In 1997 just before starting to work for the Queen’s wine merchants Berry Bros in St James’ Street, London, I came to Piemonte with my sister and mother in search of our dream house.
In fact it was my mother’s dream. She had spotted Piemonte many years before, this little corner of Italy in the foothills of the Alps, close to the Mediterranean Sea, not far from and interlinked with her beloved France….
It was the moment in her diverse life (born in Holland in 1935, a mother to four in Malaysia, farmer’s wife in the beyond of New Zealand, business woman in the UK) for her Piemonte adventure.
It was a chance meeting with a local lawyer and a high speed drive up the winding hills that led us to an abandoned house that had to be sold due to bankrupt debts from nearby Monte Carlo gambling.
It was called ‘La Bordina’ and we know this was it instantaneously. It was near to the village of Mombaruzzo (famous for its Amaretti biscuits) and its 180° panoramic view of the vineyarded Rolling hills were breathtaking. With the help of Gail my younger sister (helpfully fluent in Italian from her time in Sardinia) bags of money were transfered and the Piemonte chapter of our family’s life opened….
We revelled in the rich food and wine culture of the area with its Palios (historical races) and Sagres (food festival – each village has its specialities), its famous white truffles (tartuffi bianci) but it was the local corner trattoria that had the best food; simple raviola stuffed with sage and butter, vittello tannoto (thinly sliced veal with tuna anchovy sauce and capres) slow cooked rabbit or bollito misto boiled beef and vegetables. Of course the Bagna Cauda with its rich, garlicky, anchovy sauce and fresh vegetables including the local cardoman to dip. The local town of Bra is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement in 1986.
The house was restored over ten years, the abandoned old vines of Barbera (the Blackberry fruity wine with soft tannins and refreshing acidity) were brought back to life. With the help of Mario, our angelic ever patient neighbour, we produced our own wine, the first vintage in 2001 when my daughter Anna was born.
Today as a wine guide in Bordeaux (www.sip-wines.com) I have come back to this rich, vibrant community where the small producers number rely on family to continue and thrive. (Social security payments of employers to the government of 120% of the worker’s salary for life (it is impossible to get rid of workers in this social state) make employing other people impossible).
My first wine tour of Piemonte (www.sip-wines.com) including the best of Barbaresco, Barolo (with Leslie from Travellanghe.com) and the wonderful wines of Dolcetto and Barbera and truffle hunting with the fabulous Mario Icardi. White Truffle Hunting in Piemonte
1000 Artisan Family Producers The big guys with their impressive labels exist (Conterno, Gaja, Scoviglio) but lie shoulder to shoulder with the myriad of over 1000 small family producers . It is a tiny region, with many different crus, more similar to the closer also varietal Burgundy. A world away from the large Bordeaux with its blend of different wines.
Piemonte in General
Historically grouped in Savoy also included Turin before Italy was divided up in 1861 (risorgimento) and the King of Piemonte became the King of all Italy.
The area in wine had no greatness in the 1900s as French wine régions. It was not until the 1980s that the reputation was restored.
The region is encircled by the Alps around Turin which run down from North to South. Like Burgundy it has a continental climate of hot summers, foggy autumns and cold winters.
It has 50 appellations (more than any other region in Italy) and s very diverse. It is the largest wine produding region in Italy.
Its most famous area are the steep limestone hills of the Langhe, Barolo and Barbaresco on the right bank of the Tanaro River.
It has 4 red DOCG (Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero Red since 2004* and Barbera del Monferrato) and is a region more known for its reds. It has 4 white DOCG (Asti, Moscatio d’Asti, Gavi and Roero d’Arneis). More than any other italian wine region.(* for Roero Red it is possible to add 5% of Arneis to the 95% Nebbiolo)
But a million micro-climates exist in region of thousands of hills, each vineyard its own aspect (South or South West benefitting from the sun’s rays all day), gradient of the vines, altitude (Nebbiolo is best grown between 200 and 350m), direction of the vine rows, proximity to a river or small tributary. In the past merchants would blend different areas to smooth out these différences to make a more consistent sellable wine. Today these différences are celebrated. Since 2014 the individual vineyards can be put on the labels of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Understanding the Labels – The wines are mainly varietal here (Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera plus others like Brachetto, Freisa and the white Arneis, Chardonnay) and perhaps easier for the new world drinker to understand. If they then add the area name to it like Langhe Nebbiolo or Barbera d’Asti it is Superior as it comes from a limited area.
Barbera needs warmer sites. it is high in acidity but low in tannins. It is very fruity sour cherry with a savoury quality. It suits the sweet vanilla of the French oak barriques.
Dolcetto is less acidic and more fleshy with dark cherry and bitter notes. It ripens in cooler sites often where the Nebbiolo struggles to ripen.
Gavi is to the East of Ovada and slightly to the East of Piemonte. It is made of the Cortese grape.
Here the wines of Alessandro Locatelli at Rocche Costamagna in la Morra.
The famous villages of Barolo and Barbaresco are exceptions and their wines are the village names (often today added to by the individual vineyard names).
Open Doors – Each Producer has a range of wines from a range of grape varieties. Produced in tiny quantities. Mostly sold direct so the idea of accepting visitors and selling wine at the cellar door is welcomed.