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Welcome to another installment of our #WineWednesday series, where each week we give you a brief snapshot of wine regions all over the globe and insight on how to get there, where to stay and a few places you might want to visit while there. Today, TPG contributor Melanie Wynne invites us to explore the Piedmont wine region of northern Italy.
Surrounding the central city of Turin, northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region (sometimes spelled Piemonte, and pronounced “peeya-MON-tay”) is renowned for producing some of Italy’s most sought-after wines, including Barbera and Barolo. The region’s single-varietal wines, made from grapes grown in clay soil on gentle hilltops and alpine slopes, have historically been used as raw material for wines made famous elsewhere. Since the mid-1990s, though, enterprising vintners have open increasingly high-end wineries around Piedmont, inspiring a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury villas perched above the vines.
Seventy percent of the vintages produced here are red, but the remaining 30 are some of the country’s most distinguished whites. The Piedmont produces seven wines labeled with the acronym DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), which means they are guaranteed products of the Italian region where they were grown and made. Piedmont’s seven DOCG wines are Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brachetto d’Acqui, Gavi, Gattinara and Ghemme. The region also offers 46 different DOCs, including several varieties of Barbera, Freisa, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo. The label DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) means almost the same thing as DOCG, but Italian wine authorities feel they veer from a more traditional path in terms of growing, tending, fermenting, overall style, etc.
The Piedmont’s approximately 170,000 acres of vineyards are divided into three main areas:
The Langhe: Southwest of Turin in the province of Cuneo, this area is Italian for “hills.” You’ll find the highest concentration of lodgings and eateries here, and some of Piedmont’s most expensive bottles. Many red wines here bear the suffix d’Alba, as Alba is the Roero’s largest town. Also found in the area are Barolo and its namesake DOCG, and Novello, home to its own sub-DOC, Langhe Nascetta del Comune di Novello, which is made from floral, fruity Nascetta grapes. Throughout the Langhe, unoaked Chardonnays are becoming increasingly common.
The Roero: Named for a Medieval-era banking family, this hilly area set just north of the Langhe in the northeast corner of the Cuneo province is known for its fruits: pears, peaches, apricots and, of course, grapes. Its most popular wines are two DOCs, red Roero and white Roero Arneis, as well as the sparkling white Roero Arneis Spumante. The red grape here is the light, tarry Nebbiolo, and the white is the floral Arneis, a temperamental grape that proves challenging to grow; Arneis provides a softening touch for the harsher tannins in Nebbiolo, and they’re often used together in DOCG wines, as well.
The Monforte: Sometimes referred to as the Monferrato, this large area is set east of the Langhe and Roero, spanning both the Alessandria and Asti provinces; here, the d’Asti suffix is a common sight. Bisected by the River Tanaro, the Monforte’s landscape is half gentle hills and plains, half Apennine foothills. The Monforte is famous for truffles (harvested in the fall), bagna cauda (an anchovy dip served with raw veggies) and wines like elegant red Barbera d’Asti; dry and sparkling Asti Spumante; sweet Moscato d’Asti; rich, white Cortese di Gavi; and rosé Grignolino.
Come Arrivare (Getting There)
The most convenient airport to the Piedmont is Milan’s Malpensa Airport (MXP), a two-hour drive east of the Langhe. Turin, the largest city in the Piedmont, also has an airport (Turin-Caselle, IATA: TRN) but there are no direct flights from North America and it’s still a two-hour drive from major towns in the wine region.
You’ll find most major airline alliances represented at MXP, including:
SkyTeam: Alitalia, Air France, Delta
OneWorld: American Airlines, British Airways
Star Alliance: Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa, United
Train service to the hilly and mountainous Langhe, Roero and Monforte is spotty to non-existent. If you’re up for an adventure that will require a good map, rent a car at Malpensa and drive yourself around the Piedmont. The major car rental companies represented at Malpensa are Alamo, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Europcar, National, Sixt and Thrifty.
Be advised, though, that the Piedmont’s sometimes narrow, steep or winding roads, coupled with the need for advance reservations at some wineries, may inspire you to stay in Milan or a larger wine-country town (like Alba or Asti) and hire a wine-country tour guide. Reputable tour companies include La Dolce Vita Wine Tour and Viator, as well as Butterfield & Robinson, who offer multi-day biking or walking tours through the region.
Dove Alloggiore (Where to Stay)
The Piedmont makes an easy weekend trip from Milan, which has most major points hotel brands, including a Radisson Blu, Hilton, Park Hyatt, Marriott, Westin, Four Points by Sheraton and Crowne Plaza. Visa Signature properties include luxury design hotel The Gray and fashion designer Giorgio Armani’s Armani Hotel Milano, and Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts include the Four Seasons Hotel Milano, renovated from a 15th-century convent, and fusty but celebrity-studded Hotel Principe di Savoia, which has one of the city’s best indoor swimming pools. Other top choices are the cutting-edge Hotel Straf, full of glass and glitz and set near the Duomo, and budget-friendly Townhouse 31, a cozy yet modern pied-à-terre set in a residential neighborhood, a 10-minute walk from downtown.
If you’d prefer to wake up in wine country, though, there are a handful of villas and agriturismos amongst the Piedmont’s three areas that might just inspire you to make this region a lifestyle choice.
In the heart of the Langhe, Locanda del Pilone offers 3 guest rooms, 3 suites, a guest house and a 2013 Michelin-starred restaurant with a 1,200-bottle wine list. The guest house, set a short drive away from the main building, features a large double bed, two twin beds and a private garden. The restaurant, School, is headed by chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo (famed for his restaurant at the Villa Crespi, a luxurious hotel near Milan and Lake Orta) and features a vineyard-view deck.
Family-owned agriturismo Mongaletto, with 9 individually-decorated guest rooms and a large outdoor pool, is perched on top of a gentle hill in the Roero’s Castellinaldo, just a few miles from the towns of Alba and Bra. Their cozy on-site restaurant, overseen by two family members with experience in both catering and restaurants, offers seasonal cuisine with ingredients that have been grown and harvested from surrounding farms; cooking classes are available. Almost every point in the house offers expansive views of the valley and surrounding vines.
Set in the Monforte between the hills of Asti and Alba, the lavish Marchesi Alfieri is a historic wine estate run by three daughters of a marquis; wines made here include a Barbera d’Asti and various Monforte varietals. One of the property’s two guesthouses is adjacent to the wine cellars and divided into two private two-bedroom suites, both of which share public areas; the other house has four bedrooms and a hilltop view of the vineyards and nearby villages, and is suitable for a family or group of friends traveling together
Dove Mangiare (Where to Eat)
Over the last 25 years, the Piedmont’s food scene has been heavily influenced by the Slow Food movement, whose founder, Carlo Petrini, hails from the Roero. About 40 miles northwest of the Petrini’s hometown of Bra, the Turin area is home to several Michelin-starred, Slow Food-style restaurants, including: Combal.Zero, at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art (30 minutes west of Turin, in Rivoli), which has earned two stars for its creative tasting menus; and Turin’s single-starred Locanda Mongreno, renowned for serving local Piedmont specialties alongside their deconstructed counterparts.
When in Turin, be sure to try a cup of bicerin, a locally-beloved beverage which blends melted chocolate, strong coffee and cream, and has been served at Caffè al Bicerin, set in the Piazza della Consolata, since the late 1700s. Also seek out some vermouth, a spirit first produced in Turin in 1757, preferably in martini form; the cocktail was named for local dry vermouth-producer Martini & Rossi.
South of Turin in the Roero town of Canale (not far from Alba), All’Enoteca, the creation of thirty-something chef Davide Palluda, is half-laboratory, half-kitchen, turning out complex terrines and confits which use local game, peaches, nuts, Barolo and more. And even if you’re not staying at Locanda del Pilone, the villa’s Michelin-starred restaurant, School, offers shuttle service from nearby Alba.
In central Alba, La Libera, a quiet spot with an open kitchen, serves lighter fare than you’d usually find in these parts, with a strong focus on locally-grown vegetables, egg pastas, and lean meats. It offers a few local standbys each day, including chickpea soup and a veal chop with tuna sauce, but the menu consists largely of daily changes to a seasonally-focused menu.
Note: Many restaurants in the Piedmont region close for the last two weeks of August.
Cantine da Visitare (Wineries to Visit)
Here are a few places to try, set in the Roero and the Langhe:
Pio Cesare: Since 1881, five generations of the Pio family have run this Alba winery, specializing in single varietals like Grignolino, Freisa, Barolo, Gavi, Arneis etc. (+39 0173 440386 or [email protected])
Braida: Dating back to 1961, this small winery near Asti has created some of the Piedmont’s most popular wines since the 1980s. Focusing largely on Barbera, the winery also offers two DOCGs: Brachetto (a light, sparkling red) and a sweet Moscato. (+39 0141 644113 [email protected])
Roagna: Now being run by the (very young) fourth generation of the Roagna family, the Nebbiolo-based wines at this eco-friendly Barbaresco estate are almost exclusively aged in French oak; the result are vintages with a shelf life of 20-30 years. (+39.0173.635109 or [email protected])
There are occasional exceptions to the advance-reservations rule. The Azienda Agricola Rivetto tasting room in Alba (Piazza Garibaldi, 2) allows drop-ins to try its Barolos, Barberas and Nascetta. Nearby, between Alba and Barolo, visitors can show up at the Ceretto winery and linger in the tasting room over a slew of Barolos and Barbarescos, Moscato and more. However, if you want a full tour of the place and a 3-wine flight (€10 per person), it’s best to call or email ahead. (Open daily, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; +39 0173 282582 or [email protected])
If you’d rather maximize your wine tasting time, consider bellying up to the bar at various enoteche (pronounced enno-TECH-ay), small wine bars organized by local wine associations, often in historic sites, to promote the pours of local producers. The Enoteca Barbaresco, set in the former Santa Donato monastery, offers the vintages of 130 different independent wineries from the Barbaresco area. (Open daily, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Wednesdays.) The Enoteca Regionale del Barolo is in Barolo’s medieval castle of Marchesi Falletti and highlights the wines of the 11 surrounding towns. While you’re here, take a guided tour of the castle and adjacent museum. At both enoteche, be sure to ask for a wine map of their local areas, in case you change your mind and opt for some self-guided touring.
A trip to the Piedmont wine region offers simple but decadent pleasures: world-renowned wines that range from crisp to earthy; rich game meats, tuna sauces and truffles; egg pastas like tajarin and agnolotti; creamy desserts like panna cotta; medieval churches and quiet agriturismos set on grassy hilltops and mountainsides; and roads that wind through farmland dotted with fruit trees and grape vines.
The whole experience deserves a toast — with Asti Spumante, of course.