Piedmont, Italy: The Wine Landscapes of the Langhe
In the vineyard-dressed landscape of the Langhe, in Italy’s Piedmont region, hillsides rise steeply on one side, then drop off more gradually on the other. The name ‘Langhe’ is believed to have Celtic roots, meaning ‘tongues of land’, alluding to these steep hillsides, and the area’s raised valleys. Our host, Marco Scaglione, from Meet Piemonte, described it this way: “The Langhe’s soil has more of a clay composition, whereas the neighboring Monferrato and Roero districts tend to be more sandy. Imagine if you dropped a handful of sand onto a table top; the sand would form into a cone of sorts – more rolling, more gradual. Clay, however, can be molded into more steep hillsides and valleys.” Like the Roero and the Monferrato, the Langhe landscape is also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Barolo & Barbaresco, the ‘King & Queen’ Wines of the Langhe
Barolo and Barbaresco are the wines most famously produced in the Langhe. Both of these powerhouse reds are made with the Nebbiolo grape, but despite that commonality, the wines have distinctly-different personalities and types of production. Barolo wine, for example, must spend two years in barrels and an additional year aging in the bottle; whereas Barbaresco must only spend one year in the barrel and one year in the bottle. While Barbaresco wine can generally be enjoyed when it’s younger, it doesn’t tend to age as well as Barolo does. Barbaresco is also said to be lighter, more feminine.
Tasting a Trio of Wine at the Montaribaldi Winery
Surrounded by a sea of vineyards resembling a natural amphitheater, the family-owned Montaribaldi Winery greets visitors with wooden barrels brimming with red Begonias, a children’s playground, and a table shaded by a grapevine-covered pagoda.
Inside, we’d meet Antonella Rivetti, the daughter-in-law of Montaribaldi’s founders, Pino and Carla Taliano. On a tour that would take us through the fermentation room and cellar, Antonella and Marco walked us through the basics of what Montaribaldi does.
“Barbaresco wine is the queen while Barolo is the king,”Antonella said, with a smile, while pointing to a bust likeness of the so-called ‘father of Barbaresco,’ named Domizio Cavazza.
“At first, Barbaresco was the poor brother of Barolo, but it got recognition thanks to Cavazza’s help.”
Cavazza, it turns out, was a gifted agronomist, who not only established a winemaking school in nearby Alba, but who also co-founded a cooperative that produced the first Barbaresco wine in 1894.
Like Barbaresco’s founder before them, the Montaribaldi Winery family is also involved in their community. When the winery commemorated its 20th anniversary last year, for example, the team decided to donate money to a charity benefitting children with special needs rather than have a lavish party.
As for its winemaking philosophy, Montaribaldi is not yet certified organic, but the winery is moving in that direction.
“It’s a process that takes a while,” said Antonella. “We do use some natural fertilizer from stables, and some stems are composted as fertilizer.”
Unlike Monferrato wine country, which we’d visited the day before, Antonella explained that Montaribaldi doesn’t remove the grass that grows around the base of their grapevines.
“The better you do in the vineyard, the less work there is after the harvest,” she said. “Instead of removing the grass, we just cut it short. The grass helps to absorb water, which in turn controls humidity. It also helps prevent landslides.”
The Montaribaldi Winery, surrounded by stunning grapevines resembling an amphitheater, maintains 25 hectares of vineyards
Tempting grapes, nearing harvest time. Montaribaldi produces about 150,000 bottles of wine per year. Most of Montaribaldi’s vines were planted in 1968.
Asking our host, Antonella, if we could snap a shot of the bottles of wine which we enjoyed, she decided to go even further – setting out Montaribaldi’s entire display of 18 types of wine and 3 grappas. This montage turned out to be popular with other wine tasters too, each waiting to ham it up behind the spectrum of bottles. I’m laughing here because Antonella joked that the grappa I’m holding is actually Chanel No. 5.
Stainless steel fermentation tanks.
The photo on the left showcases how Montaribaldi’s fermentation tanks have evolved over the years. The colorful concrete ones were previously used, whereas now stainless steel is preferred. In the photo on the right, the tag indicates what type of wine it’s destined to become (Barbaresco) and the year the grapes were harvested (2013).
Antonella and our Meet Piemonte host Marco explain the nuances between barriques (a smaller type of wine barrel) and casks, which are larger. Antoinella said that a barrique may last for about 4 years, while a large cask can “almost last forever.” Three to four times each year, Montaribaldi’s winemaker will sample the wine, and top off the amount that’s evaporated – the so-called “angel’s share.”
Once barrels have outlived their use for wine production, Montaribaldi will sell them to balsamic vinegar and grappa producers.
Antonella (left) poured 3 samples of wine for us: 2 types of Barbaresco and 1 Barbera. As finger food (right), we were offered Grissini (traditional Piedmontese breadsticks), Tuma cheese (made with half cow milk, and half sheep milk), and a delightful jam called Cugnà. The jam was made with grape must, pears, apples, quince, and whole hazelnuts.
The varied soil of the Astigiano, Langhe, and Roero.
A bust of the father of Barbaresco, Domizio Cavazza. It was sculpted by Montaribaldi’s founder, out of clay.
The Barbaresco Tower’s Dazzling Views
“The cities of Alba and Asti were enemies for centuries,” Marco said, as we soaked up extraordinary views of the Langhe-Roero countryside from our perch atop the medieval Barbaresco Tower.
“Because of this rivalry, Alba had this tower to watch out for Asti.”
Though the 30-meter-tall brick structure had only months earlier been opened to the public, Barbaresco’s tower has been around since medieval times – perhaps as far back as the 12th century. While Alba and Asti are no longer warring city-states, the two cities do maintain a friendly rivalry. Alba annually holds a donkey Palio race to poke fun at Asti’s respected horse race, which dates back centuries.
From the Barbaresco Tower, we were granted a gorgeous overview of wine country: the Tanaro River, which divides the Langhe and Roero districts, even a diminutive Alba. Unfortunately, a perpetual haze prevented us from seeing the majestic, snow-capped Alps which give the Piedmont region its name. Piedmont literally means ‘at the foot of the mountain’.
Once back on Barbaresco’s cobbled streets, Shawn, Marco, and I passed bicyclists enjoying an afternoon coffee at a café, plus a church-turned-wine-shop, and a gentleman selling local products. I was thrilled to make a delightful, edible purchase: a traditional Piemonte cake made of hazelnuts, simply wrapped in brown paper, and tied with a twine-like rope. We brought it back to Germany, where we dressed it up for my father’s birthday.
Barbaresco’s lookout tower (left) was recently renovated and opened to the public. Its interior (right) features an ‘old meets new’ style which I appreciate so much: transparent floors, and a glass elevator which transports visitors to its panoramic viewing deck, about 30 meters (98.5 feet) high. It’s believed that the tower was once part of a larger fortification complex.
The Tanaro River snakes through the countryside. To the north of the Tanaro is the Roero, on the south side is the Langhe.
A bird’s eye view of Barbaresco, which has just over 600 residents.
The tower offers splendid views for casual photographers, plus a great overview of Barbaresco wine country, for those wanting to survey the various viticultural areas.
A man sells local Piedmont products on one of Barbaresco’s main streets (right). I bought this traditional hazelnut cake (left) and brought it back to Germany, where we enjoyed it for my father’s birthday, with dollops of cream and berries. Its label notes that it was made “senza farina” or without flour. Its ingredients included ground hazelnuts, olive oil, and sugar – quite lovely, not overpowering in sweetness, and gluten free!
Other Piedmont goodies for sale included sausages, toasted hazelnuts, hazelnut meringue, and hazelnut spread.
Barbaresco’s medieval tower (right) off in the distance.
The Snail-Shaped Town of Serralunga d’Alba
Motoring through the backroads of the Langhe, Shawn, Marco, and I embarked on a discussion of Italian misconceptions. Marco was passionate about the topic.
“In Italy, there is really no such thing as Alfredo sauce, or Chicken Parmesan. Spaghetti & Meatballs are also more of an Italian-American invention. Immigrants wanted to show their new social status and the fact they could afford meat, and thus the dish was born.”
Marco then asked me what international chain I hadn’t noticed in Italy. Shawn and I don’t often frequent fast-food chains, so Marco caught me without a response.
“Starbucks, of course! In Italy, it’s customary to stand at a counter for a quick drink. You don’t see Italians commuting with coffee cups in hand, as you might elsewhere in the world.”
Our mini misconception lesson complete, we’d arrived in Serralunga d’Alba. The town’s nucleus is its fortress, from which businesses and homes spiral out in a snail-like pattern. Unlike Alba and Barolo, which seem to be more on the tourist radar, Serralunga d’Alba was rather quiet, dare I say ‘authentic’. A female resident read a newspaper on a bench, laundry hung from upstairs balconies, and we passed empty streets. No doubt, much of towns residents were enjoying the afternoon siesta or riposo. After our wine-tasting, and the day’s whirlwind four cities’ tour, I felt as though I could join them in that endeavor!
The town of Serralunga d’Alba is shaped like snail. A castle in the center was built for defensive purposes, and the rest of the town’s streets spiral out from that point.
A shop selling truffles, mushrooms, salami, hazelnut cakes and more (left), and a grape weighing station (right). Traditionally, such weighing stations were present in most Piedmont towns. Trucks are weighed in the morning and in the afternoon, to determine the weight of grapes. The grapes’ weight, coupled with their sugar content, determine their selling price.
Serralunga d’Alba’s castle, majestically rising from a patchwork quilt-like field of vineyards (left). In the Barolo area, vineyards are much more plentiful than they were in the past. Marco told us that restrictions have been put in place to help prevent overdevelopment and landslides.
Barolo Town, ‘The King’s’ Namesake
As we approached the world-famous town of Barolo, Marco mentioned that Barolo wine had actually been fine-tuned by a French woman named Juliette Colbert, from Bordeaux. Juliette married the prominent Marquis of Barolo, Carlo Tancredi Falletti, in the early 19th century. The pair’s coat of arms is still visible on Barolo’s castle, which today houses a wine museum.
Juliette is said to have implemented Bordeaux-style wine-growing techniques in Piedmont. In addition to her oenological know-how, Juliette is also remembered for advancing various women’s and children’s causes. She also established a foundation for women and children that still exists today.
The town of Barolo.
Barolo is replete with quirky animal figurines of all species and colors (left). On the right, an archway of the Barolo Castle.
At the castle’s entrance is a crest featuring Juliette’s and her husband’s coats of arms. His features chess motifs, to symbolize strategic thinking, whereas Juliette’s features a snake. As Marco pointed out, “snakes are slow moving, alluding to thoughtful, calculated thinking. Also, one should be scared of a snake and treat it with respect.”
Barolo’s Corkscrew Museum, or Museo dei Cavatappi (left) and a wineshop (right).
Colorful dried pasta infused with Barolo wine (right).
Elegant Alba, Home of Chocolate, Truffles & Wine
Though we witnessed a mock truffle hunt the day before in Monferrato, we would miss Alba’s famed White Truffle Fair by just a few weeks. There, prized fungi can fetch thousands of Euros per kilogram!
We would see other fixtures for which this capital city of the Langhe is known, mainly the Ferrero Chocolate Factory, and Alba’s elegant Neo-Gothic cathedral. We found it interesting to hear how the cathedral’s interior had evolved. Marco explained that the priest originally had his back turned to the congregation. Later, an evolving philosophy dictated that he be closer to the attendees, and facing them. This more recent evolution resulted in a new chandelier and altar being constructed. The light fixture is ultra-modern, and apparently stirred up quite a controversy when it was installed!
“The soul of Alba” as described by Marco, the Ferrero factory employs thousands, and makes popular sweet treats such as Nutella, Ferrero Rocher, and Mon Chéri chocolates. It’s not possible to tour the factory.
Italian flags dance in the breeze (right), framing a statue on the front of the Alba Cathedral. Alba is well-known for its annual White Truffle Fair, which is held every autumn.
The Alba Cathedral exterior (left) features four sculptures, each representing 4 saints, and animals who represent them. The animals’ Italian names create an acronym of ALBA. (A = angelo or angel; L = leone or lion; B = bollo or bull; and aquila or eagle.) On the right, the church’s interior and its ultra-modern chandelier.
The Alba Cathedral was built in the early 12th century, but it is believed that the earliest structure there was actually constructed toward the end of the 5th century. As Marco explained so nicely, churches were built on the remnants of others, “like layers of lasagna.” Below these visitors’ feet, is an ancient baptismal font. It’s exposed in one of the church’s main aisles, and was discovered during recent restoration work.
Alba’s impressive choir dates back to the early 16th century. It features inlaid, paper thin wood, which were painstakingly glued and pressed together to form vintage scenes. On the right is a marble figurine near the choir.
A choir book, in Latin.
Truffle products for sale (right) in an Alba storefront.
Tempting artisanal baked goods.
A poodle pair waits for their master to depart an enoteca (wine shop).
Our Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
- Italy’s Piedmont (Piemonte) region is located about 140 km (85 miles) southwest of Milan. High-speed trains link the Piedmont area to Italian tourist meccas such as Rome and Venice. See Trenitalia for schedules and prices.
- We traveled by train from Milan to Asti, and even day-tripped to Turin using Asti as our home-base for 3 out of 4 nights. In Asti, we stayed at the La Fabbrica dell’Oro Hotel. We found it to be clean and centrally-located, and we enjoyed our Palio-themed room, as well as all the black & white family photographs in the entryway. (The other night, we stayed at a lovely agriturismo in the Monferrato hills.) Please note that the first hotel link is an affiliate link. (If you make a booking, the price will stay the same to you and I will get a percentage as a commission.)
- While we found mass transit accessibility to be good in larger Italian cities like Asti and Turin, we were told that public transportation is quite limited in Piemonte’s countryside. Locals routinely advised us to rent a car or hire a private driver.
- Marco, one of Meet Piemonte‘s co-founders, coordinated the details of our visit in advance, and guided us through each excursion. He and his colleagues lead customized tours covering everything from wine-tastings, to cooking classes, truffle hunts, hiking and biking excursions, and visits to Piedmont’s rice fields. Having worked in the tourism industry for more than a decade, Marco speaks fluent English and also helped ensure that tour partners took into account my gluten intolerance.
- For more information, visit the following sites:
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Italy.
Disclosure & Thanks:
Meet Piemonte hosted us during this day’s excursion.
We’d like to say Mille grazie to Marco for being such a knowledgeable, patient, and enthusiastic host.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is a creation of my husband, Shawn.