I recently led a small group of adventurous travelers to Piedmont, Italy, during the annual truffle festival. We focused on wineries with which I had special relationships. As a result, we were able to access behind-the-scenes experiences not available to the general public (for more information on this and other tours go to www.wineontheroad.com).
In my next two columns I’ll be going over the highlights of that trip and will mention some of the better wines we tasted. Today I detail Piedmont Unfiltered from the start of the tour through our time spent in the Barbaresco sub-region. The next column will focus on the second half of the trip, encompassing the sub-regions of Barolo and Dogliani. In a departure from the usual format of this column I will only list specific wines at the end, with very few tasting notes, but rest assured that all of the bottles shown herein were extraordinarily tasty.
One more thing –wines not available in the U.S. are designated with “N/A.” Each accompanying venue was accessed either by private appointment in the case of wineries or in the course of a meal (usually reserved in advance including those at our hotel in Serralunga, the Tota Virginia).
Let’s start with information on entry points. Regardless of whether any additional local travel is booked before or after time in Piedmont, there are two basic ways to get to and from this particular part of wine country. One is through Torino and the other via Milan. I usually use Milan, partly because there is a train from Malpensa International Airport (MXP) to downtown’s central train station for 10 Euros per person that is easy, quick, and convenient. From there you can easily get anywhere in the city. You can alternatively leave the airport via bus, car share, or car rental (the latter two methods with or without a driver).
But my primary reason for spending time in Milan is cultural. This is a major artistic and intellectual city that hosts the local Dumo (third largest in the world), Teatro alla Scala (the Theater of Steps, famous for world-class opera), Galleria Vittoria Emmanuel 2 (shopping and fashion), the Castello Sforza (now a museum, but Leonardo da Vinci worked there for 20 years as an engineer) and, of course, da Vinci’s immortal Last Supper fresco that covers an end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Everything else I’ve listed is accessible at the last minute to some degree or another, but for the Last Supper be sure to buy your tickets online as quickly as possible. If there are no tickets available, which is a distinct possibility, then you still may be able to combine guaranteed access with a guided tour of city. But again this must be booked well ahead of time.
Having said that, if you fly through Milan but don’t intend on staying there, then my suggestion for any required lodging is the Hotel Cardano in the small, suburban town of Cardano al Campo. It’s clean, inexpensive, has some nice amenities (outdoor pool, balconies), and the hotel staff will use their van to get you to and from a simple nearby dinner place (so you don’t need a car). They will also provide airport-hotel transportation on both ends of your flight schedule.
TIME FOR SOME WINE
Now on to Piedmont’s Barbaresco sub-area, which encompasses many small towns including the wine hub and historic hill town of Neive. Our first day, Saturday, was spent collecting my campers in Milan and that night’s introductory dinner was at Tota Virginia, our luxury lodgings. Over the course of our week in Piedmont, Riccardo and the rest of Tota Virginia’s staff met our needs perfectly. This hotel also boasts a terrific kitchen and magnificent views of Castiglione Faletto and the intervening vineyards from everywhere on the grounds, including private room balconies. Definitely a place to consider and, at less than 200E per night for suite-level accommodations, quite a bargain in my book.
The next morning, the first full day of Piedmont Unfiltered, was spent touring historic Alba and its legendary truffle festival, held each year from September through November. I’ve had the fortune to attend three of the last four Truffle Fests and I enjoy it more each time I come. The whole town is energized for the event, with wandering minstrels and showmen, outdoor displays of local foodstuffs and, of course, more truffles (black and white, which are much more rare, seasonal, and expensive) than you could ever eat. Or afford.
We lunched at La Brasilera, ensconced in their outdoor café on the main town square. That afternoon was spent at Paitin in Neive, our first winery visit, with one of my oldest friends in Piedmont, owner Giovanni Pesquera-Elia. Giovanni speaks excellent English but his father, whom I’ve met before and was the only one at the winery when we arrived, does not. However, the international language of wine prevailed, Giovanni was called, and my group tasted through the entire range of wines currently available, including an old vine (vecche vigne) Barbaresco that was lively and deep at the same time, focused on dark fruit and a core of lovely tannins.
Dinner that night was at Filippo in the tiny town of Albaretto della Torre. The restaurant’s signature dish is rabbit (coniglio) roasted on a spit and my campers raved at the flavor. The owner, so proud of his craft, upon hearing of our pleasure arranged to show us a raw, fresh rabbit that he had purchased only that morning. Each time I eat coniglio, particularly in Piedmont, I wonder how such wonderful food can come from such a humble, uncelebrated animal!
After returning to the Tota Virginia and enjoying a refreshing night’s sleep in quiet Serralunga d’Alba, we headed off on our first full day of wine tasting. We started in the town of Barbaresco, namesake to one of the two legendary expressions of regional, DOCG-level Nebbiolo (the other is, of course, Barolo). Barbaresco is often refered to as the feminine version of Nebbiolo, the kingly grape of Piedmont and also the sole component of both Barbaresco and Barolo wines.
Aldo Vacca, the illustrious GM at Produttori dei Barbaresco (perhaps the best agricultural cooperative in the world) was our morning’s guide. First he took us on a walk to the nearby historic town tower while regaling us with the history of the area. He told us that the local river determines the wine – the left bank hosts Roero and the right bank the Langhe, which includes Barolo, Barbaresco, and Alba.
The tasting was awesome and 2008 will be an excellent year for Produttori’s Riserva-level, single-vineyard Barbarescos. But for me the highlight was Aldo insisting that the only way to drink nebbiolo was with a large, tulip-style wineglass. He uses the Riedel Pinot Noir Extreme XL version because Nebbiolo’s large tannins can mellow in a large bowl and its aromas are captured by a top-of-the-glass constriction followed by an expansion. This is typical of a glass meant for pinot noir and explained why Aldo preferred the Riedels.
He also related where the nebbiolo grape name came from. Nebbia means foggy, which refers to the powdery protection on the grape’s surface that nebbiolo excels at producing at its height of ripeness during harvest. It can also mean the usually ubiquitous foggy conditions at that time of year.
Following another gut-busting lunch at Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco (how do these small restaurants put out so much amazing provender?) we visited five-star producer Bruno Giacosa, also in Neive. Winemaker Francesco (young protégé of legendary Dante) said that Bruno himself started as a grape buyer for Fontanafredda, now the largest winery in Piedmont. He went out on his own in the early 1960s and now produces some of the most sought after wines in the world.
We tried the Spumante, a 100 percent pinot noir, Methode Classico sparkling wine, and then headed to dolcetto (darkly red, low in acidity and high in tannin), barbera (conversely light in color, high in acidity and low in tannin, and finally nebbiolo (light color and high in everything else). The 2008 Barolo Rocche del Faletto Riserva, a wine that retails for many hundreds of dollars in the U.S., was nowhere near ready to drink but it certainly showed its promise. A dark core of tannin and fruit was balanced by high acidity and a velvety mouth feel that boded well for the future.
Dinner was at our home for the week, the Tota Virginia, where we supped on a menu of regional specialties including vitello tonnato (tuna in aioli spread on slices of cold veal roast) and pasta tajarin (hand cut and topped with buttery, cheesy sauce). The next morning was spent at Sottimano, also in Neive, with owner and winemaker Andrea Sottimano. His vineyard designated Barbarescos are among my favorites every year. While his father started the winery in the 1960s, Andrea’s youthful charm and obvious passion for his work and region always show through in my visits. This time he pointed out the wild mint that sprouts in all of his fields, and as we had a bit of time after the tasting we headed over to Alto Neive, a charming town perched above the rest of Neive in the nearby hills.
Our last event specifically referencing Barbaresco was lunch at Osteria dell’Unione in the nearby village of Treiso. We ate local specialties while surrounded by the Bricco Rocca vineyard, but more on that remarkable place in the next column.
Thanks to everyone who has helped turn my Wine on the Road tours into such a smashing success. I hope to see you all very soon in wine country. Happy trails.
WINE ON THE ROAD’S LUXURIOUS, BEHIND-THE-SCENES WINE TOURS
With Wine On The Road (www.wineontheroad.com), my wine-focused touring company, you can enjoy the ultimate wine country excursion with special access to top winemakers and their incomparable wines. Wine On The Road offers intimate wine country tours that combine award-winning wines and exquisite dining and lodging with uniquely local flair and flavor. We lodge at excellent and luxurious wine country estates (in the past we’ve occupied ancient yet completely restored castles as well as five-star resorts, all with modern amenities). We eat at authentic local restaurants and visit wineries that embody the best, most authentic expressions of local wine grapes.
Planned excursions in the first half of 2014 include an Asado Argentina visit to Mendoza and Buenos Aires scheduled for March 16 – 25, 2014 (www.wineontheroad.com/argentinaunfiltered.php), and additional trips to Piedmont, Italy (www.wineontheroad.com/winebeesandcheese.php) and Oregon’s wine country (email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details) in late April and May. We will also be heading to Italy’s Campania (www.wineontheroad.com/campaniaunfiltered.php) and France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux (with time in Paris) in late 2014. You can learn more about these trips, book private groups in wine country world-wide and request more information on any of these extraordinary travel experiences by emailing me at email@example.com.
Day 1 – Dinner at Tota Virginia Hotel (Serralunga)
Nv Bruno Paillard Blanc des Blancs Brut $70
2006 Conterno Fantino Monpra $N/A
2007 Vietti Barbera d’Asti Lacrena $56
2009 Luigi Pira Langhe Nebbiolo $28
Nv G. D. Vajra Barolo Chinato $70/500mL
Day 2 – Lunch at La Brasilera (Alba)
12 Dante Rivetti Arneis Langhe Bricco d’Oro
Day 2 – Paitin Winery (Neive)
2012 Arneis Langhe Elisa $19
2011 Barbera Serraboela $18
2010 Barbera Superiore Campolive $25
2010 Nebbiolo d’Alba Ca Veja $25
2009 Barbaresco Serraboela $30
2009 Barbaresco Sori Paitin $40
2008 Barbaresco Vecche Vigne $75
Day 2 – Dinner at Filippo (Albaretto della Torre)
2004 Castello di Nieve Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva $60
2004 Vigna Boiolo Barolo $N/A
2008 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo $115
Day 3 – Produttori dei Barbaresco Winery (Barbaresco)
2012 Nebbiolo Langhe $20
2009 Barbaresco $40
2009 Barbaresco Rio Sordo Riserva (barrel sample) $N/A
2008 Barbaresco Rio Sordo Riserva $55
1985 Moccagatta Riserva $N/A
Day 3 – Lunch at Trattoria Antica Torre (Barbaresco)
2004 Ca Rome Barbaresco Maria de Brun $81
Day 3 – Bruno Giacosa Winery (Neive)
2012 Roero Arneis $30
2012 Dolcetto d’Alba Giacosa $25
2011 Barbera d’Alba Faletto $N/A
2011 Barbaresco Albesani Santo Stefano $N/A
2009 Barolo Rocche del Faletto $250
2008 Barolo Rocche del Faletto Riserva $400
Day 3 – Dinner at Tota Virginia Hotel (Serralunga)
Nv Ettore Germano Brut Rose Rosana $N/A
2010 Chionetti Dolcetto di Dogliani $22
2008 G. D. Vajra Friesa Kye $50
2000 Gaja Barolo Conteisa $300
1999 Oremus Tokaj Aszu 5 Puttonyos $54/500mL
Day 4 – Sottimano Winery (Neive)
2012 Brachetto Mate $20
2012 Dolcetto d’Alba Bric del Salto $15
2011 Barbera d’Alba Pairolero $25
2011 Nebbiolo Langhe $20
2010 Barbaresco Fausoni $55
2010 Barbaresco Cotta $65
2010 Barbaresco Pajore $65
2010 Barbaresco Curra $65
2010 Barbaresco Riserva $90
2005 Barbaresco Fausoni $68
Day 4 – Lunch at Osteria dell’Unione (Treiso)
2012 Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto d’Alba $25
2008 Paitin Barbaresco Sori Paitin $45