Today’s post will be the first of many with which we will share details from our Italian and Slovenian road trip. Just like every single one of you, we needed to get away, explore and enjoy, and celebrate progress against the pandemic. Not all covid battles have been won yet, but we felt safe enough to jump in our car and go. We installed the passes sanitaires (EU vaccine proof) on our phones, and filled the glove box with a bundle of masks. We planned a driving route to and fro across northern Italy, with the easternmost turnaround in Slovenia. On y va! Andiamo! Pojdimo! Let’s go!
For those of you who have been following our travel blogs over the past few years (and big thanks to you!), you’ll know that we’ve visited the Langhe region of Italy’s Piemonte a couple times already. During our first visit there some years ago, with our good friends Carol and Suzanne, we discovered the pleasures of the local wines, local beef and the famous white truffle. The pandemic kept us away last year, so we knew where the first stop on our Italian road trip needed to be.
We found what turned out to be a wonderful B&B atop a ridge in the village of Vigliano D’Asti. Generally, I don’t plan on focusing on our accommodations in these posts, but this one deserves a special mention. The reasons are because it is a very pretty place in a beautiful location, and because the proprietress, Consuelo, is the best hostess we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The B&B is the Alta Villa, The Country House.
You can see that the setting is beautiful. Since we visited in early October, it was a bit too cool to jump into the pool, but not too cool to relax a little by its side.
One morning, I went for a walk through the nearby woods and along some country roads. Cool, crisp, quiet.
Consuelo had worked through much of her career, before owning and running this B&B, for international development companies. We instantly found a lot of shared territory from the architecture and development worlds. She speaks Italian, French, German and English fluently. (We watched her switch effortlessly between English and German during the breakfast service since her other guests were German. Impressive.) She’s a natural hostess, happy to share information about her region. But the best part is that she’s a pleasure to chat with, full of good humor and great stories. She was emphatic about helping us find good restaurants to enjoy and destinations to visit. (A good truffle and restaurant story, thanks to her, comes later…) We now have a favorite place to stay in the Piemonte — and you too if you get the chance to visit there.
On our first visit to this region three years ago, we met Marco Carosso of Cascina Galarin. He was our dynamic host for a day-long wine tour of the region. He and his family are viticulturists and wine makers. Ever since that first visit, we have occasionally ordered wine from Marco, both from his estate and from others in the region that he has recommended. For this most recent trip, we asked him for recommendations for a couple wineries to visit. And an appointment to visit him and buy a bit more of his wines.
Our first wine-tasting stop was at Pira Luigi in Serralunga d’Alba. The Pira estate, family home, showroom and wine production facilities all sit at the edge of the village of Serralunga. Our host was one of the daughters of the current generation of wine makers: charming, authentically steeped in the family business.
Before being seated at the tasting table, she took us to the balcony. At our feet spread fields and fields of vines. She identified all the plots belonging to her family. She noted the different grapes in different sections, and the influence of the slight variations in orientation relative to the sun and winds. We liked the intimate relationship between family work, nuanced vine cultivation, wine making and selling; no big corporations here.
We enjoyed the red wines that we tasted — Barolo and Barbaresco (with our favorite Italian grape, the nebbiolo), and Barbera. This tasting took place before lunch. We find it a challenge to assess a wine so quickly, and without accompanying food, especially in the morning. Here at Pira, we found the wines we tasted a bit wan, not yet bursting with the aromas and tastes that we enjoy. A possible reason is that these are new wines; being a relatively small operation, they are able to sell all of each year’s vintage during that year, so we can only buy the latest wines. Which asks us to hold the wines in reserve for a few years to let them mature. Now, we are both too impatient and not sophisticated enough to get into holding wines in reserve. And we don’t have a cellar. But this time, we decided to buy a few bottles of their Barolo, with the intention of setting them aside for about five years, to see if they do indeed develop into rich and rewarding wines. Perhaps a blog post about this in 2026?
By the way did you know that Barolo in a local dialect means “low, down low,” referring to the preferred location of the nebbiolo vines on the hillside for this famous wine.
After lunch (see below!), our second tasting was at Renato Fenocchio in Neive. Another family-run winery, but this time almost like a winery run out of the basement of the family home. We had the address for our GPS, but couldn’t find any place with a sign or even the look of a winery. We drove back and forth along a little residential road. Finally, we stopped near a big gate through which we could see a bit of wine-production equipment. I got out of the car and was just about to ring the buzzer by the gate when a woman with a full head of black hair sped up to the gate, welcoming us, and ushering us in. “Yes, this is Renato Fenocchio. Oh, yes, you can park right here. So sorry, we are in the midst of harvest. It’s all a mess, I know. Come in! Come in!”
She showed us to the table in the wine-tasting room, which is next to stainless steel tanks, a folklift, and a barrel-filled cellar. A quartet of German customers were already there. Our hostess was, along with her husband, the founder of this winery. She told is in detail how they bought their first vines, how they set out to buck the local traditions to make wines the way they wanted, and how they scraped by to fulfill their vision, all while raising their family. She was very proud of the fact that one of their wines made it into the US White House cellar, and it was a favorite of Barack Obama’s.
Every wine that we tasted had a family story to accompany it. One Barbera is named Elena, after one of the family daughters, whose drawing graces the label. We enjoyed that wine enough to buy a few bottles, along with a Barbaresco.
Our last wine stop of the day was to visit with Marco. We parked next to their production facility at the appointed time late in the afternoon, but Marco wasn’t there. An SMS popped up, “Sorry. I should be at the wineries in 20 minutes…. I get there as sooner as possible.” No problem; it was a cool early autumn day, and we overlooked hillsides of vines. When he arrived, he and his young son, who was carrying a soccer ball, sprung out of the car. His son looked dejected; his team had just lost a match. We tried to convince him that the next match will be better, but he didn’t seem convinced. It was a pleasure to see Marco the dad along with Marco the vintner and Marco the marketer.
Marco led us to the little tasting room / office that we’d visited on our previous trips. He’s probably in his late thirties, full of energy and opinions, probably an endless advocate for non-traditional ways of doing things. Our intention for this visit was just to say hello, and to pick up a few cases of his wines, and be on our way before our dinner reservation in the nearby village. But Marco is so bright and engaging that we wanted to hang out all evening. We know that we are just customers — curious Americans living in France. But Marco’s personality and approach is so unencumbered and present that perhaps we are friends a little bit too.
Now, a bit of historical tourism: something to do between wine tastings and meals: the Castle of Serralunga d’Alba.
The village of Serralunga sits atop a conical hill. A single hoop of a street rings the hill. From the top of the hill, the castle’s sheer walls of brick and stone rise almost with disdain. Not put off, we climbed the hill to see what’s what up there.
Slender and majestic, the Castle of Serralunga d’Alba overshadows one of the most beautiful and historically intact villages of the Langhe, surrounded by the rolling hills of Barolo vineyards. Considered to be one of the best-conserved examples of 14th century noble castles in Piedmont, this castle represents a unique piece of history in Italy with an architectural structure of a French donjon.
The castle’s construction was carried out between 1340 – the year in which the Falletti family received its estate as recompense for military involvement – and continued until 1357. …. The fact that it was never the object of military importance nor was it structurally transformed over the centuries has kept this castle unaltered. Its Medieval fortress is, in fact, the original structure.
Instead of military use, this castle was used throughout the centuries as a point of control over the production activities in the territory, as evidenced by its imposing, vertical stance that was intended to emphasize the prestige of the Falletti family.
At the end of the 1300s, the castle was complete with its palacium, the long and compact principle building, and large rooms superimposed upon one another for delegation duties and living space. Its large cylindrical tower was also already constructed, as was the rooftop that affords an incredible view today, but was primarily a status symbol at the time. The courtyard at its quadrangular base is characterized by a drawbridge.
The ample area of the palacium at the courtyard level was the seat of public affairs where the lord of the castle administrated justice. The room is characterized with its wooden roof and the small votive chapel with frescoes from the 15th century.
The upper room was for living and has three fireplaces and even a latrine carved into a special space in the wall, a relative comfort for that period. (source)
On the third floor is a hidden parapet, initially open and protected by merlons, today covered with a roof. (source)
One corner has a gruesome secret. From the tour guide sheet:
Well Blades: Inside the round tower there is a terrible secret: the well of torture. A place where prisoners and sentenced-to-death were put in, so their bodies were cut by swords or blades while falling into the well. When the prisoners died inside the well, people of the castle covered their bodies with lime in order to cover the smell.
Ristorante Centro, Montegrosso
For our first night in the Langhe, Consuelo from Alta Villa had made reservations at a simple village restaurant near the B&B.
Tonight’s wine: Barbera d’Asti 2017 Cascina Castlet 50th Anniversario
Vinoteca Centro Storico, Serralunga d’Alba
For our lunch between wine tastings in Serralunga d’Alba and Neive, Marco had made a reservation for us at Vinoteca Centro Storico in Serralunga. We walked around the village ring street to find it. From its little outside terrace, you feel the tower of the castle looking down on you. We quickly realized that we had eaten here before. It is a favorite of Marco’s, because on our wine tour with him during our first visit, he brought us here for pasta and truffles. We were only too happy to eat here again.
But this time without the truffles. Even though our visit was firmly in truffle season, quite a few restauranteurs, including those at Vinoteca Centro Storico, told us that this summer had been very hot and dry, not conditions that truffles like at all. They need moisture in the soil around the tree roots in order to flourish. The more we heard this explanation, the more we let go of our decadent-white-truffle expectations.
Osteria L’Oca Giuliva, Castagnole delle Lanza
Osteria L’Oca Giuliva is our favorite stop in this area. It’s another Marco recommendation from our first visit. Down an unassuming street in the unassuming village, just before the disused train station, a little sign with a goose on it hints at the place. On our first trip, we enjoyed beautiful white truffles with veal tartare, pasta with butter, and a local melted cheese dish. Another revelation was absolutely delicious steaks. These are from young cows, not quite young enough to be veal. This is Fassona beef, a specialty of the Piemonte.
In recent years, we’ve greatly reduced our beef consumption. This is for two reasons, only one of which is noble. Unfortunately, in France and despite so many other wonderful foods, we have found it very difficult to find tender flavorful beef (please don’t tell your French friends this). In addition, the more we learn about beef cattle production, with its significant environmental costs, the less we want to eat it.
However, occasionally, when we’re in the Piemonte, we can’t resist what is spectacularly good beef. You’ll see how our enthusiasm played out at this restaurant.
Tonight’s wine: Langhe Nebbiolo 2019 Massimo Abbate