Armed with the NHS vaccine pass, a negative covid antigen test and a successfully completed Travel Locator Form (assembling these added an extra day and shed-loads of worry to travel preparations) we set off at 07.30 for Stansted on Wednesday 6 October. The up train was late, and we lost half an hour en route to the Victoria line and Tottenham Hale. But that was all the hassle we experienced; queues were short, the paperwork stood up to scrutiny and the plane for Turin left on time, at 13.40. So far, so good.
I’m not great company en route, but as the little Fiat Panda (retrieved from the car hire with minimal fuss) hurtled around Turin, avoiding a motorway snarl-up after a Google map tip-off, it all began to feel possible.
The sun was setting as we arrived at Tenuta La Romana, set in vineyards tucked improbably behind a light industrial estate, two kilometres to the south of Nizza Monferrato.
The Tenuta was very quiet, but spacious and hospitable, and happily positioned next to La Piccola Torre – a recently restored traditional ristorante, in which we dined frequently, and set in the midst of somebody’s vineyards. We ate here on eight consecutive nights, and despite its modest size, the quality of the cooking and the extensive fish-based menu never palled.
Thursday 7 Oct 21
David’s main contact at the Asti consorzio – Stefano Ricagno – had asked Paola to organise this leg of our visit. She not only created a fantastic programme of tastings and visits but also drove us hither and thither each day in her mini countyman. We are so lucky! Roberta joined us on two occasions – a brilliant technical translator
Our very first visit was to Scagliola, a family business of several generations where Flavio is an energetic champion of the nearly sanctioned Canelli DOCG which he and others have worked hard to create for over twenty years. A glorious day and a winery with fantastic views from the polished concrete roof of the cellar – and a black cat playing in the sunshine and long shadows.
We left Scagliola to drive to the Consorzio’s offices in Asti to meet Guido Bezzo and Daniele Eberle, for David to pick their brains on all things technical. Having already worked our way through innumerable examples of Moscato Asti I felt sleepy and struggled to keep awake while Roberta tackled technicalities. I’m pretty sure sugar was the culprit – not alcohol!
We drove for lunch to Locanda Del Bosco Grande where Daniele and Guido chose the wines and gossiped with Paola before heading to Soria to meet Matteo who was nursing a seriously sprained back, and where we learned he was not a fan of the proposed Canelli DOCG… He heroically took us to the vineyards as well as around the very new winery, with another fine polished concrete balcony, another cat and a lively young son enjoying the concrete slope on his scooter.
The cantina boasted huge fermentation tanks for cold storage, and almost continuous fermentations to keep up with demand. The Lion’s share of a huge production goes to the US market
The fabulous view from his tasting room was only marred by the floodlight’s lamp post
Paola drove us back from above Santo Stefano Belbo, stopping to admire the view of it from one of many unused churches which dominate the ridges and hills, before winding our way down to the river.
A day of cats: Soria’s elderly guardian of wine boxes, and the Tenuta’s equally comfortable feline
Another great supper at the ristorante opposite the Tenuta – courtesy of the Asti consorzio which has been hugely supportive to David. Fine Timorasso and Langhe Nebbiolo recommended by the Madrone and lovely sea food and spinach provided by the exuberant Chef. Complimenti !
Friday 8 Oct 21
Paola had somehow squeezed in another visit first thing to Roberta’s brother, Ignazio Giovine at L’Armangia who makes a wide range of wines, partly to ward off ’boredom’ he claimed. (Mental note: ’noiosa’ is boredom not annoyance!) The visit to his vineyards illustrated the ‘stripes’ of Nizza hills and three different soils for three different grapes.
This time young Martina was in attendance as interpreter; another intense talented idealistic young woman. She keeps chickens for eggs not for eating – as she said, they all have names. She also plans to start up a truffle-hunting business – though the summer’s drought has made them scarce – and very expensive – this year
Hairy drive (Paola at the wheel) to Vesime (back route dropping into back of town past a ruined castle) to a shy father and son at Cavallero. Their labels keep alive the proud memory of their neighbourhood having been a significant partisan base during WWII, hosting a perilous landing of an allied plane behind the lines. It was difficult to imagine a big enough, flat enough space in that landscape, but photos lined the cantina wall. Lorenzo also grows Brachetto grapes – to Paola’s delight !
We went briefly into the vineyard for a Brachetto hunt; followed by a long slow traditional lunch at ridge-top Locanda Mandola
We drove on to Vini Torelli to taste three Moscato di Canelli vintages – another example of Moscato’s potential for ageing.
Mario began in simple, slow loud italian – which gradually gave way to rapid fire speech as he showed us around his little museum and the famous dutch sleeves used for filters in 1950s. Fascinating!
Paola dropped us back at the Tenuta La Romana in time for a quick walk through the vineyards as the sun went down. There was plenty of evidence of just how damaging the short but heavy deluge of five days ago can be in the vineyards….
Saturday 9 October 21
Today was our first day driving as we headed for Bersano in Nizza Monferrato itself. Paola drove to the Lakes for a wedding that afternoon, so we were left to our own devices. The export manager showed us around this huge well-established business, which included a sizeable museum of industrial machinery, steam trains and british-made rolling stock.
we also met Roberto Morosinotto the wine maker (who we later learned is the partner of Valentina, our next guide for Asti)
We drove east, over the hills to Strevi, to Marenco, on the outskirts of Acqui Terme, which occupies the very centre of this attractive small community, with its entrance giving on to the main piazza where a large stone marks the seven drinking brothers who (legend tells) stayed this side of the river (while their three abstaining brothers crossed over to the other side)
Andrea Costa is the son of one of the three sisters who took over the admin, the wine-making and the sales from their father, who founded the modern wine business in the 1960s.
I really wouldn’t want to live in that little house at the bottom – the volume of water after rain must be unmanageable…
We moved onto Cuvage to meet Stefano Ricagno, vice-president of the Asti consortium, and a very keen supporter of David’s project, without whose help this trip would have been much poorer. He showed us round the huge new plant producing high volume sparkling wines, and introduced us to some of his new projects – including dry Moscato. He also gave us a long explanation of Cuvage’s relationship with Mondo di Vini and the equity company.
We left Stefano at 19.00, carelessly leaving the magic pen behind. we had barely time to change before he and Anna Lisa had arrived to take us out to supper (rabbit) in a very traditional restaurant Violetta in nearby Calamandrana. Discussion began over retrieving the pen – which Stefano had found…
Sunday 10 October 21
At last! a slow morning, followed by a spell in Nizza about which no-one had much positive to say. We enjoyed ourselves. We found a very charming largely children’s book shop, open even though showing Chiuso on the door and a busy bar in the main square, which was cheerfully decorated with multi-coloured mobiles.
Being Sunday we shouldn’t have been surprised by a procession, albeit of Green Cross volunteers, celebrating the move of their headquarters from the pedestrianised town centre to the less romantic but much more accessible outskirts.
Lunch at Osteria Odette was slow, and at least one bottle was corked but the food was fine. We headed back to the Tenuta to get some exercise around the vineyards and to begin preparations for the next week’s visits. And the pen finally turned up at the Tenuta – courtesy of kind Stefano.
Monday 11 October 21
Paola squeezed in an early visit to Forteto della Luja with the eccentric but v engaging Giovanni Scaglione and his old Cascina in a magnificent setting in Loazzolo in the south of the region (and not that far from Alba!) which is renowned for its biodiversity and orchids. The setting is fabulous; it feels remote and unreconstructed and the interior of the house remains exactly as it was in the photos of famous visitors in 1987
Next a formal greeting by and thank you to Sig. Ricagno ( senior) now head of the Brachetto consorzio but sometime head of the whole Asti operation in the old Cantina Sociale in Alice Bel Colle. He is a healthy 75 with a fine suntan and modest bling. It was a cooler day, and note the Italians – were well covered with several layers, and be-scarfed against those iniquitous draughts…
On to Banfi in Strevi to meet the friendly enologo Antonio Massucco where we had a ‘simple’ lunch of at least five types of pasti served by Paola in the absence of a cuoca, and a delightfully civilised tasting.
Well set up for the afternoon, Paola drove us to a very different operation to meet Daniele and to sample his Bragagnolo passiti al fresco. He met us, armed with a rucksack, and we strode behind him towards his newly created truffle wood through the vineyards
It was a joke a minute; we met a pig in a closed up sty (protection from sunburn?) and almost abandoned the bag (plus laptop) in the field. His place is in the lower slopes that we had seen from Marenco’s bench on Saturday, but mercifully a little further along from that alarming potential torrente, and the ’sign-maker’s’ house at the bottom.
The sun was getting low. I thought that was the last visit. Not so ! It took quite a-lot of self-control to muster energy and enthusiasm for Tre Secoli in Ricaldone, the second Cantina Sociale of the day where a young woman eneologo greeted us before shooting off to an evening class leaving a hesitant newish host in charge. The views from this traditional site over the town were very imposing… but this is my only photo from the visit – Ricaldone bathed in evening light .
This was the last day with Paola in charge. She has been fantastic, and offered to chase other wineries in other regions. We may see her in Alba! As with the first day, the sweet wine of the passiti finished me off. I had felt under the weather tummy wise for 24 hours but today we ate supper quickly, and I was in bed by 21.45.