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Day 1: Wine in their Veins

ITALY | Sunday, 1 June 2014 | Views [3555]

Langhe e Roero is renowned for food with soul and wine with body. It’s also the home of the world-famous white Alba truffles, and the birthplace of Nutella, the largest family-run company in the world. It was only fitting to start our first full day with a flaky croissant oozing with chocolate hazelnut spread. I needed the sugar kick to get me through our packed schedule. Following our ‘nutritious’ breakfast and a cappuccino –after 11am you’ll get a funny look for ordering anything other than a caffè (espresso) – we moved onto wine. 

Beautiful Barolo is a charming town that begs to be explored on foot, but that would come later. We had an appointment with boutique wine producing family E. Pira & Figli, Chiara Boschis. The Pira family comes from a long line of wine producers who, after the men in the family died young, exhausted the family tree and therefore the family name. Luigi Pira was the last to feel the grapes between his toes during production before the technology was upgraded. A year after his death, his sisters sold the winery to trusted family friends, the Boschis. Chiara Boschis has managed the small winery since 1990, which produces 30,000 bottles of Barolo each year.

Giorgio Boschis took us on a tour of the property. As we descended to the cellar, the musty scent of damp cork filled our nostrils. The temperature instantly dropped. Barrique French Oak barrels were covered in a thick mist reminiscent of an eerie forest fog to keep in moisture and prevent wine evaporation. But even with the moisture machine, 1500 litres disappear each year. The Italians use a French term to describe the phenomenon, part des anges, which translates to ‘the part that goes to the angels.’ If there’s Barolo in heaven, there’s surely life after death.

Giorgio explained the different regions and varieties of the popular Nebbiolo grape, which is used to make Barolo. It was our first insight into the wine of the area, and although he cited many methods, barrels and landscapes, Giorgio insisted that, “the hand is more important than the tools” when it comes to making wine. Back in the main part of town, we stopped at some market stalls that had since set up in the street. I was instantly drawn to the young man selling cheese with his father. Wheels cracked from age were stacked on top of each other, sheltered beneath a thin veil to keep away hungry flies. I asked Pietro a few questions, which he passed onto the cheese monger. In no time at all he was slicing, dicing and thrusting cheese in my direction. I peeled each piece off the knife and popped it into my mouth, savouring the fresh tang and spicy mould.

Leaving a table full of cheese is not an easy thing for me to do, but I knew there would be plenty more during the week. We stopped in at the Corkscrew Museum, where I was tempted to spend a few hundred euros on vintage corkscrews. I resisted, content with Pietro’s claim that although Italians may have ‘invented’ wine, the English were the ones who invented the corkscrew. Typical, thirsty Poms. We had timed our Barolo visit to coincide with the release of a the new vintage (2011), where I briefly chatted with Federico Scarzello, President of Enoteca Regionale del Barolo while eyeing off the hundreds of bottles that were being opened as samplers. If Nebbiolo is king of the grapes, Barolo is king of red wine. The variety available is part of the appeal. It’s a grape that can be enjoyed young, with hints of berry and a bright aroma, or aged until it gains complexity.

There’s nothing quite like wine first thing in the morning to whet the palate. “Hungry Pietro,” said Pietro, repeating his third person catch phrase. We returned to More e Macine in La Morra. A blackboard menu was plonked on the spare chair next to us while the area’s specialty, tajarin con ragu (angel hair pasta with veal), was dished out to locals all around us. There would be plenty of time for tajarin later. We kept it seasonal with paper-thin slices of veal tongue, orecchiette and just-cooked asparagus. “Happy Pietro”. He was having a laugh with some producers sitting near us. Apparently I had gained a not-so-secret admirer. Enter 84 year-old Ugo, with the kind of face Carl couldn’t resist photographing. You can tell at a glance that he’s had a good life, from the blazer fitting snuggly around his belly to the wide smile that spreads across his face and up to his eyes, all without revealing his teeth. Ugo is a man who knows how to talk, even if you don’t speak the same language. He joined us, insisting on buying the next bottle of wine before we were half way through our first.

Pietro translated chatter about wars and history and compliments, before I politely excused myself and joined the staff in the kitchen. Carne cruda was on the menu again, and this time I was making it. I followed the chef, who extracted two lean cuts of veal. Using a small, sharp knife he chiselled away all of the sinewy bits, putting them aside to cook in ragu: “nothing gets wasted”. Once the veal was clean, he cut it into thin strips, turned it 90 degrees, and diced it. This continued until the meat was minced so finely that you could practically spread it. A bit of seasoning, a lot of olive oil, and it was ready. Carne cruda is plated in a pile, sometimes with a wedge of lemon. Everyone that ate it squished it down with the back of their forks, before scooping up mouthfuls of the more-ish meat. We were running on Italy time (i.e. late), and it was already becoming the norm. We had just enough time for Ugo to kiss my hand, four times, and we were off.

Photo credit: carlpendle.com
Photo credit: Carl Pendle

Driving from place to place is all part of the experience in Langhe. I had wondered earlier if the locals appreciate the scenery as much as us newcomers. Pietro answered me unknowingly on the way to Massolino-Vigna Rionda winery in Serralunga when he said, “Even if you live here, sometimes you take a gravel road and you end up in a place with a whole new perspective.” The terrace at Massolino-Vigna Rionda, where groups sit for tastings, is like something out of a romantic film. The winery was perched midway up the hills with the kind of view that inspires painting en plein air. The family, all four generations of them, have been making wine for over a century. Their first vintage dates back to 1896. We were shown a distinguished new tasting room upstairs and giant, 100-plus hectolitre Piemontese barrels downstairs (they produce around 15,000 bottles from one of these bad boys).

Slightly up the incline from Massolino-Vigna Rionda lies a fortress untouched from the thirteenth century. The streets encircle the medieval castle, which was last used during the Napoleon Italian war in 1795. There’s a view to die for from each arched window at the top of the castle: red terracotta roofs below, towns in the distance and flocks of birds flittering from tower to tower.

Perhaps it was just the time of day at which we visited, but I like to think that whenever you’re in Serralunga, there are always people sitting outside their homes in the narrow street on their plastic chairs, chatting beneath flowers cascading from the windows. The romanticism continued as we drove to the Castelletto hamlet in Monforte, where a tiny, abandoned graveyard overlooks the valley, across to the medieval castle from where we had come.

We re-fuelled with a snack at Barolo Bar (mixed salumi and cheese, and a much-needed beer for Carl) and a drove up to the top of the village to look at the grass-covered, outdoor amphitheatre that packs out during the Alba Jazz Festival. Back in Alba, we showered, caught our breath, and charged back to Serralunga. Pietro had organised a special ‘family’ dinner for us at Vinera Centro Storico, a small osteria with a few tables downstairs and one large table upstairs. Our group of 11 commandeered the upstairs table. The idea was to enjoy a casual evening with a group of passionate producers and friends, drink too much wine, and eat too much food. We succeeded.

My plate and glass were continually refilled. Italian wine royalty, locals and producers from New Zealand drank and feasted the way I imagine the Romans once did, but perhaps with less blood. I was in the company of Marchesi di Gresy cellarmaster, Jeffrey Chilcott, Alessandro Boido of Cà ‘d Gal Winery, Daniela Rocca from Albino Rocca Winery, and friends from other parts of the world. We drank 14 incredible bottles including Barbaresco Bruno Giacosa 1970, Barbaresco Giovannini-Moresco 1967, Barolo Gaja 1964 and Barolo Pio Cesare 1957.

It was our first official day, and the Langhe hospitality was already leaving a solid impression. Wine knowledge was passed around generously like the antipasti that filled us before we arrived at primi. Back home, if you sit down at a table with a group of wine snobs, you’re likely to feel uncomfortable at your lack of knowledge. Often their noses are so far in their glasses – or so up in the air – that you are not given the chance to learn. But here, a lack of wine knowledge is seen as a clean slate, and the locals take pride in filling it with information. I also noticed for the first time that Italians eat more passionately. It sounds trivial, but even the way they grasp their fork with a full fist – like they don’t want to let it go – is charming. There is a certain mindfulness that occurs during a meal that can’t be matched by any other culture. Any corner of the world where the dining table is the most important place in the house is my kind of place.

Read more about Sophia's food adventures in Italy!

Falling in Love with Langhe

A Mouthful of Memories

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Tags: italy, langhe, passport & plate, piedmont, piemonte, roero, travel, world nomads

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