Once we had decided to make a road trip to Venice, we realized that along the route was the Italian Piedmont wine region of Barolo.
We had enjoyed Barolo red wines in the past: lovely rich and aromatic wines, usually pricey, so only for the most special occasions. Maybe they would be less expensive at the source! Since we were going to be traveling with two wine-loving friends, we created a two-night one-day stop in the region. We knew nothing detailed about this wine region and its wines. By pure coincidence, the dates of our visit were the start of the annual white-truffle festival. We arranged to take a day-long wine- and truffle-tasting tour.
Marco was our host and tour guide. His family has raised grapes and made wine in this region for generations. Marco and his brother — both in their mid-30s — are the latest generation to manage the family business.
We stayed at his family’s very comfortable B&B. It is set amid their vineyards and next to their family home.
Marco, being a wine producer himself, overflowed with detailed and fascinating knowledge and experience.
While there are a number of grapes grown in this region, three varieties are prominent: dolcetto, barbera, and nebbiolo.
Up until about a generation ago, dolcetto was the grape most cultivated. The local economy was generally agricultural — not just grapes — and not particularly prosperous. Vintners were primarily farmers and produced wine for their own consumption. Dolcetto yields drinkable wine immediately, no aging needed. Farmers couldn’t afford the time to hold and age wines, and what customers there were couldn’t afford more expensive wines.
So what changed so that now high-quality exportable wines are now produced? In some part, innovative Piedmont vintners saw the rise of Tuscan wines and started to experiment.
Tuscany had something crucial that the Piedmont did not: an aristocracy who owned the land and vineyards. They could afford to travel to see how the French make wine. In the Piedmont, these were just poor farmers, who couldn’t afford to explore and learn. And there was competition between farms and villages, rather than a tradition of cooperation.
With Tuscan marketing and changes in mind, at least one forward-thinking Piedmont vintner ventured out to France to see how the French make such notable wines. The story we were told goes like this: The maverick went to Burgundy. He showed up at a winery, and asked to see how things were done. By chance he met the owner who was in his sports car on the way out to his other house in the French Riviera. The Italian was taken aback by such a show of wealth and fine living. He thought, we aren’t doing this right. These French know how to produce good wine, while also enjoying a fine life.
In the 1980s, a number of these innovative wine makers, including Angelo Gaja, pushed forward. They shifted the focus from the dolcetto grape to nebbiolo and barbera grapes. Nebbiolo grapes are the heart of Barolo wines. Wine from Nebbiolo grapes can be harsh in taste when the wine is young. The innovators developed aging approaches that yield lovely smooth complex wines.
One part of the process is to age the wines in giant wooden barrels from Croatia, sometimes for 6 years and longer. The giant barrels mean the wine has less contact with the wood than if the wine were in traditional-sized barrels. Since the nebbiolo grape starts with tanin and edge, the less wood influence there is, the better. They now use a combination of concrete tanks, stainless steel, and wood barrels. And some vintners are currently experimenting with terra-cotta amphora, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans used.
Barolo wines come from a very specific bit of land in the Langhe region of the Piedmont. Other nebbiolo-based wines include Barbaresco, Roero, Gattinara and Ghemme. We had assumed, ignorantly, that Barolo was a type of grape, when in fact it is a precisely defined region within Langhe.
Among the specific rules for creating and marketing a Barolo wine is that the wine must spend 18 months aging in oak, then 18 months aging further as the vintner wants — wood, stainless steel, concrete, etc.
We visited the Langhe region in mid-October, only a few days after Marco and his family had completed this year’s harvest.
Marco helped us read the land by looking at the vines. These hills are composed of distinct areas of clay and of tufa, which is a kind of limestone. The clay holds more water than the tufa; the tufa is a less nutritious medium, although it drains well. Newly planted vines do better in the clay. Vines planted in tufa have to struggle to grow. They develop very deep roots to find the water they need. The vines that work hard tend to produce grapes that are better for making good wine. You can read the vineyard’s soil through the leaves and density of growth: lusher foliage signals tufa soil.
At one of the wineries we visited, they had just completed construction of new facilities. They had excavated into the hill for one of the buildings. They left exposed the cross section of the soil, including strata of clay and tufa.
Marco told us about his family’s experiences and challenges on their hillside vineyards. Snow in winter is necessary because it gives the water time to soak into the soil. Heavy summer rains don’t help. They need to install drainage pipes beneath the vines to carry off excess water. However, one year recently, heavy rains followed right after they had planted new vines on some steep slopes. The vines and the top soil slid down the hill; they needed to start over.
Climate change is not abstract and theoretical to these wine producers. During the last 30 years, they see the changes. Summer are hotter; winters provide less snow. It used to be that southern and western slopes were best. If the changes continue as they have in the last 30 years, in coming decades, the best exposures may be east. It used to be that vintners would trim leaves away from the grapes so that the grapes could warm in the sun, creating more sugar. Now, they retain the west-facing leaves to protect the grapes from the harsh sun, and instead expose the grapes to the gentler east sun.
As climate change progresses, vintners will need to replant grape varieties on different hill slopes. Zones that currently don’t produce the best grapes may become tomorrow’s stars.
Oh, and we had the pleasure to taste some Langhe and Barolo wines! Marco took us to three wineries: a small one, a medium-sized one, and a large one. That way we could explore some differences.
Funny how wine-tasting leads to wine-purchasing. In our two years in France, so far, we have learned that non-French wines are barely available in France. Our mission in the Langhe and Barolo region was to find some wines that we enjoy, and surreptitiously drive them back home. But we probably will now have to drink them with the curtains drawn, secretly savoring these luscious Italian tastes.
PS: At each restaurant, shaved fresh white truffles were available, priced per gram. We were told that a warm, relatively neutral dish works best for the the delicate truffles. Options included a sunny-side-up fried egg, pasta with a bit of butter and cheese, a melted delicate cheese with artichoke stems, and steak tartare. To our surprise, the one we liked the most (and I mean, REALLY liked) was the steak tartare. While the truffle aroma is in itself strong and distinctive — and fabulous — other tastes and aromas easily overpower it. The clean aroma and taste of the tartare allowed the truffle to take center stage. Each inhale was deliriously wonderful. Sorry, we have another snobbish addiction.