Piemonte 13: Monferrato September 2022

Monday 12 September 

We made an earlyish start (we saw the sunrise from our bedroom window) to drive east from Alba to our first visit Ca Turin in Cisterna d’Asti at 09.00 where Alessandro met us promptly and showed us his modest cantina with four small concrete tanks (and several bags of hazel nuts).

Fabulous views to the south east, seen through the well.

His father lamented the smallness of his tomatoes. In ‘21 and ‘22 many grapes were sold to Giacosa as a hail storm, and then drought respectively, had reduced the yields and the price for grapes rose dramatically, making it an attractive prospect for small growers. We tasted Popi, a nebbiolo rosé – very attractive – and of course a Croatina, very deep coloured; a nebbiolo and a barbera. 

 After a 30 minute drive west we arrived at 11.00 at Socré at Strada Terzole 7, in Barbaresco where Marco greeted us warmly, and conducted our meeting with good humour and much amusement, tasting several wines only from the tini or the cask, as tomorrow the bottling lorry comes. The view of the Tannaro river and Alba from his land is breath-taking!

Marco lives in Turin, and commutes virtually daily. Formerly an architect, now retired but busy with several parcels of vineyards of Pinot Noir, Barbara, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, Ruché in numerous places: Dogliani, Alta Langa, Alba, as well as Barbaresco. He no longer attempts Croatina in Cisterna d’Asti; it is too vulnerable to flavascenda dore. Note his use of blocks of stone for the walls of his (very well-insulated) cantina!

After a great and in my case, vegetarian lunch (to our host’s mock horror) at the albergo due passi di Socré, Casa Nicolini, (where we ran into Evan – again!) we moved to Gianni Doglia near Castangnole delle Lanze for 15.00 where Paola, the sister of Gianni greeted us in english, accompanied by her 11 year old daughter, and showed us the original cascina her grandparents bought in 1947 with its stunning views. 

Their house now stands alongside it (L); hers is across the road, sitting over the cantina with its functional and colourful style. 

Gianni joined us and we tasted his terrific rosé made from Freisa; Grignolino, Ruché, all with contemporary minimalist labels and on Paola’s return, he went off again to discuss the next stage of the making of the merlot we saw outside. We moved through the three Barberas, two in oak; and a Merlot! Also Moscato d’Asti – two 2019 – one on lees for six months and Charmat; and a vintage

We moved on to the familiar Tenuta Romana near Nizza, and arrived in time to walk through the vineyards of Sant’Evasio whose cantina we are to visit tomorrow. The land was very parched. 

Paola Baldi collected us at 20.30 to take us to Tanti in Nizza for supper with Stefano Ricagno. Two wonderful supporters! 

Tuesday 13 September

Breakfast at the tenuta was pretty hopeless! Neither tea nor coffee was any good despite the willing staff. I chose to drive again to build my confidence on these country roads. We arrived five minutes early at Il Falchetto, Località valle Tinella 16, in Santo and met Giorgio who David had already encountered with his daughter Marguerite in an earlier technical visit to the region. 

His new sparkling cellar is being built, while his existing buildings have grown up as the family developed their earlier generation’s vision. Two brothers died young, leaving eight nipoti across two families – with Giorgio as the eldest. 

A fantastic site, overlooking an old steep passiti vineyard and a two hectare site in a flatish bowl in front of the estate which is to be replanted. We watched the old vineyard’s gradual dismantling, with a tractor crunching up the plant remains before ploughing up. 

An interesting tasting including a Pinot Noir from 2006, and a Nebbiolo.   

We drove on, a little late, to Cascina Cerruti via Canelli 205, Cassinasco arriving at 11.20 to be met by the proprietor, Gianmario and a young Francesco as a ‘translator’ from Coppo. He was rightly fascinated by the Livescribe pen (which is misbehaving). 

We looked briefly at the fece and filtering material,  lately removed from the new fermented must, and then began to taste in a little room, next to the old cascina which his grandfather had bought in 1939. The 2018 Sandrinet had six deg acidity and 130 gm of sugar, and 5% alcohol. Lovely! Imported by Lay and Wheeler, and the 2017 and 2014 are something else

The tasting moved on to still, fermented out egs of Cortese eg Cerutti, then some Chardonnay : Riva Grande

We enjoyed some local goat’s cheese and morbide salsiccie as a mini lunch. The sleepiness of the Nizza visit began to creep up on me ! We said our farewells to Francesco (from whom David had received the wines for his zoom with Coppo last year) After inquiring about simple trattorias, Gianmario invited us to his wife’s family’s ristorante in Canelli, Ristorante Casa Crippa where we had a slow ‘quick’ lunch of mushroom risotto and russian salad, and roast chicken… 

The winery of Isolabella della Croce is high up in the Loazzolo area, with vineyards whose average height above sea level is 480m. Seriously high, with extraordinary views. 

Luca was keen to begin the tasting as soon as we arrived, a rare example of a host worrying about keeping us to schedule. We were still reeling from seeing a huge concrete mixer first creeping down the very narrow road, and then backing down an even steeper slope for a least 100 metres on a barely made road to reach the cantina, in the process of being rebuilt. 

The family name is historic, and it was Marie Theresa, late wife of owner Ludovico, who was enthused by the project to preserve the cantina, one of the ten or so that remain in Loazzolo. Sons Francesco and Luigi give their names to Frà and Giotto wines, two of many, many varieties. 

Luca found it hard to ditch the word ‘sour’ as a substitute for ‘acidic’ despite understanding its limitations. (He tells us the dutch don’t understand acidic, apparently!) but in every other respect he was an excellent host, in the absence of Andrea, the wine maker, who with his brother, was excited to be delivering a newly designed tank to Walter Masser today. Andrea’s family lives and makes wine locally.

We were late leaving but lost 10 more minutes with a bizarre google map blunder, arriving at the cantina Sant’ Evasio at 16.55, which we had walked by last night via the vineyards, this time using the winding road out of Nizza along the ridge of San Nicolai. 

Greeted by Emanuele, we looked around the very big and functional winery before tasting in the little tasting room.  We tasted the bianco, Lagaia, a blend of Arneis, Chardonnay and Nascetta; a Grignolino and several Barberas, including a 2016 Nizza of 15.5%. Not to be drunk with fish – perhaps chocolate! A cru di San Nicolai…

Talking of fish: we returned to the restaurant Torre Rosa, alongside the Tenuta where we had eaten every night for nine days last autumn, and whose chef and his partner greeted as as long lost friends. The starter below gives you some idea….

Wednesday 14 September 

A quiet slower morning at the hotel, before we set off for Strevi via Alice delle Colle, and stopped at Marengo where La Madrone recognised us and David was able to taste the sweet wines and talk to son Alessandro again. Below are the grapes drying on trays

We found lunch at a roadside cafe only 300m from Stefano’s huge business, offering tavolo caldo. The trattoria in Strevi whose pranzo lavoro – workers’ set (and always very reasonable) lunch had closed at 13.00!

We should have arrived at Franco Ivaldi at 14.30 but Google maps directed us to a non-road to the winery, 200m through the vineyards. It took 15 more minutes to circle to hills and arrive via Caranzano

The older generation Franco and Caterina speak little English and looked very anxious as they waited for their son Giorgio to arrive. He was shy too, but gradually we all settled down to speak Italian

Things didn’t improve… I had opted to taste outside (in the face of legions of mosquitoes inside) where a wasp stung the very allergic Franco who was very upset by the prospect of a major reaction and sent for his epipen. (The wasps seemed especially keen on the salumi which drew them like a magnet. In despair at the paralysis we had induced, I banished the salumi to the end of the table.)

Our next visit to Olivero at 16.30 was almost as strange; Roberto, an extrovert whose intense enthusiasm became very wearing, and whose camera presence was truly remarkable (see the photo below – for which he squared up in a split second!) aided by a charming, calmer communications person, Alberto, who had less knowledge but greater curiosity.

It was an exhausting afternoon !

We left at 18.30 and drove to Tenuta Montemagno where David had visited last year with Valentina, and to which the owner had invited us to stay. We were the only guests in this extraordinary place; a restaurant to ourselves with a cheerful young waiter, Mirko, who provided an aperitivo of a sparkling Barbera with 36 months on the lees, followed by a ‘blind’ four course menu accompanied by Timorasso, Ruché and a sweet Malvasia. A beautiful – if now empty – resort. They were expecting larger numbers for an event at the weekend. The evening light – and the morning light – were fantastic.

Thursday 15 September

After breakfast on the terrace we visited the cantina at 09.00 and then tasted the wines of Tenuta Montemagno which David hadn’t tasted before in a room with a fabulous view of Grana and Montemagno castle. Aneta (from Czech republic, with English learned in London and now competent in Italian) spent alot of time trying to photo David and the logos of the Tenuta and the EU.

We moved on to Bonzano, to the castello di Uviglie for 11.00 where we arrived moments before a news team, about whom our hostess was very excited; us less so. Fortunately we were picked up by Stefano, who had the technical perspective and we stuck close to him for the rest of the visit.

The family has lately bought the castle and its cantina, and has decided to keep its (traditional) line and label, while developing the Bonzano ligna as a more contemporary, accessible line. Stefano helped us make sense of his thinking and his decisions and created a very informative tasting – at a safe distance from the other group. 

He also showed us the ‘cathedrali’ – caves excavated for stone for a thousand years. 

In the early afternoon we drove to Gaudio Vinci at Bricco Mondalino. Here we met Marina, a fraught young woman trying to supervise a willing but inexperienced volunteer (from Wales!) in the cellar, helping to make this year’s wines, and attend to us at the same time. In her wellie boots she jogged back and forth, interrupted frequently by querulous parents (her father is ill) and family friends dropping by for a chat, oblivious to her stress levels.

Our last appointment at 16.00 was at Colle Manora with  Marina Orlandi Contucci married Giorgio Schön (son of Lila, Milanese fashionista) in 2001. She has financial involvements with several wineries and businesses as well as her own properties here and in Abruzzo, and had invited David to visit and to stay. Their cantina occupies the site of old cow sheds, whose shape remains, though it now houses some old office furnishings of Milan, and serves as a repository for Lila’s glamorous clothes and iconic photos. 

We walked up to the main house in the dusk, and spent a relatively dry evening being waited on by her staff, and hearing her views on the prospects for the monarchy in the UK, and the complex political difficulties of Italy. She is a racing driver, competing in classic car competitions, and commutes by plane each week to her winery in Abruzzo. A party for one of her office staff was sprung on her just this evening and despite being annoyed with the manoeuvre, acquiesced. It was winding up as we headed back in the moonlight to the little agriturismo. Our breakfast was delivered just 10 minutes before we left!

Our invitations for the next covid jab arrived today by text. We booked for Sunday 2 October. What a curious world we inhabit!

Friday 16 September 

We left early for the most north westerly part of Monferrato, arriving at Cantina Iuli, Viticoltori Del Monferrato soon after 09.30 to meet Fabrizio (with fetching red specs) who sat with us in the courtyard behind the dilapidated building facing the road. Once a small cooperative (with sister and a journalist) he now makes it all himself, in a bio-dynamic and organic way. (Cave da Pyrene stock them). Low alcohol in the first white – 10.5 %! First red only 12%… all his wines have high acidity and low alcohol.

He describes the high location, bounded by woodland, as having a very particular micro climate. This is an area barely touched by modern cultivation and retains impressive bio-diversity. His courtyard serves as a cafe, an enoteca and an alternative ‘forest’ school for 3 -14 years with only 50 children. He retains three rows of a vineyard so its children can harvest the grapes.

Onto the Cascina Val Liberata to meet Deirdre and Maurizio and their two daughters, one of whom scarpered (perhaps to the horses?) while the younger one remained. The couple had lived in Faversham, buying the property some years before moving here.  We enjoyed their local cheese and salumi with her home made bread, and their wines.

The traditional house was wonderfully built to maximise the shade and fresh breezes, and the children’s playroom under the eaves was a delight to see. The labels are reproductions of Deirdre’s sister’s paintings which grace the walls. They had been harvesting in their vineyard behind the house, which is named for the tiny 1500s monastery on the little meadow by the stream below them, presently under restoration. 

Our host at the Castello di Gabiano had asked us to come early so that he could leave by 17.00 to drive the three hours to Verona.

Lorenzo, i/c hospitality, encouraged us to settle into our room in the little ‘agriturismo’ just above their ristorante 3 Orologie; and escorted us around the old castle cellars (stuffed with hundreds of old vintages) as the host was running late. He joined us at 15.00 at the little enoteca, deeply courteous and speaking excellent english. It is his wife who is La Marchese, though he has some genes from this noble family… cousins, perhaps? The river is the Po, seen from the tower of the castle.

The Castello would make a fantastic Harry Potter set! He took us up a narrow spiral staircase to the viewing level of the central tower, from which we could see 70km to the Aosta valley’s mouth, and the flat Po plains on which the famous arborio and risotto rice types grow. He also provided a detailed route for us to walk the vineyards, having first tried (in vain) to persuade an employee to take us. Late on a Friday afternoon is not the time to create extra tasks for stretched colleagues! The poor man’s face said it all … we went for a swim instead in the very functional pool, set in the moat. 

We tasted some of the wines before supper in the enoteca, before eating in the ristorante while tasting the more serious wines. Our waiter excitedly told us his plans to move to Australia, and the struggle he was having getting a visa; he worried it was to do with his Kenyan/Italian background. The menu carried an interesting health warning…

Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 September 

We left mid morning, to drive to nearby Guazzotto Vini to meet Maria Christina in a tiny borgo producing  a very small amount of wine in the Rubino di Cantvenna DOC. She was almost as chaotic as her spaniel! Her patient husband kept some calm and we met Stefania Camoletto, who before taking time out to write a novel, had worked in Alba and offered to introduce David to the president of the Unesco operation in the Langhe, from whom serious amounts of data might come. We’ll see… 

We ate lunch – linguine ai funghi – at a roadside Cafe Italia before driving onto Asti, where we visited its vast Cathedral with extraordinary trompe d’oeil frescoes, and walked through the elegant streets whose architecture spoke of former prosperity. Asti was a significant roman town at the confluence of the Tanaro and Fluvia rivers, a staging post on the road from Tortona to Turin, and also the route North through the Alps. Its hey day was in 13th and 14th centuries, its leaders no doubt well known to Dante. 

On to Costigliolo, to the south east of the motorway towards Alba, to an apartment booked on booking, in a refurbished building near the centre ofthe old town. Its castle looked a little unloved, but does hold the offices of the Consorzio and we enjoyed watching the wedding guests awaiting the couple after the church ceremony, and a very competent, traditional meal in the local bar/enoteca. 

The following morning we drove to Cherasco, stopping in a cafe for coffee but not breakfast, and per fortuna, bumped into Sarah Matteodo (who we had met a year ago at Ca’ del Baio in Barbaresco) with her family sitting in the sun outside Mettone cafe.

She greeted us warmly, and we joined them for an hour or so, while the children ate their panini and headed off to the park on their bikes. Cherasco is a delightful, civilised historic small city; a wonderful safe place to raise a family. We visited the enormous Sanctuario with its huge cuppola, and walked around the city’s perimeter, overlooking the river valley below 

We drive on to Narzolo, to the Villa Bernascone where we chose the simpler ground floor room (with the tricky door!) and swam in the vanishing evening sun. It is a pleasant hotel with a competent restaurant, and a sense of enclosure, as if to escape the outside world, which we were keen to explore. Nor did we sunbathe for long! The adjacent car park is a plus…

Monday 19 September 

We set off for Eleanora at Dogliani Il Generale on the via Garibaldi 84, finding it easily this time and enjoyed her very helpful and keen approach, anxious about the arrival of the Barbera grapes due at 10.30. Her father was at work in the cellar, and her uncle joined us. His son is a ‘technical’ at Antinori – Tignanello. We met four generations, including Elaenora’s nonno – Ogenio – and her sister’s young child, and saw the big family house he had built so an earlier three generational family could live together – his family of three sons, grandparents and two uncles. 

At 12.00 we dropped off the ‘olive oil’ at Mail box; had a quick coffee, and headed to Castiglione Falletto to Le Torri for another lovely lunch, with its magnificent views where I caught glimpses of the Queen’s funeral procession on the BBC live stream. And I also received an informative message from my five year old grandson…

We left Castiglione Falletto and drove down the via Grosso to Paolo Scavino at the bottom of the hill. Extraordinary newish cellars, reaching deep into the hill side. Enrica told us the very touching story of 24 bottles hidden in c 1971 by Paolo, her grandfather, within the old winery walls, and only and discovered only in 2016 when the cantina was extended.

Beautiful white blend – Sorriso (Chard, Sauv B and Vigionier) 14.5%; and a Barbera d’Alba 15.5%; a Langhe Nebbiolo 2021 14% and then a trio of crus of Nebbiolo – all made in the same way with alc between 14.5 – 15% 

Our final visit was to Scarzello, at 29 via Alba right in the centre of Barolo, to what used to be an apartment and which now serves as a tasting/sales area; the business’ shop window. Federika is a very no-nonsense person, whose partner wants to retain the tradition of free tasting, but which is a time- and wine- costly activity. His mother managed a second tasting on their modest veranda while we were indoors. They have a fine view of the Castello though little (other than nebbiolo) in common with the Marchesi Ernesto who had occupied precious time last week with his family’s history. 

I think we ate in Matteo’s again, in Narzole, where had started a fortnight or so earlier, and headed for bed in the Villa. The only excitement next morning was the failure of the hotel’s card machine to read any of our cards. Cash was at hand; the local Bancomat came to our rescue. An easy drive of an hour or so to Turin; the car safely returned, and the flight straight forward and leaving promptly at 14.15. Home at 19.45 by train from Gatwick in record time!   

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