Piemonte is a dizzying gastronomic haven, rich in everything of a gourmand’s dream- truffles, mushrooms, hazelnuts (RE: Nutella), ambrosic red wine, historical whites and sweet, sparkling Moscato that even the most pretentious vinophile can’t deny when served with a slice of Pannetone or a hot afternoon. The capital is Torino, once ruled by the House of Savoy (now ruled by Italian artists & hipsters). We planted ourselves here. Still, we were about an hour’s drive from the gastronomic heart of Piedmonte in the rolling hills of the Langhe. We had three nights-really just two full days for wine tasting and exploration. How do you sum the bounty of Piemontese food & wine culture in two. days.?… From the medieval Cortese grape of Gavi, to the fizzy Mosacto of Asti, to frigid Gattarina & Ghemme, who make bloody, austere Nebbiolo (locally known as Spanna), to Barolo & Barbaresco- dubbed “the king & queen” of wines? You don’t. You couldn’t! As it was our first visit, we went straight to the royalty.
The Nebbiolo grape, supposedly named after the dense fog that rolls through the hills in autumn (fog is “nebbia” in Piedmontese dialect), is often ethereal, haunting, bold and reminiscent of the area’s famous truffles. We had one day in Barbaresco and one day in Barolo. Three days into Europe and I decided to start with the King of Queens- Gaja.
Before the 1960’s were known to be aggressively tannic, austere and required the patience to age that us quick-drinking cowboys just couldn’t muster. Angelo Gaja changed everything- the prophet of modern winemaking in Piedmonte. His use of French barriques, shorter maceration times and earlier harvests completely revolutionized the traditional use of 500L Slavonian oak botti and heavy extraction. The grape began to undress a little, revealing more fruit, elegance and most importantly- approachability. While many producers still hold to some of the traditional winemaking practices, many incorporate some use of “modern” flair, showcasing each house’s personality via the many unofficial “crus” or single-vineyard sites in the area. The once neglected region is now a star and standard within the lineage of the World’s greatest wines.
The Gaja winery was as equally impressive as the legacy- massive, feng-shui clean, modern sculptures. Our personal guide, Sarah, Gaia Gaja’s assistant, spoke better English than I do. She pointed out the vertical plantings and microclimates, noted the progressive tone via the use of Austrian oak and gave a detailed history on the family and their wines. The wines were sexy, stylish, detailed and made a statement on par with the modern art sprinkled throughout the estate.
GAJA BARBARESCO D.O.G.C 2012- This bottling is usually a blend of 14 vineyards, although just 5 were used for this vintage. The single vineyards are aged individually in oak for 12 months, then blended and aged in botti (Slovenian or Austrian, both of which are less porous than French oak) for an additional 12 months. 2012 was a warm, cloudy year. Rose, cherry, bay leaf, oregano, medicinal and tannic. 3 Drips
GAJA CONTEISA LANGHE NEBBIOLO D.O.C. 2011- 92% Nebbiolo 8% Barbera (hence the D.O.C…D.O.C.G from this area must be 100% Nebbiolo). This word in English means “contest,” in reference to the 100-yr dispute between La Morra & Barolo for the right to claim the Cerequio area as theirs (La Morra won in 1275). The Conteisa vineyard is situated here, south-facing with clay-calcareous soils mixed with sand. Fermentation and maceration lasts about 3 weeks, followed by 30 months of aging in oak. This year was sunny + warm. Fragrant, fresh & elegant- Rose, vanilla, cherry, thyme, anise, long finish. 3 Drips
GAJA SAN LORENZO LANGHE NEBBIOLO D.O.C. 2013 (barrel sample)- 95% Nebbiolo 5% barbera. San Lorenzo is the flagship and the first single vineyard Gaja wine, released in 1967. It is said to have its own distinct microclimates as the vineyards work their way up the Sorí, or hillside. A natural amphitheater, the bottom soils near the river are thick, producing more tannin, while the perfume of the wine is provided by the thinner soils near the top. It is south-facing with clay-calcareous soils. 3 weeks maceration, 24 months oak. It typically produces the most power and austerity of their wines. This bottling did not fail to disappoint. Rich, complex, black tea, tar, mushroom, pomegranate, spicy and bold. 4 Drips
GAJA COSTA RUSSI LANGHE NEBBIOLO D.O.C. 2013 (barrel sample)- 95% Nebbiolo 5% barbera. Costa indicates hillside, in this case coming from lower on the hill, thereby producing a riper style. The land faces southwest with clay-calcareous soils. 3 weeks maceration, 24 months oak. This was an even, cool vintage. Juicy, black cherry, moss & sandalwood. 4 Drips
GAJA ALTENI DI BRASSICA LANGHE SAUVIGNON BLANC D.O.C. 1986 (in magnum)- This was their first vintage of this wine, a “classic” vintage. Alenti refers to the stone walls that surround the plots of land. Brassica is the name for the yellow flowers that grow there in spring. The vineyards are in Barbaresco and Serralunga. Fermentation & oak aging for 6-8 months. I was surprised by how much life this wine still has. Baked pineapple, Apple, butterscotch, sweet corn and asparagus. 5 Drips
We had a traditional Piedmontese lunch at Trattoria Antica Torre, across from Barbaresco’s winemaking co-op, Produttori del Barbaresco, before heading down the hill to visit Tenute Cisa Asinari di Marchesi di Grésy. This is another prestigious name in the area. Founded by Alberto di Grésy in 1973, Marchesi di Grésy is made up of four estates in the Langhe and Monferrato hills.
The welcome, like the wines, was warm and generous. Giulia, our guide, led us through the winery. The winery is certainly clean, though here you find a charming clutter of various empty wine bottles, displayed like trophies, and an oenologist’s library. We saw another combination of barriques and botti, along with large concrete tanks. We tasted through maybe a dozen wines, each showcasing a special something from Piedmonte- be it place or grape on display.
TENUTE CISA ASINARI DEI MARCHESI DI GRESY “MARTINEGA” BARBARESCO D.O.C.G. 2012- Their signature wine and a monopole to the winery, the Martinega vineyard has been noted for its exceptional position for winemaking since the ancient Roman times, then known as “Villa Martis.” With southern exposure, the unique blue marl soils and a careful hand in the pristine winery create a wine with elegance, spice, finesse and vibrant life. Sweet tobacco, leather, ripe cherry and violets. Complex and harmonious. 5 Drips
That evening we discovered the joy of aperitivo at Café des Arts. The atmosphere was hip but unpretentious with delicious bites to accompany our vermouth. Although vermouth’s spiritual home is Torino, home to the giant Martini & Rosso, many a bartender would disappoint. Not the case here- our man directed us to the balanced and spicy Bordiga Rosso, served with ice, a broad orange peel and a sliver of lemon peel. Perfection.
The next day, we had two appointments in Barolo. We started at Guiseppe Mascarello, a more traditional spirit with pretty wines, best known for their “Monprivato” bottling. The visit was short- just a tasting with the winemaker and his sweet mother, who was able to communicate in French, as my Italian is rather handicapped.
GUISEPPE MASCARELLO “MONPRIVATO” BAROLO D.O.C.G 2011- Again, the winery’s signature wine. Grown on the tartonion soils of Barolo, this is a lighter, more floral expression of the D.O.C.G. Leather, thyme, raspberry wrapped in an elegant body and extra long finish. The tannins are fresh and balanced. 5 Drips
Vajra is where we finished our journey. We were led through the unique winery, just adjacent to their Bricco delle Viole vineyards, which is where the family got its start. Stain glass windows reflect varying shades of blue and yellow on the stainless steel tanks. These windows are said to be a connection with the winery and the world outside. They are sometimes symbolized on their various labels. Another winery that combines both traditional and modern practices, nonetheless with a determination to experiment with various plantings. We tasted everything from Riesling- a rarity in Piedmonte- to Freisa, a native grape that many winemakers are working to revive.
G.D. VAJRA FREISA 2012- A grape with firm acidity and tannin like its cousin, Nebbiolo, but with more generous fruit. Candied red apple, strawberry, cocoa nibs, rose pouperri and mushroom. Bright acid and a long, juicy finish. 3 Drips
G.D. VAJRA “BRICCO DELLE VIOLE” BAROLO D.O.C.G. 2011- Bricco, meaning hilltop, will typically indicate ample sunshine and ripe fruit. Not necessarily a fruity wine, but this one does have power. This is an old vineyard that creates wines of concentration and firm tannin. Tar, autumn leaf, tobacco, orange peel, bay leaf, coffee grounds, black tea, red currant and prosciutto. Delicious. 4 Drips
Rich in wine culture, Piedmonte, like Burgundy, has an endless supply of microclimates and hillside variances that make each place special. The different crus certainly do offer their own distinctive personality, but what I see is an increasingly blurred line between the once believed stylistic distinction between the “king and queen,” between “old and new” traditions. Moreso, I see an influence of modern ideas and advancements with traditional practices, each house creating its own style. The Gaja wines of Barbaresco show power and authority, while some Barolo houses such as G. Mascarello have pretty fruit and elegance. Like any withstanding couple, the styles and personality of the two areas have began to both mirror one another. I saw a lot of pride while I was there (as with any Italian region). While some traditions have began to fade away with the modern palate, the increasingly focused eye on Langhe has allowed some other traditions to revive, such as the use of lesser-known native varietals. Barolo & Barbaresco are just a part of the rich Piedmontese culture, but its reputation has began to share light on the surrounding areas, such as Roero, Ghemme, and Nizza. Their regional influence on the local wine market is undeniable, ensuring their royal title stays attached.