Italian Wine Travels: Ah, Piemonte….

By Valerie Quintanilla

Barbaresco view from my room
Barbaresco view from my room

If there is a heaven and we each get our own version, mine would mirror Piemonte.

Calgone, take me away.

In 2009 I had a business meeting with an Italian colleague visiting Denver for a project. I told her of a pending trip to Italy and how excited I was to explore Tuscany because I heart vino. No, no! She insisted I go to Northern Italy’s Piemonte region (known as Piedmont in the West). She explained it was less commercial and the wines amazing. So, I put it on my bucket list.

Two years later I was zipping through the beautiful Piemonte hills that boast wines of complete perfection. I no longer work for that company and don’t even remember her name, but I want to take a moment to thank her for opening my world to this beauty.

Piemonte or Bust

I left waterlogged Varenna and took three trains to get Asti. In Milan I made a quick stop at the shuttle bus location in search of my wayward pink fleece. No luck. Ah well, Italy has given so much to me, it seems only right that I give a little back (besides vacation funds, natch).

Enjoy Piedmont RIGHT!

My Piemonte friends, Leslie and Robert, set me up in a little B&B in their town of Neive in Barbaresco. The ex-pats operate a travel guide service in the Langhe, aptly called Travel Langhe. Cooking Lisa and I used them on our Piedmont trip last year as Leslie also teaches cooking classes in addition to their wine tour services. It worked out quite well.

Welcome tray
Welcome tray

Upon check-in at Dimora San Sebastiano I was greeted by a couple pleasantries: first, a to die for balcony view from my room (Babaresco vineyards as far as I could see) and second, a welcome tray of snacks, fresh juice, and a glass of Arneis. No status necessary for these perks. Turns out, here the upgrades are standard.

Being a part of the Travel Langhe family is a pretty sweet deal, beyond my sweet (and economical) digs. They pick up their patrons and show them all around, morning till night (basically, it’s shop till ya drop with Robert and Leslie). In my experiences with them, the adventure usually also involves them opening their home and some of the region’s great wines in a comfortable setting (don’t forget to check out Leslie’s art studio!)

When I arrived Robert gave me a wine handout and a prepaid cell phone for my use during my stay. Now that’s service!

Barolo-bound! 

We headed out at 9 a.m. on Friday to start wine tour number one, an adventure in Barolo. Two gals from Chicago were also touring with Leslie and I for the day while Robert took a couple from Baltimore around to the regions many, many villages. Our first stop: Elio Altare in Barolo. The 10 hectare vineyard produces about 60,000 bottles annually (they produce from five hectares and rent out the other five), including dolcetto, barbera, nebbiolo and the great Barolo. The winery started in 1948 when Grandpa Guiseppe purchased the La Morra farm. There are about six total employees, including momma, Elio, daughter Sylvia, and worker Beatrice. We got the opportunity to meet Elio as they were working in the cellar during our visit. Fun dude.

Elio Altare - modern Barolo winery
Elio Altare

The winery is considered modern, as opposed to traditional style (ya know, in case the opposite of modern isn’t clear…) While there are many, one of the biggest differences I understand is the use of french barriques (what most Americans see as traditional barrels in places like Napa, holding 225 liters) vs the traditional slovenian oak cask (aka: botti; 250 to 1500 liters). Why go modern vs traditional, you ask? Well, I don’t pretend to be a wine expert (only in my dreams…the ones with George Clooney), but I will offer some of my understanding during these adventures: the amount of oak to show on the wine. For the modernists, they want more oak, it helps facilitate being drunk younger. For the traditionalist, they want less oak so the grape gets to show more of it’s true expression.

So, anywho, we were chilling with Elio Altare (ain’t no thang) near the cellar and his daughter Sylvia goes zipping by, quite frantic. Elio asks what’s wrong – I don’t speak italiano, but I suspect he said something to that effect – and Sylivia answered, “Momma run over the puppy.” Awesome. Trauma ensues. They had recently gotten a wee pup that’s just adorbs and we oohed and ahhed over the sweet little thing upon arrival. Elio, stuck with a half dozen gaping tourists, was left to pick up the pieces (seriously, perhaps this would have been a good time to speak in Italiano, Sylvia?) I will paraphrase here, but he essentially said that it’s life, don’t be sad. Time to drink some wine.

We were all quite pleased to learn that little “Meatball” (really his name, but I can’t recall the italian translation) did survive the near crushing (ohh…bad one so close to harvest) with a hurt paw and some broken teeth. Thank goodness.

Next we ventured on to the Barolo village of Serralunga where we were greeted by a lovely enoteca owner who is skilled in the art of sabrage – with a champagne flute! Well thank goodness! One of my companions for the day, Melissa from Chicago, doesn’t do red and is super into bubbles. The palate needs time to evolve, so the poor thing was being such a good friend to her travel pal. I mean, for me a big cab was hard to start with like 10 years ago. But, nebbiolo? Barolo? Barbaresco? Get out. (PS – Melissa from Chicago, I tried to find you a How To Champagne Glass Saber YouTube video to include in this post, but came up nil – lemme know if you ever get the goods!)

Lunch became quite the to do. We had Tonya and Melissa from Chicago, Carol and Barry from Baltimore, a winemaker from down the road, ex pat British Piedmont wine worker Evan – also from down the road, Leslie and Robert, and me. Full house.

Lunch in Barolo's Serralunga
Lunch in Barolo’s Serralunga

We drank bubbles, vino, ate antipasto, and pasta till about 3:30 p.m. Not too shabby for a Friday afternoon. From Serralunga we parted ways with Barry, Carol, and Robert to spend some time in the village of Barolo – with a plan to meet up again at 4:30 p.m. at the fabled Paolo Scavino winery. Yep yep.

Us gals headed to the village and had our next traumatic experience of the day. Indecent exposure, people. No joke, some dude was walking around with his fly buttoned, but unzipped, and everything was hanging out. Personally, I’ve never experienced an exhibitionist, and I can’t say I dug it.

Paolo Scavino, Barolo winery
Paolo Scavino, Barolo winery

Well, from there we carried on to Paolo Scavino, an acclaimed Barolo wine maker who subscribes to the modern style. I was kind of in awe. Barry and Carol from Baltimore had hooked up the appointment via one of their restaurants at home. But, Leslie and Robert are friends with Paolo’s granddaughter, so the combination meant big things for the rest of us along for the ride. We were there for about four and half hours. We got a tour of the private cellar room that holds wines from long, long ago. It’s almost completely dark, but no one took me up on the suggestion to “stick it in your purse” as we walked by the decades old bottles. We spent a good two hours just tasting wine with Elisa pulling out wines from so many vintages. (Psst – my sources speak highly of the ’08 vintage, word is, it’s a tres classic year.)

Yeah, it didn’t suck.

Scavino cellar room
Paola Scavino cellar room

So, that was pretty much our day. Wine, a run over pup, sabering with a champagne glass, Free Willy, and finally the crescendo of Paolo Scavino (grazie again, Carol and Bill!) Tomorrow, it’s another day of wine tasting, including a vineyard walk, a blind Piedmont tasting, and Leslie’s birthday!

Good things ahead! Ciao ciao!

Group at Paolo Scovino with Elisa
Group at Paolo Scovino with Elisa

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