Langhe Hills Are the Perfect Place to Taste Wines from Piedmont
By Heather Von Bargen
I stood on the patio of our rental house in the Langhe Hills of Piedmont, Italy. The September morning was cool, and quiet save for birdsong. The overnight fog had blanketed the valley below me and the air smelled like rain. The peaks of the Alps towered in the distance. A deer darted into the tall Nebbiolo grapevines in front of me. I whispered, “Thank you, Danilo Nada.”
My husband Matt and I had met Danilo a year earlier at a local wine store in Florida. The young fourth-generation winemaker represented the Nada Fiorenzo winery. He poured us samples of his family’s red wines from the Barbaresco region in the Langhe.
Matt and I tried two Barbarescos made with Nebbiolo grapes, named for the fog, nebbia, that often settles above the vines. One tasted silky, the other velvety. Both were sublime.
The differences between the two astounded me as their grapes grew next to each other. Danilo circled their vineyards on a map and gave it to me. I used it later to plan our pilgrimage to this wine mecca.
UNESCO Heritage Site
The Langhe vineyard landscape near Alba was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its ancient winemaking traditions — still practiced today.
Small towns and an occasional castle crowned the hilltop summits that surrounded our rental. Rows of evenly spaced vines dotted with outbuildings stretched for miles.
More than 130 small vintners cultivate just 1695 acres of grapes in the Barbaresco region.
In contrast, Napa Valley has 43,000 acres of planted vineyards. The seventeen officially designated wines produced in the Langhe are red, white, and sparkling.
In addition to Barbaresco wines, the Langhe is famed for its Barolos, Barberas, Dolcettos, and Moscatos.
This countryside, less than a two-hour drive from Milan, is also renowned for its truffles, cheeses, hazelnuts, and a strong gastronomic heritage.
In our five days of wine tastings, leisurely meals, and small-town exploration, we discovered that the Langhe was an intimate and unique place to experience Italy’s food and wine culture.
We saw no other Americans and encountered only a handful of European visitors who hiked the trails that traverse the vineyards.
We stayed at Ada Nada, an agriturismo winery owned by Danilo’s cousin, Anna Lisa Nada, just across the street from Nada Fiorenzo. From our house, I could see the vineyards Danilo had shown us on the map.
Trekking to the Tasting
Our first afternoon, we trekked down the path to the winery at Ada Nada for a tasting. A mobile bottling trailer was set up in the courtyard. Empty wine bottles rattled along the conveyor.
One machine turned them upside down to be cleaned, another filled them with wine, and the last machine inserted the cork. Several workers carried full bottles to crates. I asked if we could watch and take pictures. Elvio, Anna Lisa’s husband joked, “Ah, because we are so handsome.”
We walked to a trellised terrace draped with grapevines. Empty wine glasses covered one of the tables that overlooked the valley. Anna Lisa walked over carrying five bottles of wine to pour.
“We only bottle three times a year,” she said. “In addition to the typical wines from here, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, we make a white, a rosato, and a sparkling red.” We snacked on Elvio’s homemade salumi as we sipped wines named after family members.
Later, Matt and I ate dinner at a family-owned Trattoria Risorgimento in Treiso, a five-minute drive — or twenty-minute walk through the vines.
The son greeted us and we told him it was our first night in the area. He gave us a sampler of regional appetizers to try, among them beef carpaccio, veal tartare, and fried meats. He then brought tajarin al ragù, long thin noodles with meat sauce.
For our main course, he selected rabbit with bell peppers for me, and the hyper-local agnolotti del plin, a meat-filled ravioli with butter and sage sauce for Matt.
His mother and sister cooked. His father paired our wines as he flitted through the restaurant and chatted with the locals who filled it. We capped off our excellent meal with an assortment of local desserts, including hazelnut cake.
On Sundays, local women teach a cooking class in the regional wine shop in a seventeenth-century castle in nearby Mango. Matt and I joined three Danish women, a French woman, and an Italian man for Maria and Tiziana’s workshop in local specialties.
Maria kneaded eggs and flour into pasta dough. When it was ready, she fed the flattened dough into a pasta machine that she cranked with her right hand.
She held the sheet of pasta with her left hand as it emerged thinner each time, repeating the process rhythmically until the pasta sheets were gossamer. After the pasta dried a little she slid the sheets into the cutter. The thin long noodles that came out made me hungry for our forthcoming tajarin al ragù.
“You can marinate the meat for the ragù in red or white wine first,” Maria said, “but it needs to be good wine!”
She next prepared the Vitello tonnato, thinly sliced veal with tuna sauce, one of the area’s oldest dishes. The meat marinated overnight. To me, the appetizer sounded odd but tasted succulent. We learned that the secret to preventing overcooking the veal is to stop the process with cold water.
Tiziana then held out a skinned rabbit and demonstrated how to make my favorite rabbit with bell peppers. The rabbit cooks slowly over low heat for at least two hours. “Chicken makes a good substitute if you can’t find rabbit,” Tiziana said.
When the lesson was over, Roberta, the coordinator led us into an old stone-walled room lit by candles for lunch. Roberta, Tiziana, and Maria served us the vitello tonnato, tajarin al ragù, and rabbit with peppers by course.
We sat with the Italian and French couple, speaking in Italian, French, and English. Their friendly conversation and the hearty food encouraged us to linger over coffee and hazelnut cake dessert. We left with two bottles of “good” Moscato d’Asti, a gift for attending.
Visit the Shepherd!
Anna Lisa had recommended we visit Silvio Pistone, a shepherd and sheep’s milk cheesemaker. Silvio raises Pecore delle Langhe, an endangered sheep native to this region. Historically each farm in this area made their own cheeses, but nowadays only a few sheep’s milk cheesemakers still produce the prized heritage cheeses. Signore Pistone makes tuma and La Giuncà cheeses the old-fashioned way, without pasteurization.
The sunset radiated a soft glow as we drove up the hill to Silvio’s farm for our appointment. Silvio gave us a tour of his cheese lab and walked us to his barn to meet and feed his thirty sheep. Afterward, in a candlelit cottage on his property, he brought us seven kinds of cheese, paired with local wine, bread, tomatoes, and dessert. Our visit ended up being a highlight of our trip.
We had an appointment at the Adriano Marco e Vittorio winery the next day. Michela Adriano, the third-generation export manager, is not old enough to legally drink wine in the United States. The twenty-year-old gave us a tour of her family’s hazelnut tree-lined vineyards and the recently expanded wine cellar. The Adrianos produce 150,000 bottles annually from 23 hectares (56 acres) of grapes, the largest of the wineries we visited.
They too, make Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, and Barbaresco, including a riserva, aged for two additional years. “Everyone from around here drinks Dolcetto most often,” Michela told us, “in the old days, breakfast was bread dipped in Dolcetto. Most grapes taste bitter picked off the vine, but Dolcetto grapes are sweet, so the name ‘little sweet one.’” Not commonly exported, the locals keep it to themselves — eighty percent of Dolcetto is consumed in Northwest Italy.
As we walked through the Adriano’s cellar, we passed large oak barrels with chalkboard signs that read ‘Atto a Barbaresco DOCG 2014.’ Michela explained, “‘Atto a’ means ‘fit for’ or ‘capable of.’” The wine aging inside has not yet earned the official DOCG designation of quality from the government. After it has achieved the required aging and passed the approval process, it will become a Barbaresco DOCG.
Trying the Dolcetto
On our last day in the Langhe, we met with Danilo and his father, Bruno. I noticed Danilo’s thumbs were purple. “We just harvested the Dolcetto,” he said, “Do you want to try it?”
Fresh wine poured out of a large stainless steel tank into a tub on the floor. Danilo grabbed a nearby glass and filled it before his worker turned off the spigot.
Matt sipped it. It was sweet — as it should be since it was just days old.
This Dolcetto would not be ready for over a year, but we did buy several of 2014, knowing we would not find it at our local wine shop.
Part of Langhe’s allure is that venerated traditions are respected and kept alive — by Silvio, with his love for his sheep and making cheese; the local cooking women who teach anyone interested how to make dishes that have defined this area for hundreds of years; the family-owned restaurants that make only regional specialties; and the winemakers, who in their third and fourth generations, carry on the heritage they were born into. Their efforts go far beyond ‘atto a.’ They are bravissimi.
Piedmont Travel Details…
Cooking school in Mango (In Italian) http://www.enotecamoscato.com/it/index.php
Silvio Pistone’s dairy farm (In Italian) http://www.cascinapistone.it
Piedmont Food & Wine Tours – English speaking guides http://www.piedmont-foodandwine.com
Sonia Speroni – Luxury Wine & Food Travel Planner http://www.soniasperoni.com
Heather Von Bargen is a Tampa, Florida based writer and photographer who focuses on travel and all things Italian.