Michèle Shah takes a tour of the Piedmont region, sampling its fine wines and enjoying the excellent cuisine along the way.
The name Piedmont literally means ‘at the foot of the mountains’ and the vine-clad hills that dominate the landscape here pay silent witness to its history of noble viticulture, while hilltop hamlets and fortified castles of the Piedmont region, such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Cherasco, are living monuments to its feudal past.
To get a feel for the region, read Cesare Pavese’s short stories and, in particular, his novel, The Moon and the Bonfires. This is set in the villages of Canelli, Santa Stefano Belbo and Dogliani, in not-so-distant times, when life was governed by the seasons, the land and its produce.
In contrast to other Italian regions, the Piedmont region has retained a genuine rural culture and the Piedmontese are closely tied to their rural traditions: dairy farming, from which they produce wonderful cheeses such as Robbiola, Toma and Castelmagno, hazelnut plantations, truffles and, of course, vineyards.
In recent years the Piedmont region has capitalised on winemaking. As one producer commented, in the past decade many farmers have made their fortune from the precious petrolio rosso or ‘red petrol’. Today, Piedmont produces more than three million hectolitres of wine, of which more than half is of DOC and DOCG quality. Its main grape varieties include Moscato, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Arneis, Grignolino, Brachetto, Cortese and Freisa.
Wine lovers visiting the Piedmont region today will also be surprised by a thriving culinary scene, based on the fresh ingredients of the area. Eating out is a common pastime and the region’s wine producers do a lot of their socialising in the local restaurants.
One of the joys of touring the Piedmont region is visiting its wineries, buying wines along the way. Most wineries are family-run and welcome visitors to their vineyards and tastings. These are usually free, but do call ahead, especially to smaller wineries.
The average winery has around 8–15ha (hectares) of vines and a production of between 50,000 and 100,000 bottles. Land is expensive and often divided into small lots. According to Giovanni Dezzani, a producer in Cocconato, it took him 13 years to buy the 6ha of vines around his winery, which over the years had been divided into 25 individual lots belonging to 25 different farmers.
The best way to visit the Piedmont region is to fly to its capital city, Turin (Ryanair flies from Stansted), and hire a car. From there it’s a short drive to wine-producing areas such as Monferrato, Roero and the Langhe. However, to really enjoy the region’s rolling landscapes, charming country retreats, excellent cuisine and fine wine, one really needs a minimum of four days. What follows is just one possible itinerary for a short break to the region.
From Turin, start with a short drive to Cocconato in the Monferrato area, above the town of Asti, in Barbera country. Cocconato is a quaint old town with an excellent cheese shop and butcher in the main square. Its two main producers are Dezzani and Bava. The medieval Locanda Martelletti is a good stop-over and has a good restaurant.
A few kilometres east of Cocconato is Albugnano, with its much acclaimed abbey and cloister, Abbazia di Santa Maria di Vezzolano. South of Cocconato, halfway towards Asti, is Castell’Alfero, which, for those interested in barrel-making, has one of Italy’s top barrel makers, Gamba.
Driving west is Vignale Monferrato. A visit to Il Mongetto, a shop on the main piazza, makes for a worthwhile detour – this sells a wonderful selection of artisanal foods. Mongetto also owns a comfortable country villa, where it rents out large rooms and serves excellent home cooking accompanied by its own wines.
Asti is worth a visit, too, especially the Saturday market and its medieval costumed Palio, held every September. It is well linked to Alba, which can be reached in 30 minutes via the superstrada.
Drive southwest to Rocchetta Tanaro, which takes its name from the river Tanaro, and visit Braida’s winery, famous for being one of the first wineries to age its Barbera in barrique. Stay at Marchese Incisa’s bed and breakfast, La Corte Chiusa, have a meal at Beppe Bologna’s trattoria and buy some lingue di suocera from the baker, Mario Fongo.
Rocchetta Tanaro is well positioned for a move further south to Nizza Monferrato, where the winery Bersano & Riccadonna Spa has an excellent museum of old country winemaking equipment and historic prints.
Drive further south still and stop at Canelli to visit Coppo’s historic cellars. Then ascend the windy hill with its Moscato vines to San Stefano Belbo for magnificent views and a refreshing glass of Moscato from Ca’D’Gal’s small winery. If you want to enjoy a working winery experience this is the place to stay.
For those into pampering, halfway up the hill is Relais San Maurizio, a tastefully restored former 17th century monastery in a park. It offers relaxed luxury, including a fitness centre – in case you over-indulge at its in-house restaurant – set in the spectacular old cellars of the monastery.
Drive to Alba, famed in the Piedmont region for October’s white truffle fair. It’s a nice town with plenty of food shops, wine bars and a Saturday market. Pio Cesare’s historic cellars in the centre are certainly worth a visit.
You can opt to stay at the Locanda del Pilone, just outside Alba, which offers classy comfort and excellent food. From here it is also possible to visit Canale in the Roero area, famous for its white Arneis wines.
All’Enoteca is one of the best restaurants in the locale. Neive, Barbaresco and Treiso lie to the east of Alba and a day visiting producers should be crowned with dinner at the one-star La Ciau del Tornavento, with its well-stocked cellar, or Antinè, where chef Andrea Marino will regale you with a variation on traditional cuisine.
Barolo is only a short drive south of Alba but it is also a good base for touring the old medieval town of Cherasco, as well as the famed areas of La Morra, Monforte and Dogliani, further south. This is quite a concentrated area and offers a wide choice of producers, collectively known as the ‘Barolo Barons’. In terms of places to stay, Gioco dell’Oca, at the foot of Barolo, serves incredible breakfasts with home-made cakes, breads and jams. Opposite is Terre da Vino, one of Piedmont’s most high-tech wineries, which owns 14 quality cooperatives throughout Piedmont. Its wines are good value for money.
Brezza’s historic cellars and a chat with Oreste Brezza over a glass of wine make for a good contrast. Cà San Ponzio Agriturismo is tucked away in Vergne, above Barolo, opposite Vajra (fantastic Barbera), and rents out mountain bikes. Osteria Veglio and Trattoria della Posta are both highly recommended for lunch stops.
For those who have more time and wish to concentrate further on the Langhe, the Dolcetto producing area is a must. Thanks to a group of dedicated, new-generation producers, especially the Anna Maria Abbona, San Fereolo and Pecchenino wineries, Dogliani has recently revived its production of Dolcetto with quality-driven wines. The vineyards offer spectacular views of the Alps.
Another good reason to visit this area is to sample the family-run Trattoria del Peso. Its old-fashioned charm is a reminder of authentic Italian hospitality, which prides itself on traditional values and wholesome,home-made recipes.
Ravioli del Plin: very small handmade pasta filled with veal, egg and cheese
Agnolotti Piemontesi: square handmade pasta filled pasta with rabbit, veal, pork and some cabbage Tajarin con Tartufo o Ragù: thin handmade tagliolini with truffle or meat sauce
Vitello Tonnato: thinly cut veal with a tuna fish, anchovy and caper mayonnaise
Bagna Cauda: hot olive oil with a paste of anchovies, garlic and a small quantity of milk, used as a dip for raw vegetables, such as bell peppers and artichokes
Fonduta di Toma con Uovo e Tartufo: fondue of local cheese served with a poached egg and plenty of white truffle shavings
Risotto al Barolo: risotto cooked slowly in Barolo wine – an expensive way of cooking, but delicious
Crudo di Vitella delle Langhe Battuta col Coltello: finely chopped, lean, raw veal, seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil. An optional clove of garlic can be added
Formaggi con Cugnà d’Uva Moscato: mixed regional cheeses served with a compôte of seasonal fruit