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Two Wine Regions of Piemonte - The Langhe and the Monferrato
Piemonte. The foot of the mountain. The name alone conjures up images of endless roads that wind you through bucolic hills of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto vineyards. Ancient villages dot the crests, sparkling like jewels in the setting sun. Well-tanned faces and sinewy bodies tend the vines, looking up only when a car passes. A stone house, the grey facade dotted with the red of old bricks, sits sternly along the roadside, a Fiat Panda (the old fashioned kind with its high suspension) waiting in the cortile. The sign at the entrance makes it clear, in Italian only, that one can buy wine and maybe even honey and jam at this Azienda Agricola. Will you venture in? Will the owner speak English? You slow down, but drive by, unsure. Maybe the next one…
The allure of Piedmont. The food, and invariably the wine.
There are four distinct wine producing regions in Piedmont, but only two of these dominate. The Langhe and the Monferrato - the yin and the yang of Piedmont's wine country. One region is not complete without the other, although neither would admit it, ever.
The Langhe, the nobile wine region that encompasses the western portion of Southern Piemonte, is rich – with history, with soil, with family tradition in winemaking that dates back centuries. The entire feel of the Langhe is one that makes you sit up straight in the seat of your car and take notice. Popping in an opera CD, maybe Verdi, would be in order. Alone the über-manicured vines, which seem almost to defy nature in their geometric perfection, their elegance, and their sheer quantity, take your breath away. Many of the wineries you pass are clearly well heeled. Gaja. Pio Cesare. Fontana Fredda. Da Milano. Whether it's Barbaresco or Barolo you are interested in, the concentrated wine region with its heart in the city of Alba makes it all very reachable and tactile. You can have a leisurely lunch at the fabulous Trattoria nelle Vigne in Diano d'Alba and easily make your three o'clock wine tasting at Massolino in Serralunga.
In fact, if you find yourself at the Massolino winery, which is right at the entrance of town, ask Franco if you can take a walk into their stunning vineyard, which literally spills out and down from the ancient fortress. The winery, a masterpiece that is dug four floors down into solid rock, proudly produces several levels of excellent Barolo, a Chardonnay, as well as selection of Barbera and Dolcetto.
The eleven villages that are licensed by the DOCG to produce Nebbiolo under the Barolo name each have a distinctive character. It's impossible, for example, to compare Serralunga d'Alba with Diano d'Alba. The best Barolo in Serralunga is grown on the Rionda, Parafada or Margheria "vigne" – hills with the best exposure and protection from the elements. Diano, on the other hand, is licensed to produce Barolo, but instead of capitalizing on this right, most wineries in this town give up their best "vigne" to produce Dolcetto instead. Diano d'Alba produces some of the smoothest, roundest, highest quality Dolcetto in Piemonte.
But to truly get a feel for Barolo the wine, it is essential to go to the village of Barolo itself. While it's not necessarily the most beautiful of the eleven villages, it is the hub that serves to provide the best information about all things relating to Barolo production. In Castello Falletti, located directly in the center of town, you will find the Enoteca Regionale di Barolo and be able to choose from a wide array of Barolo produced in all of the villages.
Barbaresco, also produced from Nebbiolo grape, is a wine of completely different character from Barolo, just a touch younger, and is created under a separate set of DOCG rules. The deconsecrated church at the center of Barbaresco serves as the Enoteca Regionale di Barbaresco, the location where you can go and find out information about all of the local producers. One that comes to mind immediately is Cascina Bruciata, located on the Rio Sordo ridge directly outside of town. Carlo Balbo always has time for a visit – and will tell you, in the most complete detail and with the greatest of pride, all about the production of his famous Barbaresco Rio Sordo Riserva, the top of the line Barbaresco at this cantina and one of the finest in the region. One of his best-kept secrets is his Dolcetto d'Alba Vignetto Rio Sordo, so make sure to ask him about it.
And so it is in the Langhe. There is a common thread that runs through all of the villages here, from Barbaresco to Neive to Verdunno to Cherasco , but there is a stunning sense of proud individuality as well. Each village has its own story, its own way of being. This fact alone makes multiple trips to the Langhe inevitable for the wine and food lover who enjoys immersion in excellence.
But now it's time to change CD's and drive east to the Monferrato. How about some Eros Ramazzotti or Zucchero?
You feel it immediately. The hills are softer, the towns slightly less perfect. It's all a bit, well, more relaxed. No more English or German can be heard on the streets – the tourists haven't really caught on to this place yet, at least not in any kind of density. The wines here are primarily Barbera d'Asti and Dolcetto – d'Asti, d'Acqui and d'Ovada. Cortese, the King of Monferrato dry whites, with its premier Gavi di Gavi DOCG version, is reminiscent of a summer afternoon, full of citrus and zingy acids.
Don't get me wrong. The vineyard density is just as intense as in the Langhe, and the enveloping beauty of the region is just as seductive. But that is where all comparisons end. Langhe is the place you will go if you follow the tourist guides. The Monferrato is the place you will go if you have finally thrown the tourist guides out the car window.
The Monferrato is the place to come if you want to sense what working wine villages are about. Take, for example, Nizza Monferrato. The Monferrato was added to differentiate it from that other Nizza, the one on the Cote d'Azur. Nizza Monferrato sits about ten kilometers from the border with the Langhe and is surrounded by some of the finest Barbera vineyards in Italy. The town is decidedly working class with a touch of elegance – the architecture is a smaller scale representation of Torino, with arcades in the shopping district and ornamental balconies of wrought iron. The town is the annual host to the one of the region's premier Barbera Festivals, Nizza è Barbera, which takes place in mid-May. And Nizza Monferrato is, at its heart, indeed Barbera. The current Barbera tradition has brought the wine into the realm of superior reds, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the world famous Braida Winery in the village of Rocca Tanaro, a few kilometers from town. In developing soft, full Barbera Superiore, not nearly as acidic as its more carelessly produced predecessors, and aged slowly in "barrique," or small oak barrels, they have helped set a new standard of thinking about Barbera, moving it to front and center on the international stage. In the beautiful Palazzo Baronale Crova, you will find the Enoteca Regionale di Nizza Monferrato, again, the place to go to sample the full variety of Barbera from the surrounding region.
Asti, the pumping heart of the Monferrato and the home of the oldest Palio in the country (the colorful horse race, which winds its way through center of the city, is held every year in mid-September), is now also a secondary location for Eataly, the food and wine extravaganza with its home base in the city of Torino. The city, with its proud handcrafted brick architecture, ample shopping zone, indoor and outdoor food markets is only a half hour away from Alba – a new Autostrada, the A33, does a good job of connecting not only the two cities, but the two regions. The most important Barbera d'Asti festival of the year, the Douja d'Or, is held here every year in the streets of Asti in conjunction with the Palio.
Come further south on the SS456, leaving Asti and Nizza Monferrato behind, and the terrain changes again, becoming even softer and rounder as you approach the foothills of the Apennine that separate Piedmont from the coastal region of Liguria. Enter the 2000 year old spa city of Acqui Terme and you will find completely different architecture – the colors of the facades have more in common with the Cinque Terre than they do with Asti – and the 75 degree Celcius thermal waters that made this city home to the Romans two millennia ago continue to bubble in the city's central piazza. Stop and enjoy a few hours at the spa located in the center of town, along the route that follows the hot sulphur water's bubbling path, in the Nuovo Terme Grand Hotel. The small, stunningly beautiful city of 22,000 is bustling with shops and gourmet restaurants, such as the notable I Caffi, considered to be one of Piedmont's finest and best-kept gourmet secrets. The famed DOCG dessert wine, Brachetto d'Acqui, with hints of rose and lavender, has its home here. For a full variety of the wines available in the hills surrounding Acqui Terme, including Dolcetto d'Acqui DOC, be sure to visit the Enoteca Regionale di Acqui Terme.
The Langhe and the Monferrato. So many secrets to tell and so many layers to unfold. So many wines to try, foods to discover, hills to wander through. Which wine region is better? That's an impossible question to answer – it's highly subjective, and to even be able to address it, one must spend weeks, months, possibly years discovering what each is truly about.
Come, enjoy, share in one of Italy's most proud and beautiful corners, and get some answers for yourself.
Other Columns by Diana
© Diana Strinati Baur, 2011. Do not republish without permission.
This article was first published on Diana's Blog, Piemontescapes.com. Edited by Slow Travel. Photo courtesy of Amy Gilman.
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