As you may know, about once a year I invite several of VinConnect’s customers to join me on one of my wine tasting trips. This year the location was Italy’s great Piedmont region, home to the famous wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. I’ve described our agenda in great detail below, highlighting the top wine(s) for me from each tasting. Enjoy!
Following a long and productive to Germany for ProWein (the global wine industry trade show), I had the pleasure of meeting up with my companions at Milan’s Malpensa international airport for the fun part of my trip. Everyone’s flights arrived on time and we were able to get organized, into the car, and on the road to Alba without incident. During the drive and into the evening we were surprised to be met with a late-winter snow, which put a very different face on this beautiful region than I personally have experienced before.
After wandering around Alba helping my customers get their bearings, we sloshed over to my favorite wine bar Voglia di Vino for a glass of wine and an enthusiastic discussion of our upcoming agenda. Following that it was off to one of my favorite local restaurants, the always-solid Osteria dell’Arco, for my customers’ first introduction to the joys of Piemontese cuisine.
In an effort to stay awake to better adjust to the time zone change, on the way home we stopped by the local Irish pub to catch the region’s most popular soccer team Juventus in a huge Champions League match against defending champion Bayern Munich. Despite taking a surprising early 2-0 lead, Juventus gave up two late goals to force overtime and then two more in the extra session, losing 2-4. Given how frequently this disaster was mentioned throughout our trip, I’m not sure if it was good or bad that we could share our hosts pain at this disappointing loss.
Our first stop on the trip was with one of VinConnect original partners — Massolino (profile, website). We had a great tour and then snapped a few photos of the great views from the tasting room patio — while much nicer in the spring and summer, it still provided stunning views of the surrounding vineyards and mountains (just more white and less green than normal). We tasted his full lineup of wines, including his three cru Barolos from 2012, the spectacular Vigna Rionda Riserva 2010, and a very special Vigna Rionda Dieci Anni Riserva 2006, all of which will be released in the coming months.
Following that visit we headed up the hill into historic Serralunga to drop into one of my absolute favorite places in the region for lunch — Vinoteca Centro Storico. The rustic atmosphere, fantastic food, and an incredible Champagne wine list are the highlights. We ordered glasses of Bollinger Grand Cuvee and Jacquesson 739, enjoyed various cheeses and Proscuitto freshly carved from the two different legs resting on the counter, and other great food.
Sufficiently refueled, we headed further south along the ridgeline to Rivetto (website) for our afternoon’s first tasting. We were hosted by the engaging, energetic Enrico Rivetto, who is transforming his family’s estate into one of the region’s most exciting producers. Here we tasted a lovely white made from Nascetta, an excellent Barbera Zio Nando 2013, and some delicious Barolos including the Barolo Leon Riserva 2010 which was the stand-out.
Our next stop was across the valley to the GD Vajra winery, where we had the opportunity to join Milena Vajra and taste through the Barolos of Luigi Baudana (profile, website). The Vajra family took over production of the Luigi Baudana wines just over 10 years ago, and they’ve managed to improved the quality while staying true to the style since then. Here we tasted the 2012 vintage, among which the Cru Baudana 2012 impressed me most for its powerful nose and dark, concentrated fruit. Milena also generously opened a 2005 Baudana, the first vintage they were involved in, which showed beautiful floral notes and nice complexity.
Thursday’s dinner reservation was for the venerable La Libera. Once the consensus “best restaurant in Alba” (since surpassed by the 3-Michelin star Piazza Duomo), the two prior times I’ve eaten here years ago were somewhat disappointing as the food didn’t match the stylish decor and attentive service. Following a purported chef change about a year ago, however, this time the food was delicious and I enthusiastically look forward to returning.
Always one of my absolute favorite visits, Friday began with a trip to La Morra to visit Roberto Voerzio (profile, website). Son Davide Voerzio was occupied with meetings with their U.S. importer, so we got a long comprehensive tour with Cesare that included tasting several newer wines from tank. When we returned to the tasting room however, Roberto emerged and insisted upon opening a few older wines for us to sample from bottle as well. As a result we were treated to one of the great experiences of the trip — Roberto himself pulling corks, pouring glasses, discussing his philosophy, and answering questions for more than an hour, all while his family and grandchildren ran around and entertained us. Among the 2012 Barolos the highlight was the gorgeous Brunate, but we also tasted the Torriglione 2011, the Fossati Case Nere Deici Anni 2003, the Sarmassa 2001, and finally the La Serra 1991. Awesome!
After 3-plus hours at Voerzio we were running behind schedule, so we only had time for a quick bite in Barbaresco. We popped into Prima e Poi just off the town square, a relatively new casual spot that’s affiliated with the Ciau del Tournavento empire, for quick salads and paninis. The food was prompt and tasty, and soon we were off to visit the venerable Produttori del Barbaresco.
Produttori del Barbaresco (website) is technically a consortium, with more than 50 growers contributing fruit annually. However, there are lots of direct economic incentives for quality, including the fact that Produttori bottles Riservas for nine of the top vineyards in the commune in good years. Here we tasted a handful of wines, including an incredible value in the Barbaresco normale 2011 and a softer, silkier, sexier single-vineyard Barbaresco Rio Sordo 2011.
Our next stop in Barbaresco was at Pelissero (profile, website), where we had a great tasting and tour of the cellar, as well as a sneak preview of what will become the new tasting room. With a large bar, outdoor tasting patio and beautiful views, when opened this summer it will become the top destination for folks interested in wine tasting in Barbaresco. Here we primarily tasted the delicious 2011 Barbarescos, but on this day it was the Barbera Tulin 2012 (made only in top vintages) that was most surprising to me.
Our dinner was at the relatively new Ristorante Bistrot Duomo, just off the main piazza in Alba. This is another offshoot of the Ciau del Tournavento empire, this time offering fine dining featuring pizzas and traditional entrees, complemented by a nice contemporary decor. The pizzas were good if not spectacular, but the service was terribly slow (apparently a common problem there); I’d give it another shot based on how delicious a few non-pizza dishes looked as they passed us by, however.
Being the weekend our options were more limited, so we decided to start the day with a tour and tasting at Ceretto (profile, website), one of the most “public” wine tasting venues in Barolo. While the winery and tasting room are certainly large and modern by Piemonte standards, the tour and tasting were quite personal and interesting. We learned a lot about Ceretto’s various interests in business, architecture, art and food, and the wines showed tremendously well (not surprising given the high 90s scores the Brunate and Bricco Rocche had just received from both Antonio Galloni and James Suckling).
Afterward we headed south into Castiglione Faletto, where we decided to pop into the highly-regarded L’Argaj to enjoy lunch on their lovely patio overlooking the vineyards. The food was delicious, and the weather and views were spectacular — this is a new addition to my “must visit” list.
After lingering on the patio for awhile, we continued south into Monforte d’Alba, where the climb through the narrow, cobblestone streets up to the amphitheater atop the town is always one of my favorite things to introduce to new visitors. Feeling emboldened, we then decided to hike one of the many trails between Barolo villages and began heading through the vineyards from Monforte to Novello. While we had some trouble finding the start of the trail, once we got going it was quite well-indicated. The trail itself was muddy in several places due to the snow, but for the most part good footing yielded a refreshing couple of hours of exercise and some unique views of several vineyards and wineries one doesn’t normally get when traveling by car. Highly recommended!
Saturday’s dinner was at the bustling La Piola in Alba. The sister restaurant to the 3-Michelin star Piazza Duomo upstairs, this is more casual with a main room and bar supplemented by an outdoor dining area in the main plaza in the center of town. The food was excellent, the service attentive, the room lively, and one can even order off the amazing wine list from upstairs if you so inquire. We selected a fantastic Sancerre from Domaine Vacheron that a Ceretto affiliate imports into Italy, and were simply thrilled with the bottle.
Since tasting visits are not generally be available on Sunday, we decided to drive the 75 minutes up to Torino and spend the day wandering this incredible city. Torino was the seat of the House of Savoy that ruled Italy for, and as a result is a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and dynamic environment. The city was especially alive on Sunday since the two local soccer teams Torino and Juventus would be playing against each other that afternoon for city bragging rights. We enjoyed beautiful piazzas, historical palaces, lovely churches, mountain views, and a couple of coffees and some people-watching later, it was time to return to Alba.
That evening we decided to return to Voglia di Vino, whose modest menu of well-prepared wine bar food was a great complement to a couple of delicious glasses of whites and two truly special wines — a bottle Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne 2009 with dinner, and a half-bottle of Donnafugata Passito Ben Rye 2012 that perfectly complemented dessert.
When Monday morning arrived we were thrilled to get back to tasting with what was one of our most anticipated visits with Luca Currado at Vietti (website). As usual he did not disappoint, taking a large group on an epic three-hour tour of the winery, discussion of the vineyards, and general history and viticulture lesson on the entire region. In addition, we were able later to get a private preview tasting of his Barolo 2012s — while the Brunate, Ravera and Rocche di Castiglione were fantastic across the board, my favorite was the Lazzarito for its richness, depth and complexity.
Then we were off to lunch at Barolofriends, a Barolo stalwart located next to the castle in the heart of of the town of Barolo. It’s always a solid choice, with great food and a nice wine list with lots of great by-the-glass choices that pair perfectly with lunch.
E. Pira – Chiara Boschis (profile, website) was our next stop, hosted by the inimitable Chiara herself. Here again we primarily tasted the soon-to-be-released 2012 Barolos from bottle, with the Barolo Cannubi 2012 standing out for its tremendous extraction and complexity. Chiara was also kind enough to open a Barolo Mosconi 2009 for comparative purposes, which showed surprisingly highly structured and youthful.
Then it was back down the main street to visit the legendary Borgogno (profile, website), in that same location across from the Barolo castle since 1761. Since they generally release their Barolos a year later than others, here we tasted the current release Cru Barolos from 2010 — Fossati, Cannubi and Liste — which were all delicious. Beyond that Andrea was also kind enough to share tastes of a series of Barolo Riservas like only Borgogno can, with samples of Riserva 2006, 2004, 2003 and 1998. For me the 1998 was a stunning contrast to the others, where the wine’s maturity was able to show through with lovely secondary flavors of leather and mushrooms.
For dinner we returned to Alba and dined at the Osteria dei Sognatori, a humble local restaurant that’s one of the few places in town open on Monday evenings. A few years ago on my first visit here I was pleased to learn that the owner has a brother who lives in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA and is a top local winemaker, making me especially fond of this place beyond its solid food and unassuming charm.
A last-minute cancellation from our first visit meant that we could relax on our last morning in Alba, so I spent the time trying to find us a great choice for the day’s lunch. We ended up at Il GrecAle in Novello, a place we had seen on our hike with a great reputation for seafood, and wow what a find! The seafood focus was highly appreciated given our week’s diet of Piemontese staples of pasta, veal and lamb. We knew we were in the right place when the chef brought out some still-moving shrimp from his purveyor’s delivery to demonstrate their freshness before cooking them!
Following that delicious meal it was back to business, with a great visit to the estate of Elio Grasso (website). Son Gianluca Grasso now runs the show, and I always find him to be one of the most thoughtful and interesting people I visit. Tasting through his upcoming releases yielded wines of great gravity, with his Barolo Case Mate 2012 being my favorite.
Our next step was my first-ever visit to the esteemed estate of Elvio Cogno (website) and a chance to visit and taste with proprietor Valter Fissore. His Nascetta 2015 was delicious, and the Pre-Phylloxera Barbera 2014 was my single favorite Barbera of the trip. Oh, and the Barolo Cru 2012s we tasted didn’t disappoint either, so these wines will definitely be high on my list to follow and I will certainly plan to visit again when I return.
Upon our return to Alba, we made the pilgrimage to Enoteca Grandi Vini, my favorite wine ship in Alba. The owners have collected several private cellars over the years, and their basement’s selection of the region’s top wines from as far back as the 1950s and 60s is something to behold. If you ever wanted to marvel at (and potentially purchase) ~60 different vintages of Conterno Monfortino, this is the place for you. I was able to pick up a fabulous looking birth-year bottle for a good friend’s upcoming 40th birthday party that I can’t wait to share.
For our final dinner in Barolo we decided to splurge on what may be the most renowned and cherished restaurant in the region — the 2-Michelin star La Ciau del Tournavento in Treiso. The restaurant is an institution for its great food, beautiful decor, glorious views, and ENORMOUS cellar full of the best wines from not only the region but the world. Everything about the dinner was impeccable, and the chance to tour the cellar and see the many gems throughout its 4 rooms was truly a treat to remember.
For our final day we decided on a change of pace, and jumped in a rental car to visit the region of Alto Piemonte. Located roughly 75-100 miles from Alba, this sizable region north-east of Torino and north-west of Milan covers a large area encompassing several villages. Wine has been produced here for more than 1000 years, but warming temperatures in recent years have made ripening Nebbiolo in this region increasingly favorable and more great wines are emerging here all the time.
Upon arrival we stopped for a quick lunch at Panta Rei in the town of Cossato, then headed over to our first visit at Tenute Sella (website) in nearby Lessona. Sella’s winery has been in operation since 1671, and the vineyards and winery buildings certainly still have a rustic feel about them. The wines, however, were delicious — the reds here are aged much longer before release than I expected, so we tasted through their current release Nebbiolos that were from the 2010, 2009 and 2008 vintages. Their top wine, the 2008 Omaggio a Qunitino Sella was particularly classy and delicious.
Next we headed to Boca to visit with another of the top producers in the region — Le Piane (website). While vineyards were quite prevalent in Boca in the early part of this century, by the 1970s and 1980s nearly all the vines were pulled out and lands replanted. Le Paine’s predecessor was nearly the last remaining winery in the region, surviving on a tiny production, until it was acquired in the 1990s and rebuilt. The success of the winery has attracted tremendous attention to the region, and vineyards are now popping up all over and wine is returning to a prominent place in local culture. Here we did a great tour of the vineyards and winery, then tasted through several wines. Just when I when I had settled on the Boca 2009 as my favorite of the tasting, our host pulled out a bottle of 1990 Campo Della Piane that literally took our breath away.
After those amazing visits it was finally back to the airport, where our hotel served the only mediocre meal of our trip. I guess that’s not so surprising, but the Sheraton Milan Malpensa is a fancy hotel with a flashy menu trying to look rather gourmet, so the meal was quite disappointing in that sense. That said, we finished our evening by sharing a bottle of Pelissero Vanotu 2011 we’d saved and going over our tasting notes from the whole trip. Reliving our favorite experiences and selecting our favorite wines, was a perfect way to end the trip — it’s too bad reality was calling us back.