Find out what happened during Decanter's third Reader Wine Weekend which took place across Piedmont in October. Brian St. Pierre journeyed to the heart of Italy's renowned wine region for truffle hunting, sight-seeing and an audience and tasting with Angelo Gaja himself.
Rain had been predicted for mid-October in the Piedmont region of Italy, but the only precipitation encountered by participants on the Decanter Readers’ Wine Weekend was showers of truffles over every meal but breakfast for four days. Even the area’s famous fog cooperated, providing picturesque mornings, then discreetly withdrawing before lunchtime.
The tour, led by Decanter Publishing Director Sarah Kemp and Peter McCombie MW, was Decanter’s third annual food-and-wine excursion, after trips to Bordeaux and the Douro Valley, with the group assembling from around the U.K. and U.S. for visits to wineries, and restaurants featuring the region’s notable cuisine. For just over four centuries, the Piedmont was a proud royal outpost of France, which left culinary markers everywhere in the region. (The first Italian cookbook published in its capital, Turin, known as “the most Italian city of France,” was subtitled “perfected in Paris.”) That tradition, combining elegance and richness, still prevails.
After a welcome lunch featuring the wines of G.D. Vajra and an amiable introduction by Giuseppe Vajra, the group set off into the woods in the Langhe hills for a truffle hunt—a refreshing walk, with a successfully aromatic outcome—before visiting the winery in the town of Barolo. The last Nebbiolo grapes of the harvest were being crushed, and we were able to verify their full, sweet ripeness by nibbling a few off the sorting tables. Pouring a superb selection of wines in their attractive tasting room, Giuseppe acknowledged that 2012 had been a “difficult year, with coolness and late-summer rain,” but said they were happy with the final results: “Not sexy, but charming,” he beamed.
The next day, we went to the tiny town of Barbaresco, and the Gaja winery, not normally open to visitors, to be greeted by an ebullient Angelo Gaja, whose enthusiastic overview of the region and its history included a cautionary assessment: World-wide success and increasing prosperity have brought a threat of encroaching development. After a tour of the winery (mostly underground—“a winery shouldn’t need to be a monument,” he said–and enlivened with abstract modern art), his daughter Gaia took us through a tasting of their benchmark Barolos and Barbarescos, ranging back to 1978. Over lunch at the nearby Trattoria Antica Torre, we saw how the local pasta, rich and finely cut egg noodles called tajarin, are hand-made, and a perfect match for Barbaresco, while Angelo fretted over global warming (“a big factor here, a challenge to keep the wines supple”) and “natural” winemaking (“it’s not a fad—you should be able to see worms in the vineyard soil”).
At Poderi Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno poured a selection of splendid Barolos before taking the group to the high hilltop vineyard of Romirasco, which provides a single-vineyard, classic Barolo and a major component of the winery’s top-of-the-line Gran Bussia, blended from three vineyards in good years. A trio of the wines were later served with a dinner that featured stinco, veal shin braised in Barolo.
The next day saw a visit to Massolino, in Serralunga d’Alba, founded in 1896 just below the town’s imposing castle, a landmark visible from miles around. Just before a tasting of the winery’s consistently award-winning, finely structured single-vineyard Barolos, winemaker Franco Massolino presented a delicious anomaly—an exemplary, flinty Chardonnay, and a delightful surprise.
Back at Il Boscareto, the luxury hotel and spa in Serralunga d’Alba that served as a five-star home base, the group spent their final elaborate lunch nominating destinations for next year’s tour, with assurances they’d be there, wherever it was.
Written by Brian St. Pierre