One of the nicest things about the world’s nicest wines is that—almost invariably—they are grown in some of the most BEAUTIFUL parts of the world. Think of Tuscany, Burgundy, New Zealand, Napa, South Africa, Greece… even Traverse City, Michigan (not exactly Queenstown, N.Z., but not too far off).
Since Wine Geek is fortunate enough to visit many of these great wine regions, our clients frequently ask for input when they are planning to visit such regions… and Wine Geek is happy to spill on the best places to see, eat and stay. Not too long ago, we visited Piedmont, which should be high, very high, on any wine geek’s list of places to visit.
A wine and food-lovers’ paradise, Piedmont is fairly large region, bordering France & Switzerland. The various zones are influenced by the Alps (piemonte means ‘foot of the mountain’) or the Mediterranean Sea (only the foothills of the Apennine range and that sliver of land called Liguria separate Piedmont from the sea). All manner of wines are made here including the infamous Asti Spumante, some amazing vermouths and bitters (the outstanding products from Giulio Cocchi* are worth searching out), and a wide range of Barbera, Dolcetto and other table wines—even some gorgeous whites. But it is the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco that give this region its fame. Barolo is called ‘The King of wines and the wine of Kings’ primarily because the first ruler of the Republic of Italy hung out here and drank the wines—and his hunting lodge is now the largest contiguous estate in Piedmont—known today as Fontanafredda. But if Wine Geek were a king anywhere, Barolo would be on our table—the wines are special indeed.
Transportation: unfortunately, most folks that travel to Piedmont, do so by tacking on a day or two to a trip somewhere else (or everywhere else) in Italy. We suppose doing it that way is better than not going at all, but just barely. Just last week, we talked to someone going to Italy that will visit: Rome, Florence, the Tuscan countryside, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast, and Calabria—-all in 10 days. We hope they like planes, trains and automobiles, since that’s where they’ll be spending much of their time! This is tantamount to someone visiting the U.S. and visiting New York, Chicago, Dallas, Denver and San Francisco in one week; so much for getting to know the local flora and fauna. If you do have the luxury of taking a Piedmont-centric visit, the common route is to fly into Milan and get a car and make the 90 minute drive to Piedmont from there. Indeed, you must have a car visiting this—or any—wine region in the world; it’s really not that big of a deal to drive in a foreign country (unless you plan to drive into Rome or Naples or some other big city), however bring your platinum card, since you won’t be finding any cars for $199 a week. We strongly advocate flying into Torino instead—much closer and a way easier/smaller airport to deal with. Barely an hour and you are in the center of the Barolo zone. Once in the region, the heart of it, ie Barolo, Barbaresco and the city of Alba are all short drives from each other—easier than getting around Napa Valley frankly (and with way less traffic). Torino, by the way, is where the first ‘Eataly’ is located. We like the Manhattan one better, but this is where it began, and is worth a detour to go. In our experience, the best prices are with rentalcars.com (http://www.rentalcars.com/us/country/it/)
Hotels: Wine Geek’s first visit here was 30 years ago, and the options were few: Hotel Alba, a few Italian versions of Red Roof Inn, and a couple of what can best be described as Bed & Breakfasts, but it was more like staying in a spare room at your grandma’s house (who didn’t speak English). Fast forward to 2013 and it’s now a luxury destination with every option you can imagine. Topping the list is Il Boscareto in Serralunga, a 5 star Luxury hotel owned by the family that owns Batasiolo, a notable producer of Piedmontese wines. It’s fantastic and also boasts a Michelin 1 Star restaurant (Ristorante la Rei), whose chef was ‘stolen’ from a nearby 2 Star restaurant. An incredible place. A half a notch below (so still special) is Villa d’Amelia in Benevello. This gorgeous, small hotel is affiliated with prestigious Piedmont producer Renato Ratti. It too has a fantastic restaurant, a way-cool pool and is an incredible value (http://www.slh.com/hotels/villa-damelia/) . Should you prefer to stay in a city—and Alba, though not large, is surely a city (a cool one)—the 4 star Casa Dellatorre is charming and cheap (http://www.casaledellatorre.com) .
Restaurants: other than the wines, this is where Piedmont shines. Of course, if you can visit from late October thru early December, you’ll be in the middle of truffle season—one of those bucket-list experiences—but the food is great here throughout the year (and it may save you a couple of hundred dollars: its hard to stop the servers from shaving those fresh truffles onto your fettuccine—at about $10 a stroke). The ‘must’ dish if you do go at this time of the year is ‘truffled eggs’…best described as uncooked, scrambled eggs infused with truffles. A-mazing.
By far, Wine Geek’s favorite place is the Michelin 2 Starred Antica Corona Reale in Cervere. A bit out of the way, in a non-descript village, but once you arrive…you’ve arrived. Sit outside in the courtyard if weather permits. Leave the Barolo for the rich people (they aren’t giving their wine away here), and have a great Dolcetto or Barbera. We also love Il Centro in Priocca; ditto the out of the way/non-descript comment above, but wow. There likely is not a better example of a traditional, formal Piedmontese restaurant in the area. And they have a lot of older Barbareschi on the list as well. If there is a place that is a better example of a traditional Piedmontese dining room, it is Trattoria della Posta in Monforte d’Alba. Also really love Osteria della Vignaiolo in Santa Maria (halfway up the hill to La Morra), casual, cool, great list. Numerous other places as well, but these are the best of the best. And lots of cool, casual places sprinkled in all the villages, including wine bars. Our favorite being the stunning Julio’s Wine Bar in Monforte d’Alba.
Note too that the Headquarters for Slow Food, the University of Gastronomic Science and the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners (sort of like the C.I.A. in Napa) are all here. Foodie Heaven.
Wineries: well, of course you must visit wineries. Though the entire production of wines from the Barolo and Barbaresco zones is approximately 1/10th of the amount produced in Napa Valley, there are hundreds of producers. One could just drive around and stumble into some very nice places. However, if you want to get into the top places, appointments are essential (see: Barolo is 1/10th the production of Napa). In case you don’t know, Barolo and Barbaresco are both small (very small) villages that have shared their names with their respective production zones. Wines made from the Nebbiolo grape grown on the correct soils in the village of Barolo—or Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, La Morra, Castiglione Falleto, Grinzane, Novello or Verduno can all call themselves Barolo. Likewise Barbaresco and its neighboring villages all use the name Barbaresco for their wines…a bit confusing until it is explained thusly. Must visits in Wine Geek’s opinion are: Renato Ratti, Produtorri di Barbaresco, of course Gaja (but make sure you are a customer first–they check), Michele Chiarlo (they too own a fancy hotel), Fontanafredda (pretty cool), and Prunotto. Needless to say, we are happy to help our clients secure appointments when possible.
Go see the world!