Carla Capalbo finds the moody landscape of rolling vineyards a picturesque backdrop to the Barolo, truffles, pasta and other regional delights on offer here
Few grape names conjure so well the atmosphere from which they originate as Nebbiolo, the main native grape of central Piedmont.
Nebbia means fog in Italian, and le Langhe, as the gentle hills that Nebbiolo likes best are called, are often shrouded in mist.
Far from being a visual deterrent, the fog softens contours and colours, and adds an air of mystery to hilltop castles and sloping vineyards. Nothing can beat a foggy evening spent in the comfort of a local osteria, eating truffle-topped noodles or local beef braised in a fine Barolo or Barbaresco – Nebbiolo wines per excellenza.
Wine has been made here since Roman times. The royal house of Savoy, living in spectacular palaces in and around Turin, were fond of the long-established Barolo, as was the court of Louis XIV.
France’s historical influence on Piedmont extended to its winemaking: the Piedmontese statesman and architect of Italy’s unification, Camillo Cavour, dabbled in viticulture to ensure a steady supply at his table.
The Langhe hills, and their extensions into Monferrato and Roero, are a self-contained enclave thanks to their distinct geography. To their north and west are the glacier-sculpted mountains of the Alps – a backdrop that comes into focus on a clear day when a northerly wind is blowing.
To the northeast are the flat fields of the Po valley that are home to Vercelli, one of Italy’s primary rice-growing zones. Go south across the Apennines and you quickly descend to the sea at Genova, the steep and powerful Mediterranean port.
Only a short drive south-east from Turin, Langhe is easy to reach; it has the added advantage of being less well known to foreigners than some of Italy’s other top winemaking areas.
Yet the region is not short on sights – viticultural and otherwise – or terrific restaurants, hotels and agritourismo stays. Busy market towns such as Alba, Asti, Bra and Cuneo are full of life, and offer good bases from which to tour small roads and villages, ideally by car, bike or even on foot.
Mention Langhe to any Italian and their eyes light up at the thought of the delicious wines and foods produced there. Barbaresco, Barolo, La Morra, Serralunga… these legendary names recur on top restaurant wine lists across Italy.
They represent the villages, hamlets and castles whose names have been given to wines produced on specific slopes or hillsides – Italy’s first ‘crus’.
Indeed, Langhe has much in common with Burgundy. This, too, is vigneron country: small vineyard holdings are owned and worked by families who never left the land or emigrated in the 20th century.
There’s been a constant demand for their wines, so even a few hectares can sustain a family. It’s always best to phone to make an appointment if you want to meet the owner-winemakers: they might otherwise be out working in the vineyards.
While modern viticulture and hotter summers have helped Nebbiolo to ripen fully, it is admired for its elegant, austere, complex character. Many wines improve with added cellaring.
Those who enjoy more immediate drinking won’t miss out: winemakers are now producing affordable, fruity reds from Dolcetto, long considered Nebbiolo’s poor cousin.
Barbera, a grape with higher acidity, has been mellowed by warm summers, too. There are wines for every taste, from those aged traditionally in large barrels to wines produced in barriques and using modern technology.
Piedmont is foodie heaven. Alba is known for its heady white truffles, so go in autumn to take advantage of them on everything from eggs to risotto.
The truffle season runs over six or seven weeks, from October to mid-November, with the best time around mid-October. Game and wild mushrooms are other autumn treats.
The lower slopes of hills planted to vines are used to cultivate prestigious hazelnuts – tonda gentile delle Langhe. These are folded into nougat, pounded into cookies and confections, and often married to chocolate.
Nutella and its nobler versions originate here, and Cuneo is famous for its Cunese – hazelnut and rum-scented chocolates.
Don’t miss thin handmade egg noodles, tajarin. Yolk-yellow, they are fabulously rich topped with melted butter, meat sauces or porcini mushrooms.
Agnolotti, local ravioli stuffed with mixed meats, are also local to Langhe. Meats here are often braised slowly in red wine – not food for the faint hearted, but they go well with the local red wines. A long walk in the vineyards after lunch will bring you back feeling surprisingly ready for dinner.
There are many other reasons to visit Langhe in autumn. Medieval Asti holds an annual Palio horse race and pageant in September that predates Siena’s by 400 years.
Slow Food organises a superb cheese extravaganza in alternate years to the Salone del Gusto. ‘Cheese’, as the festival is called, will be held in Bra in September 2011 and makes a great focus to a trip, with hundreds of stalls of unique dairy products, as well as demonstrations, tasting seminars and chef- cooked cheese meals.
In October and November, Alba holds an annual truffle fair and international auction: last year the most expensive lot (less than 1.4kg of the precious white fungus) sold for $330,000. Much smaller pieces are on offer in all the local restaurants; a little shaved over a plate of pasta can go a long way.
Hotels and tourist offices in every town are well informed on local walking and wine routes and will make cellar reservations for visitors. All you need is the time to meander through the countryside, and the inclination to enjoy the wines.
Written by Carla Capalbo