Alba, Bra and Barolo

Cattedrale di San Lorenzo in Alba
Photo by Debbie Henning

For our last full day in Italia, we chose to return to the Barolo region, beginning our day in Alba. Alba is a relatively small community with a population of a little more than 30,000, but it acts and feels much larger. While it is considered the political capital of the Langhe, it is certainly the culinary capital of the region.

Via Vittorio Emanuele in the center of Alba
Photo by Debbie Henning

Alba serves as the gateway to the Barolo DOCG and is justly famous for its white truffles. The annual truffle harvest and celebration in the fall draws connoisseurs from around the world. Alba is also home to the confectioner Ferraro as well as Nutella. The massive Cinzano vermouth, etc., operation is in the town of Cinzano, between Alba and Bra.

We enjoyed our morning walking from piazza to piazza in Alba. The streets are remarkably clean. Just as in Asti, Alba’s mortal rival in nearly everything, there were more patissieries than I could imagine. We stopped in a lovely coffee shop that was just as you might imagine, filled with some old timers, a family here, a businessman over there.

Patron in a coffee shop in Alba
Photo by Debbie Henning

We planned to have lunch in Bra, so we hopped back in the car made the 15 km drive from Alba to Bra. Bra is similar in size to Alba, but has a very different feel. Bra was at the heart of the Baroque movement in Italy, and the architecture shows it. Everything in the heart of the city, especially the cathedrals, looks more ornate.

We made our way to the center of Bra, parked and strolled around town. We eventually found our way to Via Mendicità and our destination, Osteria Boccondivino. Right next door, and sharing the same building, is the international headquarters of the Slow Food Movement.

Randy in front of Osteria Boccondivino and Slow Food International’s headquarters
Photo by Debbie Henning

While Osteria Boccondivino has new owners now, this is where the Slow Food movement began. The restaurant today still adheres to Slow Food principles of preserving local foods and traditions and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.

The courtyard dining area at Osteria Boccandivino
Photo by Debbie Henning
Our lunch wines
Photo by Debbie Henning
Antipasti of mixed salad and roasted beets
Photo by Debbie Henning
Primi piatti – Randy’s agnolotti with lima beans and Debbie’s gnocchi with asparagus
Photo by Debbie Henning

Following our heavenly lunch, we moved on to the village of Barolo where we had a great opportunity to taste a range of Barolos at the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo. The tiny, charming village of Barolo sits on a hilltop, centered around its castle. The castle houses the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo.

Enoteca Regionale del Barolo sign
Photo by Debbie Henning

Based on my admittedly limited experience with Barolos, I was somewhat concerned when we learned that the 2015 vintage had just been released, and that was what would be available for most tastings. I was afraid the wines would have too much tannin to taste good. To meet the requirements to be called Barolo, the wine must be aged for 38 months, of which 18 months must be in wood. Many Barolos require another 10 years of aging in the bottle to begin to be enjoyable.

Map of the Barolo DOCG area
from the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo website

It turns out that the soils of Barolo dramatically affect the wine. The Barolo area is very small, about 5 miles across from east to west, and perhaps 8 miles from north to south. Within that small area there are two distinctly different soils. The soils of Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba are compact, sandstone derived soils, while the soils of La Morra and Barolo have more clay. There are mineral differences in the soils as well.

The wines produced from the two soil types turn out to be distinctly different as well. Those from the eastern side of the area, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba, are big, bold, austere tannic wines that require significant aging. The wines from La Morra and Barolo show more finesse and are more aromatic and softer. They require less aging.

The lineup of Barolos at the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo
Photo by Debbie Henning

At the Enoteca del Barolo, we had the opportunity to experience the difference soil type makes for ourselves. The wines were arranged by region, so it was easy to compare wines produced from the different soils. The difference was striking. The wines from La Morra and Barolo were very drinkable and enjoyable right now, with all the characteristic attributes of Barolo.

The wines from Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba were much more tannic and harsh. It would take some pretty substantial food to tone them down. However, you could taste all the components and see that the wine will come together in a few years. It will be a treat then.

The takeaway I learned is that if you want to have a younger Barolo, meaning you don’t want to pay the premium for a well aged Barolo, look to wines from La Morra and Barolo.

On the drive back to our place in Montegrosso d’Asti, we stopped at a small chapel at the top of the hill above where we were staying. We had walked up to the chapel many times and found it intriguing. On the back side of the chapel is a small niche with a statue of the Virgin Mary. The road passes about a foot to the right side of the chapel, and along the side, there is a board with fliers announcing upcoming weddings and recent deaths in the community.

We had never been able to see the inside of the chapel, but this time, the woman who volunteers to clean the chapel every week was there with the doors open. She graciously let us enter and showed us around, even taking Debbie behind the altar to see the crucifix more closely.

What a treat to end our trip. Arrivederci, Italia.

Two Sides of Barolo

Hillside vineyards adjacent to Villadoria near Serralunga d’Alba
Photo by Debbie Henning

Today was our first foray into the Barolo region of Piemonte to explore two Barolo producers with very different approaches. Villadoria is a relatively small, family-owned and operated estate, while Fontannafredda is an old, established, massive facility with a very corporate feel. Despite the different approaches, the wines at each are outstanding.

Villadoria’s tasting room entry – great things await
Photo by Debbie Henning

Villadoria is owned and operated by the hard-working Lanzavecchia family. It was established in 1959 when Pietro Lanzavecchia, with his father Daniele, began purchasing land in the Serralunga hills and later building the winemaking facility and cellar with his son, also named Daniele. Today, Villadoria is managed by Daniele along with his daughter, Paola.

We had the opportunity to meet Paola a couple of years ago in Denver when she was on a trip promoting Villadoria’s wines. We talked about the possibility of visiting Piemonte, and Paola told us to let her know when we finalized our plans. we contacted Paola when we had a general outline of our trip, and we made an appointment to visit the winery.

When we arrived, we were welcomed by Martina, who let Paola know we had arrived. Paola came in from the vineyards where she was planting new vines to greet us. She then left to get back to work and left us in the very capable hands of Martina. It was a treat to be welcomed so graciously and made to feel special.

Martina gave us a great introduction to the Barolo DOCG describing the different areas, vineyards and soils and how they impact the wine.
Photo by Debbie Henning

We began our tasting with Villadoria’s 2018 Gavi di Gavi, a wonderful white wine made from the Cortese grape grown around the commune of Gavi, near Alessandria on the eastern side of Piemonte. The wine is a brilliant, straw color with a fruity nose reminiscent of apples. This well balanced wine has refreshing acidity and would be perfect with a light fish dish.

Villadoria’s 2018 Gavi di Gavi
Photo by Debbie Henning

Next, we moved on to the 2015 Bricco Magno, a Nebbiolo from various vineyards in the Langhe and Roero. Bricco Magno is modern style Nebbiolo aged for two years, primarily in small barrels. The wine is a clear, transparent ruby/garnet color with an orange tinge. The floral nose reveals its wood aging with hints of vanilla. The taste opens with red fruits with hints of pepper and spice coming later. The medium-bodied wine is surprisingly full in the mouth for such a transparent wine, as a result of the soft tannins. This is a quintessential pasta wine.

Villadoria’s 2015 Bricco Magno
Bricco Magno means “Great Hill”
Photo by Debbie Henning

Next we moved on to one of Villadoria’s Barolos, the 2015 Barolo del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba. This gorgeous wine is a ruby with garnet edges, much more orange that the Bricco Magno, and is characteristicly brilliant. The nose is a wonderful combination of roses and maraschino cherries (not the red grocery store kind). This wine shows what sites in the Serralunga hills can offer. It was aged for about 18 months in Slavonian oak barrels and then moved to stainless steel to complete its total 38 months of ageing. On tasting, the wine is bold and delicate at the same time. The elegance comes from cherry and strawberry flavors combined with some spiciness, while the boldness comes from the dense mouthfeel from the tannins. Tasting the wine now shows what its potential can be. While it is drinkable today, it will shine in a few more years. This wine would be a perfect complement to big, flavorful beef dishes.

Villadoria’s 2015 Baroloa del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba
Photo by Debbie Henning

For our last tasting, Martina brought out a unique treat, the 2013 Langhe Rosso DOC Arpass. Villadoria describes the wine this way, “This wine is made from a traditional grape combination in the Langhe area: Barbera and Nebbiolo. The most important native grape varieties in Piedmont together breathe life into Arpass, which in Piedmontese means ‘to return’. It is, in fact, a wine which Villadoria has proposed as a return to the ancient traditions of the past, when grape varieties were rarely used alone, but mixed up in the vineyards themselves. The result is a substantial red wine, with all Barbera’s fruit and Nebbiolo’s structure melded together perfectly.”

The Barbera brings substantial fruit to the equation. The color is a deeper ruby without the orange tint characteristic of Nebbiolo. The nose is spicy with red fruits. It fills the palate with notes of plums and red fruits, backed by soft tannins. This one will be great with pasta and stews.

Villadoria’s 2013 Langhe Rosso DOC Arpass
Photo by Debbie Henning

Our visit to Villadoria was the perfect way to spend a morning in Piemonte.

Randy with Paula Lanzavecchia, owner of Villadoria, and two of her Barolos
Photo by Debbie Henning
The lineup of Villadoria’s Barolos
Photo by Debbie Henning

We asked about lunch recommendations and took Martina’s suggestion to visit Castiglione Falletto, the village on top of the hill across the valley., where we ate at Le Torri Ristorante. You would hardly expect to find such an elegant, great restaurant in a town of about 700 people, but that’s Italia.

Following lunch, we headed down the hill and stopped at Fontanafredda for a tasting. Fontanafredda is a massive estate/complex with a long and storied history. Everything at Fontanafredda is done big. The tasting area is extensive and situated in the middle of a very large sales area. Adjacent to the sales area is a sizeable classroom/auditorium with theater seating that opens to the sales area. The whole setting and experience are reminiscent of visiting a large Napa Valley winery.

Christina and Veronica, our hosts at Fontanafredda, guided us through a tasting of some of the wines they offer. We began with the 2012 Contessa Rosa, a rose spumante made in the classic manner from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir is fermented with brief skin contact to provide some of the pink color. The remainder of the color comes from the addition of a little Barolo prior to the secondary fermentation. The Barolo adds an orange hue to the sparkling wine. The floral, citrusy nose leads to a dry wine with some character and tastes of plums, spice and yeast. It has a pleasant balance of minerality and acidity. Great to use anytime you might want a sparkling wine.

Fontanafredda’s Contessa Rosa
Photo by Debbie Henning

Next up was the Vigna Gatinera, another sparkling wine, this time with 100 percent Pinot Noir. Half is fermented in stainless steel, while half is fermented in oak barriques. The wine fermented in oak is left on the lees until bottling for the secondary fermentation. The wine ages for 10 years before release. This wine is golden colored with hints of green and consistent bubbles. The aromas make you think of pears, spices and bread. The taste is crisp, minerally, spicy and yeasty. This is another solid spumante that will serve well when a sparkling wine is desired.

2008 Vigna Gatinera
Photo by Debbie Henning

We movid on to a very nice Barbera d’Asti Superiore from Giacomo Borgogno & Figli, one of the wineries in the Fontanafredda corporate stable. The 2017 Cascina Valle Asinari Barbera d’Asti Superiore is a very nice example of what Barbera offers. The wine is purple to crimson at the edge. The nose is all red fruit and vanilla. It is full flavored with red raspberries and plums with spiciness. The tannins are bold, and the wine exhibits crisp acidity, making it a great complement to a bold, spicy dish.

2017 Cascina Valle Asinari Barbera d’Asti Superiore
Photo by Debbie Henning

Following the Barbera, we moved on to a couple of Barolos, beginning with the Fontanafredda 2013 Barolo del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba. This Barolo is from the same area as the Villadoria Barolo we tasted earlier in the day, but the Fontanafredda is two years older. The wines share many similarities, but the additional two years of ageing are noticeable. This wine is brick red in the glass and crystal clear. The spicy, floral aromas almost jump out of the glass. The flavors are well balanced with hints of strawberry and spice. The tannins are still dominant, but softer with the additional age. This is a wine that is very good right now and will continue to improve for a number of years.

Fontanafredda’s 2013 Barolo del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba
Photo by Debbie Henning

We wrapped up our tasting with the 2010 Casa E. di Mirafiore Barolo Riserva. The Mirafiore brand is another of the Fontanafredda brands. The wine is beautifully clear and brick red. The aromas of complex spices, chocolate and mint explode from the glass. With nine years of ageing under its belt, this is a beautifully drinking Barola. The tannins are still prominent and bold, but have smoothed to the point of lushness. As with all Barolos, these two would be great complements to any hearty, complex beef dish.

2010 Casa E. di Mirafiore Barolo Riserva
Photo by Debbie Henning
Our Fontanafredda host, Christina, in the classroom/theater at Fontanafredda
Photo by Debbie Henning

Ruchè Festival

Enjoying the Festa del Ruchè
Photo by Debbie Henning

This portion of our adventure began with our lunch at La Buta Enoteca in Asti (see the post on Asti). We asked our server, Antonio, what his favorite wine was, and, after some thought, he said, “Ruchè.” I had never heard of Ruchè before, so some education was in order. Antonio told us that Ruchè is an indigenous grape of the Piemonte with very small production that produces a unique wine that he was sure we would enjoy. He told us that while it is lighter and easier to drink than many of the Barolos of the region, it still had significant complexity. Antonio thought the Association of Ruchè di Castagnole Producers was having its annual festival the following day in Castagnole Monferatto. After a short call to one of his winemaker friends, he confirmed the festival hours for us and gave us directions.

We had already planned to go to Milano the following morning (see the post, Sunday in Milano), and a quick look at a map showed that Castagnole Monferrato was about half way between Milano and where we were staying in Montegrosso d’Asti. So, we decided to stop by the festival on our way back from Milano.

Lineup of the producers at the Festa del Ruchè in Castagnole Monferrato
Photo by Debbie Henning
Live music at the Festa del Ruchè
Photo by Debbie Henning

Castagnole Monferato is a small village in the hills northeast of Asti. Like much of Piemonte, the landscape is rolling hills. The Italian Nobel Laureate poet and writer Giosuè Carducci described the land as Tuscany without the cypresses.”

The origin of the Ruchè grape is uncertain. Most believe it is a variety indigenous to Piemonte, while others think it may have been brought to the area hundreds of years ago from Burgundy. Regardless, it has been cultivated in the region for centuries. For most of that time, the wine was produced as a relatively sweet, red wine. In the 1960s, the local parish priest priest, Giacomo Cauda, worked to modernize the parish vineyards and winemaking techniques in an effort to produce a wine that showcased Ruchè and would provide economic opportunity for the village.

Through the efforts of Father Cauda, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato received DOC status in 1987 and DOCG status in 2010. It is one of, if not the, smallest DOCG areas in Italy, comprising about 240 acres in 2015. The 30 or so producers made almost 66,000 cases in 2016. All of which makes Ruchè a rare treat.

Ruchè wine today is intriguing. It’s light, brilliant garnet/ruby color and soft, floral aromas belie the tannic punch and structure that come when you sip the wine. It bursts with red fruit flavors and spice. The wine is a great complement to salumi as well as most pork dishes.

Tommaso Bosco of Azienda Agricola Tommaso Bosco
Tommaso was the producer of the Grignolino I had (and loved) in Asti. I was told he would be at the festival, as he also makes wonderful Ruchè. It’s always a treat to meet the people behind the wines you drink. This was no exception. Tommaso was extremely engaging and interested. He is working to have his wines imported to the U.S, throug Guiliani Importers located in, of all places, Boulder, CO. I’m excited to try Tommaso’s wines at home. He has a great ability to bring the most out of some of the more obscure varieties of Piemonte.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Tommaso Bosco’s Ruchè di Castagnole Monferatto from the Oltrevalle vineyard. Note the 2018 release date. Most Ruchès are intended to be consumed young. Most wines receive only a few months aging on oak, if at all. Many are held in stainless steel or concrete before bottling. The argument is that the influence of wood in the aging process would begin to overp;ower the wonderful floral aromas in the wine. There is still some arguement as to how long Ruchè will age, but even with significant tannin, Ruchè is quite enjoyable at young ages.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Eugenio Gatti, right, with his father. Eugenio is a seventh generation viticulturist, the producer of La Miraja Ruchè along with other outstanding wines and cantina owner.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Claudio Caravello, co-founder of Cantine Sant’ Agata, producer of Na Vota and Pro Nobis Ruchès, as well as Barolo, Grignolino and Barbera.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Luca Ferraris (right) with his father. Luca’s Ferraris Agricola is the largest grower of Ruchè and President of the Association of Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG Producers. Luca was generous enough to offer us a tasting at his winery at the end of the day following the festival. His wines are a treat. He is Ruchès best known ambassador world wide and the most vocal proponent for the aging potential of Ruchè.
Photo by Debbie Henning