Piemonte in September 2022: 1 – the Langhe

Friday 2 September 2022

After a busy week of birthday celebrations, it was a relief to be catching a mid-afternoon BA flight from Gatwick, accessed easily by trains (running almost to time!). Wonderful when it works! 

But a late departure meant a later arrival at Turin, and though Hertz’s rep was both friendly and helpful we left for the Turin Tangeziale in gathering gloom. The Fiat Panda felt a little more stable than the Fiat 500 we hired in May, but I was glad when we turned south for Savona and the traffic calmed. 

We arrived at the familiar I Castelli hotel in Alba at 21.45, tired and grateful for the food purchased in Gatwick’s Pret, and for the beer in room 313’s fridge (yes – the same room as the last three visits!) 

Saturday 3 September 

Unusually we had a late breakfast and a slow morning, enhanced by three bits of good luck :

It had occurred to me in the night that as every large public organisation accumulates lost property, this hotel would likely have the correct cable we needed for the phone link to the car. Indeed it did.

We found an opticians as soon as we reached the town willing to secure a loose screw in my sunglasses; and best of all, some kind soul rescued the handbag I had left draped over a chair in a busy street cafe (below) and handed it in to the staff. This is me at a less busy cafe several hundred metres away after I’d rescued it – shaken, relieved and not best pleased with myself!

How lucky was that – on a Saturday where every street, every piazza and car park heaved with crowds flocking to biggest town market I had ever seen ! 100s of stalls of every conceivable item.

We searched out and booked favourite and new restaurants for the coming days, and lunched on piadini from the take-away – so often closed. 

We drove for a 14.00 appointment at Renato Ratti at Annunciata near La Morra, which we had visited in 2010. Renato died prematurely in 1988 having laid the ground for the rise of special vineyards and dedicated DOCGs with his mapping of Barolo vineyards in the early 60s and invented (but deliberately not patented) the ‘Albeisa’ specially shaped bottle. His then 20 year old son Pietro, also an eneologist, took over the business and has overseen its growth.

Our tasting was hosted by the newish and very capable hospitality and tasting manager – a self-appointed Barbera ambassador whose english idiom and vocabulary was outstanding despite never having worked or lived in the UK (how often do we hear or use ‘scant’ or ‘scarce’?)

On from there – on time at 16.00 – to meet eneologist and popular wine-making consultant Gian Luca Colomba at his home and cantina in Roddi. We were introduced to his three newly purchased sheep (who had escaped yesterday and were now corralled with the chickens while the electric fence for their run was commissioned) They are to graze and fertilise the vineyard…

He is a very engaging human being, whose scientific training is now the solid foundation for his growing interest and commitment to biodynamic everything. Below is a plan for a complete make-over of his own land to foster biodiversity and chip away at the the Langhe’s growing monoculture. 

And he champions a very personal (literally) approach to wine. 

He tries to get to know each grape variety: ‘who is Pinot Noir? Who is Barbera ? Note the deliberate use of the pronoun usually used for a person.  I wondered if to understand (Ie to know about or to know how) would work better. In the world of wine speak, subtle differences in language use and meaning really matter. For example, the single italian verb sentire is used where english would employ more specific verbs to hear, to listen, to feel, to touch, to smell… 

So Gian Luca does want us to feel the wine; and he asks: who is Pinot Noir…? Well! Different!    

Back to the hotel and out again in the pouring rain to Voglia di Vino, once a modest bar patronised by Rob, Hugh and Mari in 2014, and now twice the size and a sophisticated ristorante. We sat under a canopy as the light faded, enjoying their excellent food and service. 

Sunday 4 September

A very slow start, partly to avoid the large German crowd at breakfast; partly still winding down. My stiff neck suddenly got stiffer – and painful – which was disconcerting, though it plateaued at breakfast and had faded by the time we reached Pollenzo ( roman Pollentia) where the House of Savoy’s Estates Offices were built in the mid nineteenth century.

This extravagant and neo-gothic legacy (Harry Potter filming would do well here!) is now the location of two hotels and gardens fit for fine weddings, a functioning church, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences. 

 I summoned courage to drive from this very quiet spot to the highly recommended cultural hub of Cherasco. The monthly Antiques fair was in full swing and the town was solid with traffic. We quickly rerouted to Narzole where a hotel for next week had been recommended to us.

After searching in vain for the access to Dogliano Il Generale winery which we hope to visit next week, the hotel’s lunch was fully booked and we defaulted to Matteo’s which looked closed.

Not so! A great local experience. Back via Verduno in the sunshine with its impressive views over the Langhe. Even Burlotto’s place looked cheerful! Back to the hotel to regroup and write this, and then off to De Gustibus…. 

Monday 5 September

Today I’m driving to Parusso for 09.00 but Monforte is easy ! We passed the Ceretto cube en route to Parusso, a family business begun in the 1930s, and one of the few who make the elusive Alba DOC. A nephew began bottling the grapes in the 60s, and his daughter Tiziana and son Marco founded the present business in the 90s, building on the Barolo Boys’ revolution. Cousins Giulia and Federico will be the fifth generation when their time comes. 

Anna, employed since 2006, met us using english; Tiziana spoke Italian, (as children here used to learn french at school) and explained the origins of the Alba DOC (2010) and its earlier traditional manifestation – le taglie all’Alberese – of this (once field) blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera. Their Vegliamonte (the ‘watch’ cf vigil of the mountains – Monte Rosa is visible) is made from grapes grown in the Santa Rosalia borgo, just south of Alba. They are its keen ambassadors!

Parusso is wedded to the exclusive use of first passagio barriques, but has developed some very  particular approaches to wine-making; eg resting the grapes for two days in boxes to ripen the tannins and dry stems, and using passito as the base in the traditional method sparkling wine whose reserva is left on the lees for 100 months. We tasted 2011. Really delicious ! 

These are warm, kindly people doing what has worked for their family over the many years.

We moved on to Gigi Rosso on the Strada Alba – Barolo 34, in Castiglione Falletto, driving through the vineyards on the narrow road already busy with harvesters. Maurizio had double-booked, but D tackled the cellars tour with a German group while I sat that out.

Maurizio is an excellent educator and communicator, David concluded, on that performance. He came over as a man with a broad liberal education with a concern for community and people. He very kindly drove us right up to Le Torri, parking right by the castle walls undergoing careful repairs, for an excellent raw fish and porcini lunch with stupendous views. We returned later in the week at his invitation to taste his wines, and kindly gave us a copy of his 2002 book on Barolo producers.

We were 20 minutes later than 14.00 for Matteo at Castello di Perno localita Castelletto 33 in Monforte d’Alba. He met us in the vicolo Roma, and took us to the castle, formerly the property of  the Einaudi publishing dynasty.

The building is being slowly restored, but still bears all the hallmarks of its previous owner: shelves and shelves of books – and allowed us a glimpse of Monforte D’Alba in the distance before we drove with him to the winery itself in Perno, where we tasted from the barrel and admired the debris after destemming.

Our last visit of this long day was to Cascina Amalia in the localita di Sant’Anna, to the south of Monforte d’Alba, just inside the denomination. Th estate was purchased in c 2004 as a family project, now producing competent wines, and a thriving agriturismo business. Our host was a placid and kindly proprietor making sound wines and providing a delightful spot for family holidays.

We enjoyed supper at Il Trittolo off the main drag with single-handed Chiara and her partner chef who are attempting something more imaginative than many local ristoranti. We learned she was a friend and contemporary of Paola Sordo who we met at Vinitaly; we drank her 2018 Viognier !  

Tuesday 6 September 

Another bright clear morning for our 09.00 visit to the beautiful Cavallotto Fratelli, in their tenuta Bricco Boschis, in Castiglione Falletto, sitting astride a ridge with views of Castiglione to the east, La Morra to the west, and with even Novello visible to the south, and Verduno to the north. Its vineyards completely surround it; harvested grapes are in the cantina, de-stemmed in ten minutes.

We tasted Gringnolo ‘21, Barbera  Cucculo ‘20, Langhe Nebbiolo ‘20, Barolo Bricco Boschis ‘18 with grapes from both San Giuseppi and Vignolo, then two reservas from 2016 of these two vineyards. Very intense aromas, and dense fruit. Still young… Wonderful family business; we met very knowledgeable and friendly Alfio.

We were greeted by Samuelle at Boroli nearby on the via Brunella soon after 11.00. The building has a stupendous view made the most of by a 360 degree tasting room, which produced fabulous photos. He was relatively recently employed by the company, and very keen to relay all his information, and to show us the cellars which are still to be fully restored.

After a modest lunch of peanuts and water in the student cafe, the afternoon was spent on the Alba Wine School, where students were sitting exams, overseen by Professor Vincenzo Gerbi himself, who had agreed to spend an hour or so answering David’s questions. I felt very sleepy!

It was good to meet someone of whom we had heard so many good things, and he graciously tried to answer David’s questions – some of which he thought were too hard! He is on the point of retiring, having spent decades teaching many of Piemonte’s wine makers. His assistant and fellow researcher Maria showed us around the laboratories.

After re-grouping at the hotel, we returned to the same buildings to meet the head of the Langhe Consorzio, which has been consistently supportive in providing us with accommodation, and with information. Victoria – who we had met in Gavi, is now working on their new logistical initiative – to create a mechanism by which suppliers use central storage from which heavy trucks can transport wine – to minimise their impact on the delicate Langhe environment

Alba seems awash with new eateries – one such being Il Museo just off to the left on the Via Cavour. All the seating was outdoor; downstairs are rooms with fantastically high ceilings, no doubt in use once the weather changes. The food was good; another very contemporary approach.

Riso integrale, seppia, nera e salmone crudo

Wednesday 7 September 

We drove to Barbaresco to visit Bruno Rocca at 09.00; more precisely, to meet Luisa at Rabaja.

Marta from the office greeted us and Luisa appeared soon after – warm towards David whom she met first in 2010, and since in London. She is the administrator and organiser, i/c sales and communication, while her brother Francesco works in the vineyard and cantina. Bruno, in his 70s, is still working, and has succeeded in making room for his grown-up children, as partners. 

Their wines are delightful; and it’s clear that Luisa has had an affinity with wines and wine-making for a very long time! She’s in red; I don’t know whether the other is her or a younger Francesco!

The signature feather on their labels, drawn by Gianni Gallo, represents the lightness of being (not lightweightness) that Luisa describes as their goal. The wines have moved from hard and impenetrable to clarity and finesse. I particularly liked Currá.

Luisa kindly gave me a book of art work by Gianni Gallo whose beautiful labels bedeck jams as well as fine wines, and whose work we visited later in the week on display in an exhibition in Dogliani.

11.30 Giuseppe Cortese: Gabriele Occhetti at Rabajà Barbaresco was pre-occupied with Daniele Gallolo whose critical view and scores are internationally important. Our tasting began an hour late, and Gabriele raced us through his wines, and a rapid in and out of the winery. 

We headed to Neive and stopped for lunch at the Osteria del Monastero where road works had disabled the phone and internet connection leaving the padrone doing the arithmetic and dealing with cash as well as foreigners. 

 Giacosa fratelli winery was also besieged by road works, in addition to the noisy business of a winery in full swing at harvest. Maurizio was constantly interrupted or pursued by elderly relatives and large old barking dog leaving a chaotic impression. He is struggling with the Barbera Bussia which has a large customer following but which needs replanting badly. Of course Nebbiolo would be a better earner…. 

We stopped for coffee and a short break in a hot and grumpy cafe before heading to Marchesi di Gresy whose 12 hectare monopole Martinenga surrounds this aristocratic house on the strada della stazione just inside Barbaresco. It lies below Bruna Rocco and Luisa had pointed it out as we looked at her vineyards of Rabaja, above the monopole. 

Alberto (whose second language is french but whose very mannered english gave away an aristocratic background) greeted us very courteously, as we sat in a large room with fine views of the garden and vineyards. He began to bottle and expand the business as a young man, and since 1972 has built up a complex range of wines and styles.

There is a huge cellar buried under the elaborate traditional garden.  We sat for several hours, served by his son, briefly met his daughter, and finally Geoffrey Chilcott the cellar master. He’s a ebullient NZ exile who has worked with the Marchese for thirty years. 

We returned to Alba by the back roads, and rushed to Supper at La Libera where the room was hot and stuffy, and I chose badly ! A shame 

Thursday 8 September

08.30 Guilia Negri in Serradenari on via Bricco del Dente on the edge of La Morra was held up at a meeting so Raddi (Iranian architect student originally but eight years in Milan as Sommelier and now i/c hospitality here) looked after us with explanations of the vineyards and woods, and history of the household –  a long standing country home, with a grandfather fostering trees which are associated with truffles – and 20 years ago her father (journalist and writer) restored the vineyards before passing the business to Giulia in 2015. He is busy near Rome founding yet another business. 

11.00 Marchesi di Barolo via Roma 1, Barolo

Ernesto spent an hour talking about the history of Marchesi di Barolo, and showed us the eccentric items for which he is most proud within the cellars, including an unusually shaped barrel, designed to make its transport by cart easier. He aims to entertain children visitors with his extraordinary wardrobe theatre

His son Davide (six years younger than sister Valentina) conducted the long tasting, but it was his fiancée, having spotted we had another appointment imminently, rescued us with a plate of Plin at 13.50 before we headed off – late – at 14.00

Pecchenino is in borgata Valdiberti 59 some distance away on the edge of the Dogliani denomination, on the boundary with Monforte, on but our host was happy enough when we phoned. It is a family company of four generations, which has expanded over the years with vines in many places; including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling Alta Langhe and still wines; Nebbiolo, Dolchetto, Reisling. ‘We love this place, not just the product’, he said, and hopes to transmit this to his two daughters who will be joining the business.

Harvest had finished for the whites and the Dolchetto was on its last day, with Nebbiolo and Barbera yet to be picked.

It took half an hour to reach Garesio; driving first to Serra Lunga and then dropping down a very steep hill on a dreadful unmaintained farm road for 1500 metres to reach the newly built winery in localita Sordo 1. Fortunately, having achieved the valley floor, it was clear there was a simpler road out – along the river, of course, North to Alba. 

Marta met us, and eventually Alessio (friend of Gian Luca) joined us and began a tasting, starting with an Alta Langa, 100% pinot noir from a tiny steep vineyard in the woods above us. We had driven alongside the east facing Giannetto vineyard as we dropped down from Serra Lunga, which produces fine Barolo… Alessio is i/c sales and distribution but passionate about wine, with a project on Timorasso with friend Matteo in Colle Tortonese.

[At 16.30 on this afternoon, Elizabeth II died, at Balmoral, having finally seen off Boris Johnson on Tuesday. Job done ! Thank you ma’am.. Liz Truss and Charles III will make an interesting combo…]

Friday 9 September 

To Livia Fontana in Casteglione Falletto for 09.00 to meet Lorenzo, one her sons, at this immaculate winery. He gave us a demonstration of the very useful Barolo 360 app which identifies individual vineyards on photos of the landscapes.

Onto Giuseppe Rinaldi to meet Carlotta for a fascinating tasting at 11.00 in this most traditional of Barolo makers. She is the agronomist, and her sister Marta the eneologist, both grieving the loss of their mother a few weeks earlier, only a few years after the sudden death of Giuseppe.

She explained the family’s philosophy in the midst of a completely unreconstructed cantina, which remains as it has been for decades, despite producing the most prized Barolos, demonstrating the enormous wall mounted bottle opener imaginable.

We managed a quick but delightful lunch on the terrace of Brezza before heading back to taste with Maurizio Rosso, whose book will be fascinating. 

Finally, as we were leaving the Barolo area, we took in L’abstenzio Repenante where Giorgio gave a tour of this new and sometime controversial winery with its very different ethos and decorations. Its owner and inspiration is Sandra Vezza, fashionista, whose aim is to make Barolo wines accessible to everyone. What do you think?

We arrived back in the hotel at 19.00, enjoyed a beer before heading for Il Vicoletto for 20.00 where the food was very good as were the glasses of champagne and Barolo, though the staff were reserved and unresponsive. Bit of a dip!

Week one of Piemonte Autumn 2022 has been a real success! A weekend exploring comes next….

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