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

Sunday in Milano

One of our great desires on this trip to Italy was to see The Last Supper. So, on Sunday, we drove about an hour and a half to the outskirts of Milano, parked and took the tram into the city center.

Piazza del Duomo in the heart of Milano
Photo by Debbie Henning

A word of warning if you plan to see The Last Supper – we had heard that tickets were difficult to come by, and you had to reserve them early. We started trying to get tickets about two months ahead of our visit and found they were sold out. We later heard of others who had the same problem starting six months ahead of their visit. We solved our problem by arranging a walking tour of Milano with a guide, which included tickets to The Last Supper.

It seemed like wherever we went in Italy, certainly the popular destinations, we were always in the midst of tour groups of about 20-40 people with headsets on, lumbering behind a guide holding a flag on a pole to keep the group together in crowds. Every time I saw one of those groups, I thought, “That doesn’t look like much fun.” Now, we found ourselves part of just such a group. I still wouldn’t choose these group experiences, but in this case, it was a necessary evil, and nevertheless had some value.

We met our guide across the street from the Piazza del Duomo. Milano is a full-fledged city with all the traffic and congestion that entails, so it’s complicated enough to get around on a normal day. Our guide’s plans were immediately thrown into disarray, because this turned out not to be a normal day. It turned out that the National Alpini Association was holding their annual reunion in Milano this hear, and this happened to be the 100th anniversary of the association. The celebration brought more than 100,000 people to Milano, and this morning, they were having their parade right through the center of the city. The Italian Alpini are much like America’s 10th Mountain Division, a specialized , mountain-warfare infantry corps.

A group of Alpini on parade wearing the traditional capello alpino. The hats bear patches and badges identifying the unit of the Alpini and service campaigns.
Photo by Debbie Henning
The traditional caps are worn with great pride.
Photo by Debbie Henning
The party started early. This was breakfast for this gentleman.
Photo by Debbie Henning

The first stop on our walking tour was Milano’s Duomo, a beautiful, late-Gothic, marble cathedral constructed between1397 and 1812. The Duomo is massive, impressive and beautiful at the same time. Everywhere you look, you find spires, ornamentation and statues. It is apparently the third largest cathedral in Europe and can accommodate about 40,000 people for a service.

Marble facade of the Duomo from Piazza del Duomo
Photo by Debbie Henning
Detail on one of the panels of the massive brass doors. Each of the doors in the photo above has eight or more similar panels depicting different scenes.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Detail on another panel of the Duomo’s doors showing the brass where the patina has been rubbed off by people touching the door.
Photo by Debbie Henning

Also on the Piazza del Duomo, on a side adjacent to the Duomo, stands the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The Galleria was built as a shopping mall and showcased the most modern design. Glass and iron arched domes cover about a city block on each of the four sides of an intersection. Originally built in the 1800s, it is thought to be one of the first glass and iron buildings in Europe and one of the first buildings in Milano to get electricity. Today, the Galleria houses some of the most upscale shopping in Milano with all of the major fashion houses represented. The current Galleria has been almost entirely reconstructed, as it was destroyed by bombing in World War II.

Central intersection of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Photo by Debbie Henning

Our walk through Milano continued past La Scala and then the Castello Sforzesco. Castello Sforzesco has been used as a defense for Milano’s rich and powerful since the 15th century. It was originally part of Milano’s city wall, set in rich, green fields. Those fields are now just more city, but the castle is still surrounded by lush lawns.

An original part of Castello Sforzesco
Photo by Debbie Henning

We finally made our way to Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The experience was well worth the difficulty in acquiring tickets. One reason the tickets are hard to come by is that they have chosen to manage the crowds by controlling the front end. When you arrive, only 25 people are permitted to enter for a 15-minute time period. We found 15 minutes was adequate. There are really only two works of art in the room. Limiting the group size allowed a much more intimate, personal and powerful experience.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint a wall of the dining hall for the Dominican nuns from the convent at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie as a bribe from the ruling Sforza family (the same family as the castle above). It turned out to be a pretty nice dining room decoration. We were told the rectory was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, but the wall with the Last Supper remained standing.

The Last Supper. In Italian, it’s called Cenacolo Vinciano. Cenacolo means refectory and refers to the refectory where Jesus held the last supper.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Setting of the Last Supper in the refectory of Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie
Photo by Debbie Henning
Rarely mentioned painting at the other end of the refectory from the Last Supper, The Crucifixion by Donato da Montorfano
Photo by Debbie Henning

Asti

We began our exploration of Piemonte with a day trip to the charming city of Asti, a short, 15-minute train ride from Montegrosso d’Asti. Stepping off the train in Asti, you immediately notice the feel of the city is somewhat different from those to the south. While Asti still feels “Italian”, you notice much more French influence in the architecture.

Street scene in Asti
Photo by Debbie Henning
Wrought iron balconies on a street in Asti with the 15th Century Collegiate Church of San Secundo in the background.

We spent most of the day just walking the streets. Asti is a beautiful, small city, just the right size to be eminently walkable. When we got off the train, we found two separate, open-air markets featuring local artisans in nearby piazzas. While walking we encountered a wonderful gentleman, 82-year-old Melio on the street who told us stories. Melio was full of life and spirit and well-versed in current American events.

Randy and Melio
Photo by Debbie Henning

Eventually, we made our way to two of Asti’s ancient cathedrals. First, we visited the Collegiate Church of San Secondo. The original building was probably started in the 10th century and modified somewhat over the centuries. The facade was originally constructed between 1440 and 1462,

Interior of the Collegiate Church of San Secondo
Photo by Debbie Henning

Then it was on to The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, a massive cathedral built around the first half of the 14th Century on the ruins of a previous church. While my knowledge of architecture is almost nonexistent, they say this cathedral is the best example of the Piedmont Gothic style. What I do know is that every church or cathedral we stepped into was stunning in its own way. Each has its own beauty, and while some may be a little ostentatious, and I may wonder about the amount of money that went into building and decorating these facilities, there is no denying that they are sacred places.

Facade of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Photo by Debbie Henning
Side of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption with bell tower
Photo by Debbie Henning
Interior of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Photo by Debbie Henning
Statue of Our Lady of the Assumption
Photo by Debbie Henning

On our walk back, we stopped off for lunch at La Buta Enoteca in the heart of Asti. La Buta offers a huge selection of wines from the region. Antonio helped us find a couple of wines that were just what we were looking for. Debbie had a Gavi, made from the Cortese grape. It’s a crisp, medium bodied, dry white wine with a floral nose and citrus on the palate, perhaps similar to pinot grigio, but with more body. I chose a grignolino, a brilliant, light-red wine. From its appearance, you might expect it to be thin, light and watery, but this variety has some tanning that provides more substance. Strawberries are evident in the nose, while the taste starts with strawberry/cherry flavors and then lingers with some peppery notes. Antonio told us that grignolino was once known as the wine of kings, as it was favored by the French royalty. Both grapes are indigenous to Piemonte and are grown in the southern portion of the region. Both wines were perfect with the plate of focaccia, salumi and nuts that we shared.

Some of the wine selections available at Labuta
Photo by Debbie Henning
Lunch at Labuta in Asti
Photo by Debbie Henning

Before heading back to Montegrosso d’Asti, we stopped in Giordanino’s Pasticceria. Throughout Italy, we came across outstanding bakeries everywhere we went, and Asti was no exception. The care and pride that go into their creations is evident and impressive. Giordanino’s makes a polentina, a sponge cake made with almond flour and soaked in maraschino liquor, that is pure heaven.

The owner of Gioranino’s Pasticceria. (Note the grappa in the background. You can’t be in Piemonte without finding grappa.)
Photo by Debbie Henning
Goodies at Giordanino’s
Photo by Debbie Henning
More goodies at Giordanino’s
Photo by Debbie Henning

Off to Piemonte

With our stay in the Cinque Terre over, it was time to move on to the Piemonte. A short train ride took us from Manarola to La Spezia, where we rented a car. We had the chance to explore La Spezia over lunch before driving on.

La Spezia is a small city on the Ligurian coast is a port city, home to a naval base and a frequent stop for cruise ships. We came across a wonderful, open-air market in the heart of the city that filled about two city blocks. The market included stall after stall of fresh seafood, including many I had never seen before. The produce was absolutely gorgeous, crate after crate of impeccable quality.

A portion of the fruit and vegetable section of the market in La Spezia
Photo by Debbie Henning
Fresh seafood stalls at the market in La Spezia
Photo by Debbie Henning
Pannocchie at the La Spezia market. These uncommon crustaceans are rarely found outside of fresh fish markets. They apparently dry out very easily so must be consumed as fresh as possible. These guys were actually moving.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Beautiful, speckled lettuce
Photo by Debbie Henning

From La Spezia, we made the three-hour drive through the Ligurian Apennines. The Italians seem to prefer driving through the mountains rather than driving over them. The route was filled with tunnels, many of them about a half mile long.

We reached what would be our home for the remainder of the trip in the late afternoon. We stayed in a refurbished farmhouse from the 1800s just outside Montegrosso d’Asti, a small town southeast of Asti. The property has a magnificent view over the hills of Monferrato, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On clear days, it was striking to see on the Alps on the horizon. There were great views of Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and Mont Viso. The landscape between us and the Alps was all rolling hills.

Our “home” near Montegrosso d’Asti
Photo by Debbie Henning
Montegrosso d’Asti and the rolling hills of Piemonte
Photo by Debbie Henning

Trying to get the lay of the land in Piemonte was confusing. I realized I needed to brush up on my geography. I knew the Alps formed the northern border of Italy, but I didn’t realize it was somewhat more complicated. Like the Rocky Mountains, the Alps comprise several mountain ranges. The northern border of Italy consists of the Eastern, Central and Western Alps. I didn’t realize the Maritime Alps formed the northwestern border of Italy with France. Thus, Piemonte sits in a very large, natural amphitheater with the Alps both to the north and the west.

What a great spot to spend a few days.
Photo by Debbie Henning

Wines of the Cinque Terre

A selection of the wines produced by the Cooperativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre
Photo by Debbie Henning

Before arriving in the Cinque Terre, I had been completely unfamiliar with their wines. It’s a small region, and very few of the wines make it to the United States. In fact, most rarely make it out of the Cinque Terre.

Today’s wines are the result of centuries of human effort to transform an inhospitable landscape into one that could provide sustenance and livilhood. Terraces were carve out of the steep, surrounding hillsides to provide a place to grow grape vines. The terraces were then supported with hand-crafted, dry walls to keep them from sliding into the sea.

Terraces carved out of the hillsides in Cinque Terre
Photo by Debbie Henning

The terrain here necessitates doing everything by hand. It’s impossible to work with machinery on these slopes. An ingenious system of carts on monorails helps move grapes from the vineyards at harvest time.

We spent a beautiful, sunny afternoon on the patio of the Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre with Matteo Bonanini, the president of the Cooperativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre. a cooperative of 200 farmer-members whose grapes go into the production of the Cantina. You can learn more about the wines of the Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre at https://www.cantinacinqueterre.com/en/.

Randy with Matteo Bonanini, President of the Cooperativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre (r) and Bordoni Sauro who works with the Cooperativa
Photo by Debbie Henning

Cinque Terre has been granted its own Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) which ensures that the wine is produced in a specified area of the Cinque Terre and is made with at least 40% Bosco, and no more than 40% each of Albarola and Vermentino.

While some red wines are produced in the area, the vast majority of the wines are white. In this case, the adage holds true that local wines almost always pair well with the local cuisine. With the Cinque Terre’s position at the southern end of the Italian Riviera, fish is king. Each of the five Cinque Terre villages has always been a fishing village first, and great fish dishes are available everywhere. The wines produced by the Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre, with their floral crispness, are the perfect complement to the local fish dishes.

Two Cinque Terre wines, Costa da’ Posa and Vigne Alte, with a plate of salted anchovies with garlic and olive oil – perfect.
Photo by Debbie Henning

Matteo walked us through a selection of wines from the Cantina and gave us some background on each of them. All the wines are produced from the local, indigenous varieties Bosco and Albarola along with the relative newcomer Vermentino, probably brought to the area from Spain in the 14th century. The proportion of each variety varies in their different wines.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre – Vigne Alte – 2018
Bosco 60%, Albarola 35%, Vermentino 5%
Photo by Debbie Henning

This wine impresses from the start in the glass with its brilliant clarity and pale straw color. There is a slight tinge of green as well. The wine really shines when you bring it up to your nose. Wonderful floral notes abound with some apricot and lemon notes. You notice the crispness when you first taste the wine, very fresh and somewhat fruity, although not nearly as intense as the aroma. There are some herbal/vegetal hints in the taste as well. The wine’s minerality comes through in the middle and is prominent in the finish. Vigne Alte reminds me somewhat of a crisp, Alsatian riesling.

Vigne Alte is made from grapes grown in the Cinque Terre’s highest vineyards, about 300-400 meters above sea level. The cooler temperatures and diurnal temperature fluctuation contribute to the noteable acidity. The wine is allowed to macerate on the skins for 24 hours prior to fermentation and again allowed to rest on the lees for 6 months before bottling. I believe both of these techniques contribute to the vegetal flavors in the wine.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre – Costa da’ Posa = 2017
Bosco 70%, Albarola 20%, Vermentino 10%
Photo by Debbie Henning

We moved from the highest altitude vineyards to the lowest with the Costa da’ Posa. This wine comes from vineyards down by the sea. It has a greenish golden color, almost like good olive oil. There are still sweet, floral notes on the nose, but it’s far less floral than the Vigne Alte. On the palate, it is more rounded and full bodied with less acidity. The remarkable quality of this wine is its briny, almost salty minerality on the finish.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre – Pergole Sparse
Bosco 70%, Albarola 20%, Vermentino 10%
Photo by Debbie Henning

I’m not sure of the location of the vineyards providing the grapes for this wine, but what sets it apart is that it has been fermented on the skins. The color is a rich gold with tinges of grees. The nose is very light , but what there is provides hints of citrus and vanilla. This is a nice, well balanced, round, full wine. That said, it is still a light wine, nothing even coming close to a big chardonnay in mouth feel. This wine has a less acidic taste, but there is some bitterness in the finish, probably as a result of the tannin from skin contact during fermentation. Honestly, this was my least favorite, but that probably has to do with whether you care for white wines fermented on the skins.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre – Costa de Campu – 2018
Bosco 70%, Albarola 20%, Vermentino 10%
Photo by Debbie Henning

The Costa de Campu vineyards cover the middle of the Cinque Terre DOC. This wine is golden with a slight green tinge. The nose is filled with floral citrus notes, like the lemon blossoms that are abundant in the Cinque Terre. As you taste the wine, flavors of lemon and grapefruity come through, with mineral & flinty overtones. The wine has a nice, acidic crispness which lingers on the finish. This wine is a beautiful complement to oily fish, such as the anchovies that are so abundant in the Cinque Terre.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre Schiacchetra
Bosco 80%, Albarola 15%, Vermentino 5%
Photo by Debbie Henning

If there is one wine for which the Cinque Terre is known, it is Sciacchetra, a sweet dessert wine. The Cantina offers both their regular Sciacchetra and a Riserva Sciacchetra. Schiaccetra is a pasito style wine. Selected clusters of grapes are allowed to dry naturally on trellises until the potential alcohol percentages reaches 17%, ensuring a sweet, dessert-style wine. The standard version is fermented partially on the skins in stainless steel andaged for about 16 months, also in stainless steel, while the Riserva is fermented partially on the skins in stainless stell and aged for three years in small oak barrels. Note the color difference in the photo. The regular Schiacchetra is a deep, golden yellow, approaching a yellow amber, while the Riserva is almost amber/bronze.

These wines have an intense nose filled with candied fruit with nut scents. On the palate, these wines are sweet and rich, almost sherry-like, but with an acidity and crispness that most sherries lack. These wines would be great with hard cheeses or sipped alone. They are also served in the tradition of Tuscany’s Vin Santo with a biscuit to dunk in the sweet wine.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre Grappa
Photo by Debbie Henning

We concluded our tasting with Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre’s grappa. As you can see, we had perhaps a little more than a small taste, but the grappa in northern Italy was a real discovery on this trip. Most producers who make wine also make a grappa, frequently identified by the grape must used for distillation.

The grappa is made through steam distillation of the grape must left behind after the wine has fermented. It is made in specially licensed facilities, so the wine producers don’t actually make their own grappa, but it is from their grape must and carries their label. While the grappas all bear a family resemblance, the aromas and tastes can be remarkably different depending on the grapes used.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre’s grappa was quite enjoyable. At 84 proof, it packs a punch, but the alcohol is softened by a rich, full feeling in the mouth. The nose had aromas of dusty grapes, lemon, violets and fresh paint.

Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre – Costa de Sera – 2018
Bosco 70%, Albarola 20%, Vermentino 10%
Photo by Debbie Henning

After we walked back to Manarola, we picked up a bottle of Cantina Agricoltura’s Costa de Sera. the one wine we did not try at the winery, to enjoy as we watched the sun set over Manarola from the garden of our room.

The grapes for Costa de Sera are grown in the southern end of the Cinque Terre. The first impressions when smelling this wine are more of herbs, almost minty, than the citrus notes prevalent in the other bottlings. The wine undergoes a brief period of maceration on the skins prior to fermentation, which likely accounts for the herbiness. The taste is light and neutral, with the acidity characteristic of the Cinque Terre.

With that, it was time to call it a night. If you happen to find a wine from the Cinque Terre, do yourself a favor and try it. You’ll be in for a treat.

Good night from Manarola.
A beautiful shrine to the Virgin Mary along the trail from Volastra to Groppo
Photo by Debbie Henning
The blessed Virgin on a ledge in the shrine
Photo by Debbie Henning