Italy: Helping with the Harvest in Piemonte

The Italian Alps from the hills surrounding Dogliani, in northern Italy. Greg Ball photos.
The Italian Alps from the hills surrounding Dogliani, in northern Italy. Greg Ball photos.

Dogliani: Working a Harvest on an Organic Winery in Piemonte

By Greg Ball

“Are you the American WWOOFers?” we were asked as we stepped off the bus on the piazza in Dogliani. We had come to this rather remote outpost of the Piemonte region in northwest Italy to take part in a harvest on a winery.

Marcello driving the tractor back at the end of the day with Flavio and Edo hitching a ride with the grapes
Marcello driving the tractor back at the end of the day with Flavio and Edo hitching a ride with the grapes
Betsy harvesting squash at the vineyard.
Betsy harvesting squash at the vineyard.

Our timing was perfect. Our new friend, Eduardo, who was there to pick us up, said they had just started harvesting grapes that day and there was plenty left to pick.

My wife Betsy and I are recent academia dropouts. After 30 years of university teaching, we decided to retire and travel fulltime.

We are extending our travel budget by participating in work exchange programs such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), Workaway, and Trusted House Sitters. This was one of our very first experiences.

Le Roche is a biodynamic winery that sits atop a hill, about a 5-minute drive north of Dogliani. Ursula and Marcello Reichmuth greeted us and showed us to our room in their stone farmhouse.

It was very comfortable, but its best feature was the window that looked out over the vines. We couldn’t have asked for better accommodations!

Picking grapes

That night over dinner we met our fellow WWOOFers. As you may suspect, Reichmuth is not an Italian name.  In fact, they came from Switzerland 25 years ago to make wine. Two more of the crew were also Swiss and three came from Italy.

A couple of the guys were in their mid-twenties but we were surprised not to be the oldest ones there. Altogether there were nine of us picking grapes.

The work is repetitive, but after getting into a groove it becomes quite meditative. I occasionally popped one of the juicy grapes into my mouth for inspiration. The sugar levels are quite high and Marcello was happy with the quality of the harvest.

Beautiful countryside during the Wine Walk.
Beautiful countryside during the Wine Walk.

We collected our grapes in plastic crates and placed the full crates between the vines. Marcello drove a tractor down the rows and collected the crates on a trailer. At the end of the day all the grapes we picked went through the destemming machine and the grapes were pumped into large stainless steel tanks to begin the fermentation process.

It can be exhausting, but at the end of the day after a refreshing shower, we gathered on the vine-covered porch for aperitivo, or apero as Ursula calls it. There were usually bottles of Marcello’s white and rosé open plus olives and crackers or hazelnuts out on the table for us. It is a nice relaxing time before dinner and a tradition I am most in favor of.

Celebrating the Harvest

Roasted peppers for the bagna cauda.
Roasted peppers for the bagna cauda.

Le Roche is not a huge vineyard and after four full days of picking, the harvest was over. Marcello announced, “It is Christmas!” In celebration for a successful harvest, he treated us to dinner at Azienda Agrituristica “De Monarca” and toasted to the harvest. This is a family run agriturismo and the meal was outstanding.

Course after course of regional delicacies came out of the kitchen accompanied of course by Marcello’s wine. From the multiple antipasti to the finishing dolce the meal was stellar. For me, the stand out was the carpaccio. Delicately flavored with olive oil and lemon juice, it was the best I’ve ever tasted!

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After the harvest, there was still plenty to do on the winery. After fermentation, the grapes had to be pressed and the spent skins were then collected to make grappa. Betsy helped label over 1500 bottles of wine and box them up so Marcello could deliver them to Swiss clients.

Piemonte, a place for wine and food

If you are a wine geek you are probably familiar with Dogliani. If not, it is located in the northwest section of Italy known as Piemonte, literally the foothills of the Alps. Within that area lies the Langhe region famous for white truffles, hazelnuts, cheese, and wine.

Within the Langhe, the wine regions of Dogliani, Roero, and especially Barolo and Barbaresco produce some of the most sought after wines in the world. The area has no less than six UNESCO World Heritage designations.

One day Ursula had us go into Dogliani on market day to shop for food supplies and flowers to plant around the house. Dogliani sits on the Rea River and is dominated by the nineteenth century Parish Church of Saints Paolo and Quirino. Sitting high above the river is Castello Dogliani and Piazza Belvedere.

Just some of the fruits and veggies at the Dogliani market.
Just some of the fruits and veggies at the Dogliani market.

The Dogliani Market runs every Tuesday and Saturday and sells everything from local produce, cheese, and meats to garden supplies, household goods, and clothing.  Friendly merchants wait on locals who still do a great deal of their shopping at these weekly markets that are held on different days in towns all over the area. If you want to know who carries the best produce, just look for the longest lines.

The meals at the winery were simply amazing. Everything was freshly prepared and there was very little waste. The food was all organic and locally sourced and what we didn’t finish at dinner showed up in some form for breakfast or lunch the next day. Ursula grows squash, lettuces, herbs, apples, pears, and more all around the farm. She is an amazing cook and prepared filling feasts for us every night.

One of the few times we didn’t eat dinner at the winery Marcello took us to his favorite pizza place on the other side of Dogliani. Cascina Manzo is not your typical pizza joint.

One of our stops on the Wine Walk in Dogliani.
One of our stops on the Wine Walk in Dogliani.

There are nearly a hundred different pizzas on the menu including over a dozen featured pies that rotate regularly.

Every crust is hand thrown and topped to order by three busy cooks in an open-air kitchen. They are then cooked in a matter of seconds in a wood-burning oven. This is a must when you visit the area.

Dogliani is famous for it’s Dolcetto wines. Often overshadowed by the Barbera and Nebbiolo wines in the neighboring Barolo region, Dolcetto di Dogliani is a dry, fruity red wine that is often more tannic than acidic.

Although Dolcetto is produced throughout the Piemonte region, Dogliani is the most famous area for this iconic grape. Many of these fine wines can be found at the Bottega del Vino di Dogliani right next to the Parish Church. The Bottega is housed in the basement of a former Carmelite convent.

Visiting a winery

One evening Marcello took us to meet a fellow producer just down the road, Fabrizio Porro. Azienda Agricola “Ribote” di Bruno Porro is a family run winery and Fabrizio is the new generation running the show. We arrived unannounced but he welcomed us with open arms, gave a nice tour of the facilities and then sat down with us and proudly started opening his bottles.

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Our trek to the first winery on the Wine Walk.
Our trek to the first winery on the Wine Walk.

We ended up talking and drinking over three hours as family members passed through the tasting room, which is right next to their home. We met parents, cousins, and children while tasting some of the region’s best wine.

Taking a Wine Walk

On a Sunday in early October, we got an early start and walked down the steep hill into Dogliani to take part in Passeggiata Enogastronomica. These are public walks moving from winery to winery to taste featured wines and food. Dogliani’s version, the 9 km “Walk Around the Castle,” began at 8:30 in the Piazza Belvedere with light pastries and espresso.

There must have been a couple hundred people gathered in the square. Families, couples, groups of friends, were all chatting away in Italian. Soon we left the piazza and paraded out of town, a few kilometers uphill to our first stop. Our midmorning antipasto was a local specialty, carne cruda, literally translated “raw meat.” The actual dish is much more appetizing than the translation! There we were at about 10:00 AM enjoying freshly ground beef dressed with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and a selection of the best local Dolcetto wines.

The pacing was important! So many good wines to choose from but we had five more stops and many kilometers to go. Along the way we got to try other local specialties like bagna cauda, a type of anchovy dip, roasted vegetables, pasta, braised beef, and cheeses. Finally, we made our way back to town for dessert at about 4:00 PM.

Fall is a wonderful time to visit. There is a festive atmosphere during the harvest and it is also truffle season. The International Alba White Truffle Fair is just down the road in the nearby city of Alba and draws crowds from around the world. Many restaurants feature the prized fungus on their menus during this time.

This has become one of our favorite areas of Italy. As a matter a fact, as I write this, we are back in Dogliani taking part in this year’s harvest. If you enjoy amazing wine, delicious food, and down to earth friendly people, you need to put Dogliani on your list too.

Greg Ball recently retired after teaching music at the university level for 30 years. He is now feeding his passion for travel by vagabonding around Europe with his wife and helping others travel through their company, Euro Travel Coach.

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