When it comes to food and wine, Piedmont is no stranger to fame — wine aficionados will know its diverse number of vineyards and world-famous Barolos and Barbarescos, made from the powerful Nebbiolo grape, that rival the wines of Burgundy. For foodies, amongst the most famous native treasures is the delectable white truffle harvested in the capital city of Alba, where tourists go flocking every October–December for the annual White Truffle Fair.
Despite all of this, the region has historically been overshadowed by Tuscany when it comes to top-of-mind food and wine destinations in Italy. Located in the northwest of Italy at the foothills of the Alps, the low-lying hills in the Langhe area of Piedmont (or Piemonte as it’s called in Italian) can seem unassuming and quiet — with no Prada boutiques, Starbucks or rows of tourist busses yet. But aside from Barolo and truffles, there’s still a wide range of wining and dining that appetites and budgets of all sizes will appreciate.
As this jewel of a wine region changes at a faster clip than you can say “tajarin” (a highly addictive, fresh-egg pasta that’s a regional specialty), it’s possible to dine at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant or relax at a homestyle trattoria with a delectable glass of easy-drinking local Barbera (a local grape varietal that requires much less ageing time than Barolo) for 5 euros. To appreciate Piedmont today for its local treasures is to understand its past and how it got here.
A family business built from the ground up
For those unacquainted with wines from the region, Barolo and Barbaresco are the varietals that are well known and celebrated. Both are made from the Nebbiolo grape and grow in different areas of the Langhe, with DOCG status. Similar to wines in Burgundy, they’re made with the intent to show the expression and purity of the terroir.
Given that most people find Barolo more tannic and fuller bodied than Barbaresco wines, we decided to acclimate ourselves to the terroir by first visiting the iconic Gaja Winery. Located on the main street in Barbaresco, the unassuming entrance leads to a light, airy, beautifully architected winery with high-vaulted ceilings. Its somewhat austere interiors reveal rooms tastefully decorated with art and various collectors’ items. Despite the size of the grounds, it’s obvious that even the finest details are not overlooked, down to the terraced ceilings in the underground cellar and the placement of the glasses for the different wines served during the tasting.
Speaking to fifth-generation winemaker Giovanni Gaja, son of the legendary Angelo Gaja, one gets context for the family’s position as a prominent winemaker in the landscape and history of Piedmont. After all, the formidable Angelo Gaja is largely credited with bringing Piedmont into the modern world with revolutionary winemaking techniques at the time, including the introduction of French barriques, malolactic fermentation, and creation of single-vineyard Barbarescos that rival top names in Bordeaux and Burgundy. In addition to a split with his father Giovanni Gaja over planting non-native varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Angelo also famously declassified his Barolo and Barbaresco wines in 1996 from DOCG to DOC by blending in up to 5% Barbera to his Barbarescos — unheard of at that time.
It’s clear that the current generation has a serious family legacy to uphold. Now in his 70s, Angelo has stepped down from managing day-to-day operations and handed the reins to his older sisters Gaia and Rossana. Giovanni, who recently joined the company after finishing his studies, attests that all decisions are family-made ones — and that the decision in 2013 to go back to 100% Nebbiolo was made unanimously by the kids, “who had a different vision of the Langhe area to show the potential of pure Nebbiolo.”
We start with Giovanni’s favourite, the flagship Barbaresco 2015 which represents the “body and soul of Gaja” in the form of a 100% Nebbiolo blend of 14 vineyards. We then taste the complexity of the different soils in their single vintage Barbarescos, from the clay calcareous slopes in Sori’ Tildin, to the more mineral elements from the limestone in Sori’ San Lorenzo, to the soft, silky and aromatic nose of the Costa Russi.
His father’s rebellious spirit lives on in wines like the Gaia & Rey 2006. Named after Angelo’s oldest daughter and his grandmother, this beautiful Chardonnay is the first of its kind to be planted in Piedmont and first Italian wine aged in barriques showing gorgeous golden colour, ripe fruit, lemon, oak, and mineral notes with medium acidity.
If Gaja is considered a modernist in the traditionalist era, to really understand how traditionalists make wine in Piedmont, we make a visit to the storied Giuseppe Rinaldi in the Barolo region. For a cult wine that is more often than not a collector’s wine, there is no showy tasting room at Giuseppe Rinaldi. A small cluttered office with notebooks, art, antiques and bottles strewn about with quirky furniture made out of old barrel parts leads to cellars with large oak casks, some of which are more than 100 years old. The formidable Giuseppe (Beppe) Rinaldi has since handed over day-to-day operations to his two daughters with the no-nonsense Marta Rinaldi as the primary winemaker.
It’s very much a traditionalist philosophy here when it comes to winemaking: organic farming of the grapes, long maceration times, fermentation with natural yeasts in tall upright open barrels (tini), some of them more than 100 years old. Though a child of the ‘80s, Marta firmly believes in making wine in the same manner that her father did, through blending from the four vineyards which are located in Barolo’s best sites: Cannubi, Le Coste, Brunate and Ravera. To produce what they call “the purest expression of Barolo”, there is little oak influence due to the age of the casks, and no filtration before ageing in the bottle.
We taste the latest releases of their Barolos including the highly in-demand Brunate-Le Coste and the Barolo “Tre Tine”, a blend from the three vineyards of Cannubi-San Lorenzo, Ravera and Le Coste. With Rinaldi’s limited annual production at around 38,000 bottles and allocated a year prior to longstanding customers, their Barolos on average fetch more than US$500 at retail, and you’re lucky to find them even if you can spare the cash. Though she’s in the fortunate position of not having enough wine to meet demand, Marta isn’t keen to increase production due to the spike in land values in recent years. She doesn’t like seeing speculation in their wines in the secondary market and prefers that Barolos command a higher price point similar to its Burgundy counterparts for the collective good of all producers in Piedmont.
To get a different perspective from another traditionalist, we visited Claudio Fennochio at Giacomo Fennochio, a fifth-generation winemaker whose heartfelt passion and expression for the terroir comes through in preserving the land and traditions handed down from his father.
Glasses in hand, observing his vineyards in the heart of Barolo, Fennochio patiently shares with us the history and context for the different grand cru terroirs, including Bussia’s compact clay and limestone soils and Villero’s iron rich deposits in Castiglione Falletto. He believes in doing as little as possible to interfere with the land or process; for him, “80% of winemaking is the soil” and he models his winemaking after the best practices of those before him and those of winemakers in Burgundy to produce single-vineyard wines truly reflective of the terroir.
With up to 90% of his wine being snapped up by the US market, you’ll be hard-pressed to find his underrated Barolos that offer singular expressions of the vineyards they come from. Unlike Fennochio’s more famous contemporaries, his Barolos won’t break the bank. With the latest releases ranging from 30–35 euros; these are affordable enough to drink tonight or age for the next 10 years.
The traditionalists who started it all
Depending on the style of the wine in Piedmont, traditionalists can still exhibit modern influences. One such exemplar is Elio Altare, whose refined Barolos are considered a benchmark for winemaking in the region. As one of the original “Barolo Boys” featured in a documentary on the wine region released in 2014, he’s portrayed as part of a rebellious winemaking generation who helped to transform the region by producing the world-famous wines that we know today.
Despite the newfound fortune and fame of the region, “We are country people,” Silvia Altare, Elio Altare’s daughter, emphatically attests. “We got electricity in La Morra in 1950 and didn’t get a bathroom inside our house until 1961. Now in Piedmont, people are flying helicopters and driving fancy cars, but 50 years ago they were still using outhouses in the garden.”
The family is still down-to-earth and true to their roots as winemakers. Located in a house just under the hills of La Morra, their comfortable tasting room is sunny and brightly lit, with a terrace overlooking the vineyards in Barolo. Although Elio Altare is no longer the primary winemaker, his wines continue to receive stellar reviews under the helm of his energetic and talented daughter Silvia. Like her generation’s peers, the spirit and expectations of her father are very much present. “Days are made to work, Sunday included,” says Sylvia cheerily.
While Silvia admits that what were once deemed revolutionary methods such as sterilising the cellar are now simply common sense, it’s also her father’s use of modern vinification techniques, like using rotary fermenters for shorter maceration times, that have put him at the forefront of contemporary winemaking in Piedmont. When asked about making a different style of wine, Silvia appears open to it, but only in time when it’s bottled under her own label. “Someday I may make a Silvia wine. Until then we are the Altare brand and have a style that people recognise. I have a margin of playing around, but a new pump or crusher is not going to change the taste.”
Like at Rinaldi, Silvia will likely not have wine left to sell at retail but fortunately there’s different native varietals to taste in addition to Barolos. Despite Nebbiolo Langhe being made in the so-called lesser DOC regions, it’s often perceived as better value and there are no rules on ageing time or release, which means it can be 5 euros or 400 euros. The 2014 Larigi Langhe is a blend that Silvia’s grandfather traditionally made and will sell for more or less the same as her Barolos depending on the vintage. Besides the lovely, leathery, tannic spice of the 2011 Barolo Ceretta, we also enjoy the red-cherry fresh fruit of the easy drinking 2016 Dolcetto d’Alba; an old-vine, single-vineyard 2014 Larigi Barbera; and a fresh and aromatic singl- vineyard 2014 Giarborina Langhe Nebbiolo.
Looking to the next generation
After meeting a mix of different types of traditionalists, we’re keen to visit those from the modernist camp who are experimenting with new techniques to create different styles of wine to meet today’s evolving tastes. After all, current trends in wine consumption are seeing an increased demand for less tannic wines made for drinking today — instead of ageing for decades.
This leads us to Paolo Manzone, whose winery overlooks the lush valley of Langhe and the vineyards of Serralunga. A sixth-generation winemaker amongst the new wave of winemakers in Piedmont, Paolo — who looks to be in his 50s — is not young, but he’s certainly young at heart with an energy and passion that’s positively infectious. He cheerily admits to his father making low-quality wine and, without the luxury of inheriting best practices that have benefitted other winemakers, in the region, he’s had to navigate his own winemaking journey.
After going to wine school in Alba, he followed in the footsteps of the revolutionary winemakers before him and traveled to a mix of Old World and New World wine regions including Burgundy and Chile, observing and tasting different styles of wine from his native Italy. Returning to the Langhe area, he set out to make wines that weren’t too tannic, and drinkable sooner in the Burgundy style with “more elegance and finesse” by investing in more modern fermentation and ageing methods.
Like his peers, Paolo is a big believer of natural winemaking to preserve the aromas and character of the Nebbiolo grape. Yet he’s far from being a hands-off producer and prefers using a conductor-like style with an artistic touch. His wines are 100% organic green-certified, though he uses small quantities of sulfites because he believes it complements and helps the wine develop a natural character and aromas while protecting against bacteria. “Otherwise you can’t control the process, and Barolo needs to be controlled,” he states.
He must be doing something right: His wines are consistently rated 90+ by critics and are considered good value for a Barolo. We taste wines in a softly lit, modern cellar lined with art, ceramic eggs and a natural well that helps to keep the humidity at an ideal percentage year-round. We try his well-balanced Barolos side by side to get a taste of the terroir Barolo “Serralunga”, Barolo “Meriame” and Barolo Riserva. The Dolcetto and Langhe Rosse DOC “Luvi” (named after his wife) are also lovely everyday wines made from native grapes.
In the same modernist theme of winemaking, we visit Ceretto Wines at Monsordo Bernadina, a converted farmhouse that maintains its rustic charm on the outside while boasting modern facilities and a tasting room experience reminiscent of Californian wine country, with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to their expansive vineyards in Langhe.
Ceretto is now managed by the children of founders Marcello and Bruno Ceretto (otherwise known as the “Barolo Brothers”) with third-generation winemaker Alessandro Ceretto at the helm. One of the first in the region to use stainless-steel fermentation tanks, the family still invests in experimenting with innovative techniques, but as our host Roberta Ceretto insists, “like Burgundy, there is nothing to create. We are purpose-driven to continue preserving the purity of the Nebbiolo [grape] but use innovative techniques to increase control over quality in the production of the wine.” Officially green-certified by Italian standards, the winery is now securing organic certification for their cellar, which requires the adoption of new techniques and investment of different equipment.
Like their fathers before them, the family is innovative in constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to marketing wines and other lines of business, including three-Michelin-starred restaurants like Piazza Duomo and art collaborations including the “The Chapel of Barolo” by British artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett. One of the best-known buildings in the area, it’s hard not to miss this colourful interpretation and restoration of a chapel that had originally functioned as a shelter in the vineyards of Brunate, which the Ceretto family purchased in the ’70s. Visitors to the Monsordo Bernadina estate are also treated to “The Grape”; modelled after a light and airy bubble, it’s suspended above the vineyards and extends from the tasting room with an enclosed viewing platform.
Due to Ceretto’s larger production volume, visitors can try a broader range of wines including blends and varieties produced in styles not typically found outside the region. We like the 2017 Arneis Blange, a deliciously refreshing white made from the native Arneis grape. Delicate with a fruity, floral bouquet and good acidity, there’s a slight bit of fizz at the end due to small amounts of carbonation preserved in the fermentation, which our host said is similar to the “crunch” that one gets from biting into fresh bread — hence the name “Blangé” which is similar to the French word “boulangerie.”
Unlike many of the traditionalists in the region, we note that their style is more oak-influenced as they age their wine first in small French barriques before transferring to large oak casks. They also tend to be avant-garde by regional standards when it comes to experimenting with different blends of non-native grape varieties, such as the 2015 Monsordo, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Positioned as an everyday table wine to drink right away, the wine has cherry fruit on the nose and is full-bodied with some nice acidity and tannins, but we also found it could use some ageing.
Finally, to get a sense of how smaller wineries are experimenting and cultivating future generations of winemakers, we head over to Treiso near Barbaresco to visit winemakers Ca’ Del Baio. Originally starting out as grape growers, the fourth-generation winemaking Grasso family is still very much a family-run business, with winemaker Guilio Grasso and his daughters in the vineyard and cellar while his mother works in the office.
As a smaller winery that isn’t beholden to as many traditions as the others, they also appear open to experimenting and producing a broader range of wines, some of which are easy to drink today, which is perfect for those of us who don’t have much patience for waiting decades for the typical Barolos and big Barbarescos to age. Though Guilio admits to not travelling much, he is open to innovation based on his daughters’ trips, including the concrete eggs that she introduced from a recent harvest in Burgundy.
Experiments with non-native varietals have included a Langhe Riesling and an elegant Chardonnay Sermine that was sold out, wines that are rare for Piedmont, but “my dad likes white wines”, says Frederica Grasso with a smile and shrug. Our favourites include the Pinot Noir-like Barbaresco Vallegrande 2014, the Barbaresco Autinbej 2015 (“beautiful vineyards” in Piedmont dialect, this was made to commemorate Guilo’s father) and the bigger and bolder Barbaresco Asilli produced from the famed plot also shared with cult winemakers such as Bruno Giacosa.
A tradition to last generations
Despite the skyrocketing prices for its wines, we found during our trip that it’s still the humble, hardworking ethic of the nearly 800 family-owned wineries (at last count) dotting the pastoral landscape of the region that define the shape and character of Piedmont’s beautiful wines — wines that require patience in cultivating as well as ageing. Still largely serving the hearty and savoury cuisine that matches the powerful tannic wines from the region, Piedmont retains a charming and rustic ambience reminiscent of the countryside from decades ago. For now there aren’t hordes of tourists on coaches yet (outside of truffle season in Alba), but those who travel to the region are one and the same — they have a serious desire for top wines and food. After only a few days, it dawned on us that Piedmont is a fast rising star that everyone, including us, would prefer to keep an insider’s secret.
Where to Eat:
- Antica Torre — For a traditional Piedmont-style meal in Barbaresco try Antica Torre, an elegant, classic trattoria located next to the bell tower complete with truffles and the tajarin pasta.
- Campamac — Depending on your mood in Barbaresco, at the opposite end of the spectrum is the modern Campamac, a high-end osteria complete with a cocktail bar and entrance shop with fresh bread and local meats for sale for those who want a picnic on the go.
- Osteria La Cantinella — Come here for simple and fun trattoria-style food featuring local cuisine in a bustling setting. An extensive wine list features native varieties to try by the glass. Perfect for a casual lunch between tastings.
- La Ciau Del Tornavento — If you hit Barolo and Barbaresco fatigue, splurge at this high-end restaurant in Trieso with one of the most comprehensive wine cellars in Italy.
- Bovio — If you have time for a more leisurely lunch or dinner, reserve a table outside of this family-owned restaurant with panoramic views of Barolo. Inside is a classically beautiful setting with a historic dining room and a menu featuring classic dishes. Service is wonderfully personable and prices are reasonable despite the high-end setting.
- Piazza Duomo — This three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Alba is one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants with chef Enrico Crippa reimagining local ingredients into modern culinary fare. As the only three-star restaurant in the region, make sure you book early if you’re visiting during truffle season.
Cathay Pacific offers direct flights to Turin, which is the closest international airport to Piedmont. From there, it’s a quick 30-minute drive to discover the beautiful wineries and other attractions.