Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Piedmont, Italy – DAY TWO: July 15, 2008


If the previous day was full, July 15th was even more jam-packed with wine adventures in Piedmont. We hadn’t meant to schedule all 3 wineries in one day, but that is what worked best with the winery owners. After a nice breakfast on the sunny terrace (it came with the room, which was only $100 Euros per night for two – two twin beds with a private bath), we drove to the town of Barbaresco to view Angelo Gaja’s house – the very famous vintner from this town and also visit the Producttori de Barbersco. This is a type of coop with 55 growers who produce 1 million bottles per year. We tasted several wines, and I ended up buying their 2004 Barbaresco which was fruit forward with nice concentration for only $16 Euros!

Next stop was a small winery called La Casacita -- a boutique winery where the husband/wife team produced hand-crafted exquisite local wines for very reasonable prices. My friend Doug told us to visit here; otherwise we never would have found it. In fact, we almost didn’t as we got hopelessly lost in the small charming hills and villages of the Monferrato. With no cell phone reception in the country, we couldn’t call and ask for help, so we stopped at least 3 different people on the road and used halting Italian and sign language to finally find the winery.

Arriving one hour late, we were still greeted warmly by Giovani who gave us a wonderful tour of the small winery, including the famous tufo stone cellars (A soft yellow stone that maintains coolness and humidity for the wines). They have 7.5 hectares of grapes and produce about 10 different types of wine including a sparkling chardonnay/pinot noir. We tasted his regular chardonnay which was non-oaked and very refreshing with green apple notes. Both of the Barberas were excellent with bright fruit and milky cherry notes, but my favorite was the Gringolino. This is a red grape with produces a spicy strawberry flavored wine. It is unoaked with a nice acid and is intended to be consumed slightly chilled like a robust gamay. They also produce a Freisa, which is another red Italian grape which tasted quite similar to sangiovese. I ended up buying 2 bottles of the Gringolino for only $5 Euros each and one of the sparkling for $8 Euros. Good wines for good prices!

Our next appointment was with Marchesi de Barolo, back in the village of Barolo. Since we were so late for the first appointment, we were also late for this one, but called ahead to inform them. Despite being tardy, we were treated quite well when we arrived at this much larger, more international winery – the 2nd largest producer in Barolo. The tasting room was very modern with professional service and many wines for sale. Seemed like we were back home in Napa or Sonoma.

We were treated to a private sit-down tasting of 8 different wines; a Gavi, a Barbara, a Barbaresco, 3 Barolos, a Passito and their Chianto. Of the Barolos, I was most impressed with the Sarmassa 2004 which had layers of flavor ranging from blackberry, black licorice, cedar, and tar all wrapped up with wonderfully huge tannins. The Cannubi 2004 was also nice, but much softer. My preference is for huge Barolos. I also really enjoyed the Barbaresco Riserva 2001, which I ended up purchasing because it was more affordable. It was a lovely garnet red with soft plum, fig, earth, and herb notes -- a grand old wine, in its prime. (We ended up drinking it the next week in Champagne one evening with dinner after all 8 of us were tired of tasting too many beautiful bubblies.) The passito was made of Moscato which was dessert in a glass, and the Chinato was a very strange drink of wine, herbs and 16.5% alcohol which was meant to be a digestif, but which I found far too bitter.

Next was a tour of the winery, which was quite impressive with a mixture of old and new technology. We learned that they rarely use the pressed juice with the nebbiolo grape because the tannins are too harsh. They also do minimal racking, no filtering, don’t use protective gases, and fine with “fossil flowers,” which is a beautiful way of referring to clay.

It turns out that our next winery visit, which was scheduled for 4pm was a half a block away. This was Cantina Bartolo Mascarello, one of the oldest and most famous Barolo wineries for adhering to traditional wine styles. This tasting was 180 degrees opposite of the Marchesi de Barolo. Where the Marchesi was global elegance, Mascarello was down-home friendly and informal. As we entered, a tiny woman seated at a square table with 4 other people gestured for us to sit down. It turns out that she is Maria Theresa, the daughter of the famous Bartolo Mascarello and the current winemaker. We were given glasses and told to pick a wine to taste from the group of bottles on the table. Eventually, she asked who we were and after learning we were her 4pm appointment, she introduced us to the other around the table who included a neighbor who had dropped by to chat, a wine buyer and his wife from a nearby village, and a young man from Japan.

It was an interesting tasting, and rather disjointed, as she would begin to tell us about a wine, then jump up to answer the phone, or leave for long periods to handle an order. At one time she was gone so long we wondered if we should leave – especially since we were starving as we had to skip lunch. Eventually we did get to taste 4 different wines, a Barbera, a Dolcetto, and 2 Barolos. My favorite was the 2003 for $35 Euros which I ended up buying. It was a pale ruby color with the traditional tar and earth. Janeen picked up some dried orange rind, and I found some spice. As a 2003, it was higher alcohol due to the hot summer, but was much more approachable than the very tight dried sour cherry of the 2004. She said the 2003 spent 3 years in barrel and 1 year in bottle, and recommended I not open it for 8 years. The 2004, which she called “classic” needed a minimum of 10 years in bottle before opening.

Eventually all of the other visitors left, and then she gave us a private tour of the winery. It was then that we learned her philosophy was that she makes wine according to “wine time, not market time – and that customers can just wait!” I guess we found that out in her visitor room as well. She also focuses on traditional styles and is not interested in following market trends. I like a winemaker who is clear about their niche. Fermentation takes 20 to 30 days using natural yeast and 2 pumpovers per day. She uses soft pressed wine and racks after 20 days. In the vineyard they cane prune to 9-10 buds at 1 to 2 meter spacing. In the end, I really enjoyed the spirit and spunk of Maria Theresa. This had to be the most unique and colorful visit of the day!

It was difficult to pick a favorite from the 3 wineries, as they were all so unique and each had special characteristics. Instead, I would recommend a visit to all three.

After a snack and short nap back at the hotel, we headed into Alba to find a restaurant. We had been told that Alba has a great old center with lots of fun shops. With no clear directions, we headed into the town following the town center signs. Eventually we just decided to park and walk, asking others for directions until we arrived at the famous shopping streets. Unfortunately most of the stores were closing within 30 minutes, but we did manage to see a sign saying “free truffle tasting.” That is how we found Tartufi & Co. and had another great experience in Piedmont. The son and mother were managing the shop that evening and getting ready to close, but they still welcomed us with warm hospitality and let us try all of the truffle products ranging from oils and spreads to minced truffles. We tried both black and white (the white being almost doubly as expensive), and then they opened wine, bread, and desserts. They poised us holding large black truffles – the size of your hand – to take photos for their website, and gave us free postcards and other small gifts to take home. Needless to say, we bought many wonderful truffle gifts in that shop and would highly recommend it to anyone. They also invited us to come back to Italy and go truffle hunting with them in September/October, and I think the mother even gave us a hug before we left. At least it felt like it, because the visit was so warm and welcoming. Wow – what hospitality!

After that, we had dinner in a cute little restaurant across the alleyway from the truffle shop. We started with a glass of the famous Moscato d’Asti, which we hadn’t been able to taste yet (Janeen accused me of having a myopic focus on Barolo – but I just can’t help it). Anyway, it was a refreshing way to start dinner, and I ended up ordering Gavi with my salad and fish to stay with light whites. On the way home, we got very lost and ended up driving around many little hilltop villages in the dark, until finally we figured out where we were on the map. Eventually we made it back to our charming Barolo Hotel – completely exhausted.

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