur engineer in the States had devised a connector, and equipped him with it. (The only drawback of the Coravin is the cost of replacing the mini capsules of argon; its value for tasting small amounts of expensive wine is not in dispute!) 

David was especially thrilled to be given an older bottle (1998) to supplement a vertical tasting of Barolo Bricat he has planned for the spring. I was thrilled to be in such a glorious place whose history picked up in 1925 when Mauro’s great grandparents took over what had been the local priest’s house, and used it as the base for their mixed farming. Mauro’s father, another Giovanni, as we spoke, was outside in the clear cold afternoon with his friends, pruning the vines. 

A fabulous final visit ! We drove back to Alba on a high, and headed for a charming, civilised cafe where we had two of those spectacular cioccolata calda which Italians do so well, in a wonderfully cosy and traditional setting.

We ate that evening in La Piola, Piazza Risorgimento. Downstairs is trendy: quite expensive; blackboard menus and lively staff. It shares some of the kitchen – and expertise  – of the elegant exclusive ristorante upstairs: Piazza Duomo, which also has rooms for its special clients straddling a number of floors in this traditional palazzo. One for next time, perhaps? 

The next morning we drove to Turin airport for 08.30, returned the car, and flew back to Gatwick. We were home by 15.00. Lots of jokes about passport control, but nothing untoward. The Uk’s own little phoney war has started. Will Boris Johnson be waving his own pointless piece of paper soon?

Postscript (23 May 2020)

Little did I realise when I called this post ‘Piemonte  January 2020 – the first of many’ that it would actually be the only 2020 trip. We flew back from Turin on 1 February – the very day that the UK’s still unaware first victim of Covid 19 returned from the Alps to his home in Brighton. Had we stayed a few days longer we would have been very close – in time and space – to the epicentre of Italy’s tragic outbreak.

All David’s planned trips to Piemontese producers and vintage launches were of course cancelled by the ‘lockdown’ and ensuing Covid containment measures. At this moment we have no idea when visits might resume. In the meantime Zoom meetings and tasting samples sent by kind producers are informing his research!

 

 

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