In May 2016, and in September 2017, we based ourselves in the beautiful town of Alba for our Piedmont wine tour. Over three days of visits we explored this amazing wine region, and discovered some of the fascinating differences between its sub regions. We learnt that the Savoyard history of the region has resulted in fragmentation of the vineyards, as all sons inherited land. This has had a number of consequences – tiny average areas of vines owned by any family, a ready source of labour for the northern Italy manufacturing powerhouse (Alba is home to the Ferrero chocolate empire, and Turin is of course home to FIAT), and a stunning geography – the largest vineyard landscape in the world, and designated a world heritage site by Unesco for the largest agricultural patchwork landscape in the world.
Roero and Monferato hills
The Roero DOCG, to the south of the Tanaro river, is very small and mainly consists of the Arneis and Nebbiolo grapes together with a bit of sparkling wine. Our first visit was to Marco Porello – a small, family owned estate with 15 hectares. In the vineyards high in the hills Marco and his cousin Ezio gave us a wonderful insight into the terroir of the area. The soils are lighter than in Barolo, with cooling breezes assisting freshness and acidity in the white wines – we were told to look out for a hint of salinity.
In the winery our tastings included Favorita – the local name for Vermentino, Arneis, Barbera, Nebbiolo and a Moscato d’Asti, and a Birbet – a delicious light sparkling red made from the Brachetto grape.
We continued with Marco Porello wines over a culinary tour of Piedmont cuisine at the Albergo Miranlange. With the backdrop of a breathtaking view we enjoyed parmesan ice cream on a pork loin carpaccio, the famous Vitello tonnato and some polenta with porcini, a delicious asparagus risotto and then the local plin pasta stuffed with a meat ragu. We even managed to fit in some delicious hazelnut cake.
A power nap recharged us on the journey to the tiny DOC Loazzolo and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited on tour – Forteto della Luja. This tiny estate has been in the Scaglione family since the 1700’s and the eighth generation owners proudly run the farm. Giovanni Scaglione hosted us and totally entranced us with the family story, insights into the local area and a walk through the vineyard and winery. The views are breathtaking and there is a sublime peace and tranquillity about the family home. The estate is also a WWF protected area as wild orchids can be found dotted around the farm. We tasted contrasting Barberas, a Barbera/Pinot Noir blend, a Moscato d’Asti and an utterly delicious Moscato Passito – sweet without being cloying and wonderfully rich.
Barbaresco and Barolo
These were among the very first areas in Italy to receive the highest quality status of DOCG in 1980. Both wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape – and renowned for longevity and great structure and depth.
Our Barbaresco visit was to Bruno Rocca – one of the very top names in Barbaresco, with 15ha of vines. The view from the terrace is wonderful as you witness a natural amphitheatre of slopes – to receive the Barbaresco DOC the vineyard must have a southerly aspect. Heading into the winery, it became clear that traditional winemaking can be improved by technology – purified air being pumped into the barrel cellar and a bottling machine that operates in a vacuum ensuring the risk of oxidation is minimized, and the wine remains in the best possible condition. In their elegant tasting room we tasted the fabulous ‘Cadet’ Chardonnay, and contrasted two Barberas – one from Asti and the other from Alba before rounding off the visit with two of their Barbarescos including their flagship Rabaja.
In 2016 we lunched in Vergne near to Barolo, at the famous trattoria Al Buon Padre. Founded by Giovanni Viberti at the beginning of the last century, it is also the location of the family winery. A beautifully executed meal pairing different wines with each course was a delight. In 2017 we lunched in Barbaresco at the Rabaya restaurant, and a fabulous meal incluing truffles, Sformatino (pepper mousse) and Tajarin pasta (30 yolks/kilo of flour!) was concluded with a glorious 2009 Barbaresco.
The Vajra estate we met variouso members of the Vajra family. In 2016 daughter Francesca conveyed the passion of the estate with an unreserved joy, while in 2017 Milena (Aldo Vajra’s wife) and son Guiseppe were rather preoccupied with harvest but still took time to talk to us. The winery was very handsome, with stained glass windows, and our tastings included the Langhe Bianco ‘Dragon’ blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Bland and local variety Nascetto, Dolcetto, Langhe Nebbiolo, Barbera d‘Alba, the relatively unknown Freisa grape, two contrasting Barolos and a delicious Moscato d’Asti.
The Marenco winery is run by three sisters in the village of Strevi near Acqui Terme. They specialise in Moscato d’Asti, Brachetto d’Acqui and Moscato Passito plus some unusual grapes that we were to discover over lunch.
Michaela’s husband Gian and son Andrea took turns to escort us round the winery and revealed the expertise in keeping the fermentation and bottling of Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui under pressure to retain the sparkle and the need to eliminate all yeast to prevent a potentially dangerous second fermentation. We enjoyed seeing the old canvas filters that enabled this gently sparkling wine to acquire its fizz and retain its sweetness by removing yeast after a single fermentation. We walked through the hilltop vineyards and on to the beautiful Marenco farmhouse. Michaela greeted us all like long lost friends and immediately started handing out glasses of spumante and Moscato d’Asti and freshly baked bread straight from the oven.
A glorious afternoon was spent lunching on fresh pasta, bagna caude (roasted vegetables with anchovies), various flans and delicious salamis and cheeses. We tasted two totally unknown grapes – Carialoso which they think is a White Barbera and Albarossa, a crossing of Barbera and Nebbiolo which was amazing. More conventionally but just as delicious were their Cortese (the Gavi grape)/Chardonnay blend, and a Barbera d’Asti. We enjoyed their sublime Moscato Passito with some superb local cheeses and an array of puddings, before rounding off more Asti and Bracchetto d’Acqui and the obligatory shot of grappa.
I have learnt to choose a lighter type of dinner for our final night at Il Ventuno restaurant in Alba, with fish very much to the fore, which meant we could enjoy our final stroll through the charming streets of Alba, and for some of us a final gelato.
Piedmont is a constant revelation. We have discovered both the classic and lesser known areas and grape varieties and we met so many wonderful people who are incredibly proud of what they do. We were welcomed like old friends at all of the wineries, and were totally seduced and often overwhelmed by the wonderful hospitality we received.
I was delighted that everyone agreed that there is so much more to Piedmont than just Barolo and Barbaresco, and in 2018 I plan to explore some new aspects of this fabulous region on my wine and gastronomy long weekend.
“Tim has a large range of contacts and seeks out the small, individual wine producers who are invariably passionate about producing the finest wines, showcasing their area. Each tour brings its own range of wonderful memories. For instance, discussing the 1961 vintage of Barolo, in the village of the same name, with the man who had picked the grapes and then tasting that wine. Food is an important part of each tour with the group enjoying memorable food of the area with wines to match. A four hour lunch with exceptional food and wines is a lovely way to while away the day. Tim has the knack of getting it right.”– Mick and Helen Moore