Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

·16 min read
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

"In Tuscany, they have Under the Tuscan Sun," Luca Currado Vietti was telling me. "In Piedmont, we have Under the Piedmontese Fog." Luca and his wife, Elena, his partner in the winery and in life, were in the barrel room of the Vietti winery, hidden under the narrow streets of the hilltop town of Castiglione Falletto, pouring me the latest vintage of Vietti's impeccable Barolos. "Sometimes, it can actually be hard to see the next row of vines during harvest," he continued. "It's like, 'Crap! Did we just harvest Marcarini's grapes by mistake? We're friends, but ...'"

I was in Piedmont because I take whatever chance I can get to go to Piedmont; of all the wine regions in the world, it is to me the most mysterious and the most alluring. It doesn't have the shock-and-awe beauty of New Zealand's Central Otago, with its Alps-like crags (watch the Lord of the Rings movies, which were filmed there, to get an idea); there are no ranks of shiny, multimillion-dollar tasting rooms as in Napa Valley (nor as many tech bros in Teslas, thankfully); nor does it have the grand, imposing (and somewhat chilly, to be honest) châteaus of Bordeaux. But it does have hills and vineyards and hazelnut forests and narrow-streeted small towns that seem to have been transported out of an earlier era, and it has soul. And no matter how many times I visit, it remains both familiar and unknowable. To paraphrase the first rule of Fight Club, the first rule of Piedmont is you can never truly know Piedmont unless you are Piedmontese—and I like that in a destination.

Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

I'd stopped in to visit Luca and Elena on the first day of a weeklong trip. This time around, I was sticking to the towns of the Barolo DOCG, in the Langhe hills a few minutes southwest of the pretty town of Alba. For many wine lovers, Barolo is the only red wine that rivals Burgundy in its uncanny ability to reveal the character of a place—a vineyard, even a small portion of a vineyard—in a glass. It is made solely from the Nebbiolo grape, which is thought to get its name from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. Luca wasn't joking about his home being known for the stuff. I remember driving late one night on an earlier trip, the road winding up and down the hills. At the tops of the hills, for a minute, maybe two, I could see the night sky, the stars. Then I'd plunge down into the fog again. It was so thick, I couldn't see in front of my car. At all. I drove along at a crawl, cautious, cautious, and every once in a while, some Italian lunatic in an Alfa Romeo would blow past me at 60 miles an hour, apparently entirely unconcerned with visibility, other vehicles, and/or certain death.

I'd made the recently opened Casa di Langa my home base for the first part of this visit. Tucked away in the hills south of Alba, it's a gorgeous spot—who can argue with an infinity pool that looks out past vineyards at a medieval town in the distance? But the real highlight for me proved to be a cooking class with chef Daniel Zeilinga of Fàula, the restaurant on the property. We started by making the classic tajarin pasta of the region, for which it is necessary to first cancel any upcoming appointments to one's cardiologist: The recipe involves 40 egg yolks for every kilo of flour. After kneading the dough and letting it rest, we ran it through a pasta machine to produce flat sheets and then folded the sheets over to cut the narrow strands by hand. "You know how to use a knife," Zeilinga said approvingly. I passed this off with an "aw, you know, whatever" but inside was rather proud of myself; apparently, years spent lurking around the F&W test kitchen have taught me something. Then we moved on to a white ragù, made with tomato water and salsiccia di Bra (find the recipe, somewhat modified, here), and bunet, the absurdly delicious Piedmontese dessert that combines the best aspects of crème caramel and chocolate mousse. "Now you can eat," Zeilinga said, looking at the array of plates in front of me. "Don't I have a dinner reservation in just a couple of hours?" I asked. "Then you can eat again," he replied confidently.

It was a quick drive the next day from the hotel to G.D. Vajra; in truth, it's a quick drive almost anywhere here because Barolo is tiny. Only 7 miles long and 5 miles wide, it's a sort of lozenge of spectacularly valuable vineyard land. But that wasn't always the case. As Giuseppe Vaira told me, pouring a taste of his fragrant 2018 Barolo Bricco delle Viole, "You have to remember, until the 1980s, the wealthy land was the flatland. The hillsides, the vineyards, those were poor." The wine had what all great Barolos have: elegance and strength simultaneously, a formidable structure when young that can hide the wine's alluring fruit, a gift for developing and changing—for the better—over years or even decades. Before he joined the winery, which his father founded, Giuseppe was headed to medical school. He had doubts about the value of making wine. He asked his father, "Dad, what is the social purpose of what we do?" His father replied, "Giuseppe, if you want to save lives, go be a doctor. We don't save lives. You don't need art or poetry or a glass of wine in order to stay alive. But what's the point of life without those things?"

After leaving G.D. Vajra, it was another short drive to meet Valter Fissore and Nadia Cogno, owners of Elvio Cogno, at one of their favorite restaurants, Langotto, in Novello. Chef Otto Lucà had the mixed fortune to open during the pandemic, but he weathered the crisis, and on this day, the small dining room was full of people, mostly locals, eating, drinking, talking. Over a glass of Champagne to start (in my experience, Piedmontese winemakers are obsessed with Champagne), Valter echoed my feelings about what Barolo can offer: "Elegance and complexity, but always wines you can enjoy with food. That's what I make. Wines where you always want another glass. Who wants some super-bomba wine where you can't drink another glass?"

Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

Inarguable point. Let's leave the super-bomba wines to financial titans bidding at auctions. Post-bubbles, he opened a bottle of his 2008 Ravera, from the vineyards around the winery. The wine recalled dried cherries and the smell of a forest in the fall, autumnal yet full of life, and was gorgeous with chef Otto Lucà's stracotto, fall-apart-tender beef slow-braised in red wine. Then it was off to the winery to look at the new tasting room and to taste through several vintages of Anas-Cëtta, a minerally white made from the once nearly extinct Nascetta grape. Valter's father-in-law and mentor, Elvio Cogno, who passed away in 2016, essentially rescued Nascetta from nonexistence. A Barolo legend, he was one of the first to bottle single-vineyard wines here; that was at Marcarini, which he left in 1990 to found his namesake winery. "My father-in-law bought this winery when he was 60 years old," Valter said. "Can you imagine? It took incredible willpower. But he knew the potential of this cru."

Willpower, generally, is not lacking in this place. (A local brewery even bottles a beer called Bogia Nen, a phrase that roughly translates to "doesn't budge" and refers to the supposed stubbornness of the Piedmontese personality.) The next day, I stopped in at E. Pira & Figli to taste with owner and winemaker Chiara Boschis, who for many years has made sublime Barolos but early on had to fight against a deeply traditional, male-dominated wine world to do so. "In my generation," she told me, "there were no women in the cellar. It was heavy, heavy work, and the feeling was, "Eh, if you want to be like a man, OK, work like a man. Move that barrel." Chiara was sparkling and funny, a joy to spend time with, but also clearly not one to put up with idiots: "The boys in town would be at the bar in front of the winery, watching me work late at night, cleaning tanks, and they'd say, 'Hey, hey, you are never going to get married!' 'Well,' I'd say, 'certainly not to you!'"

The wine that first brought her fame, the E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis Cannubi Barolo, from the cru of the same name, lived up to its reputation: lush, dark cherry fruit; sleek but substantial tannins; hints of licorice. "It's super-smooth," she said, sounding satisfied with her work. "A silk glove. What's the fame of the Cannubi vineyard? It's about this magic, how it stays on your tongue, how it's ethereal. Who doesn't want the ethereal?"

Excellent question. I gave it some thought at Guido Ristorante, one of the best restaurants in the region, which is located at one of the most historic wineries in the region, Fontanafredda (once the hunting lodge of King Vittorio Emanuele II). As a cloud of white truffles settled across a plate of agnolotti del plin in front of me, I decided that the answer to Chiara's question was "people who do not like white truffles," a group contained, if you ask me, within the somewhat broader category of "complete and utter lunatics."

White truffles, which are native to Piedmont, manage to be both ethereal and deeply earthy all at once. As those whisper-thin shavings settled over the plate, I definitely felt a sense of being transported heavenward even as I was being drawn down deep into the earth, a feeling only amplified by the glass of 2017 Fontanafredda Vigna La Rosa Barolo that I was drinking. No other food does that, at least that I've ever had, and no other wine works as well with white truffles as Barolo. Of course, one pays dearly for them. As Luca had said to me, "In Piedmont, we must be geniuses because we have figured out how to make people pay a fortune for a small, smelly potato."

Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

Or, technically, for a pale-gold, nubby fungus, nondescript except for its penetrating, heady aroma, that lives its secret life in darkness under the earth until, one day, a dog digs it up. Good truffle dogs are a valued commodity, and good locations where white truffles can be found even more so; in fact, the whole business still operates under a shroud of secrecy and wariness. At Tartuflanghe, one of the bigger purveyors in the region, old men still come in from morning visits to the woods with their bounty wrapped in a cloth; the deal is made right there. I made a vague move to take a behind-the-scenes photo at one point and was given a stern finger-shake from the founder of the company.

Not that I can blame him: Given how valuable white truffles are, thievery is always a risk. I spoke to the young founders of Bianco Tartufi, Daniele Stroppiana and Marta Menegaldo, who do truffle-hunting excursions at Casa di Langa. They started their business in 2019, but the first year, someone broke into their home in November, the height of the season, and stole a kilo and a half of truffles, essentially everything they had. "Then, in 2020, we had the pandemic. And in 2021, a terrible harvest—almost no truffles! But still, business is good," Daniele said. His optimism was enviable. Maybe it stems from youth. He and Marta, who are in their early thirties, belong to an association of truffle hunters where, he says, "we're the youngest, by a lot—the average age is 65."

Is it possible to have too many truffles? Aficionados might argue that the idea is blasphemy, but my feeling is that sometimes you simply need a plate of perfectly sliced ham and a glass of excellent wine to finish the day. That's why, at the end of every trip here, I find myself at Vinoteca Centro Storico in Serralunga d'Alba. Simply put, it's one of the world's great wine bars. Nothing advertises that: There are a few wooden tables, a tiny kitchen, and shelves of wine. But owner Alessio Cighetti—funny, opinionated, often unsparingly direct, always passionate—has infallible taste, both in terms of the wines available here and the quality of the food he serves. There's a reason local winemakers and far-flung wine travelers can always be found at Centro Storico; it's one of the few places where, even if you weren't born six generations ago into a Piedmontese family, you can still feel, for a moment, with a glass of Barolo in front of you and a little local cheese and bread, that you actually are from this remarkable place.

Where to Stay

Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

Fontanafredda

Now owned by Oscar Farinetti, of Eataly fame, Fontanafredda was once the hunting lodge of King Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, and its buildings retain a regal character. Several of them are being converted to what's essentially a village of small hotels—the casual, charming Hotel Le Case dei Conti Mirafiore is already open; another will have a health and wellness focus; and another will lean toward outdoor activities. Rooms from $170, fontanafredda.it

Casa di Langa

This new, ultra-luxe property outside Alba offers stellar views from its beautifully furnished rooms, not to mention from its infinity pool (not a bad place to sip a glass of wine). Cooking classes here are not to be missed; also tour the organic gardens—the produce is used by the on-site restaurant, Fàula—or arrange for a truffle-hunting expedition, run by the delightful Daniele Stroppiana and Marta Menegaldo of Bianco Tartufi. Rooms from $400, casadilanga.com

Fratelli Alessandria

Fratelli Alessandria has been making stellar Barolo since the mid-1800s. Recently, the family decided to augment that with this charming guesthouse, which opened in 2022. Located in Verduno, it's a terrific spot from which to base a winery-centric trip. Rooms from $160, spezialewineresort.it

Where to Eat

Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

Fàula Ristorante

Chef Daniel Zeilinga oversees this elegant restaurant at Casa di Langa, where he uses organic produce from the on-site garden and creates thoughtful twists on classic Piedmontese dishes (and runs excellent cooking classes, as well). casadilanga.com

Langotto Ristorante

Chef Otto Lucà combines his Piedmontese roots and his experiences cooking in Alsace at this lovely spot in Novello. Don't miss the stracotto; also don't miss the pigeon with cherries and Langhe hazelnuts. langottoristorante.com

Guido Ristorante

Housed in a 19th-century villa on the Fontanafredda property, this Michelin-starred establishment is one of Langhe's most elegant restaurants—and an excellent place to splurge on white truffles. guidoristorante.it

Vinoteca Centro Storico

Make sure to visit to this tiny spot in Serralunga d'Alba for top-quality, perfectly sliced prosciutto; artisanal cheeses; excellent pasta; and a wealth of Barolos, Barbarescos, and, surprisingly, Champagnes. (Local winemakers drink a lot of it, as does Alessio Cighetti, Centro's lively owner.) Via Roma 6, 12050 Serralunga d'Alba

Where to Taste

Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont
Unlocking the Mysteries of Piedmont

Finn Beales

Vietti

Luca Currado Vietti and Elena Penna pour some of Barolo's best wines at their small tasting room in Castiglione Falletto. Make sure to try Elena's excellent artisanal gin as well. vietti.com

G.D. Vajra

Make a reservation to stop by and taste the Vaira family's range of excellent bottlings, among them a stellar Riesling, a rarity in Barolo. gdvajra.it

E. Pira & Figli Chiara Boschis

Chiara Boschis was a trailblazer for women making wine in Piedmont, and every wine she makes is stellar. Visits are limited, so arrange in advance. pira-chiaraboschis.com

Elvio Cogno

The new tasting room here has beautiful views over the estate's vineyards in Ravera, one of Barolo's best crus. elviocogno.com

Fontanafredda

This gorgeous estate, once the property of King Vittorio Emanuele II, is now owned by Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti, who grew up in nearby Alba. (As a result, there's a mini Eataly in the tasting room.) Definitely sign up for a tour of the historic cellars. fontanafredda.it

Tartuflanghe

Tartuflanghe offers a variety of truffle-hunting experiences—some venturing deep into the more remote reaches of Langhe and Roero—and tastings out of its showroom in Piobesi d'Alba. tartuflanghe.us

Agnolotti del Plin

These tiny, meat-filled Piedmontese agnolotti (the name translates as "agnolotti with the pinch") originated as a means of using up braised meat. In this version from Casa di Langa's Fàula Ristorante, the agnolotti are stuffed with a pork, chicken, veal, and vegetable filling bound with butter and cheese. The pasta is typically served on special occasions with a reduced sauce made from meat drippings, but at the restaurant, they finish it in a simple butter sauce. If you can't find Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a good substitute.

Agnolotti del Plin
Agnolotti del Plin

Ragù di Salsiccia (Sausage Ragù) with Tajarin

Sausage and veal come together in a lightly sweet and aromatic ragù with tajarin — a Piedmontese fresh pasta that gets its gold color from a high ratio of egg yolks to flour. At Casa di Langa in Piedmont, chef Daniel Zeilinga uses tomato water made from fresh tomatoes strained overnight in the ragù; this streamlined version uses a mixture of tomato juice and water, making the dish achievable on any evening at any time of year. One pound of purchased fresh egg spaghetti or about 12 ounces of dried thin spaghetti may be substituted for the tajarin. A final drizzle of olive oil adds a rich finish to the lean meat sauce. To give the tajarin the best color, use pasture-raised or free-range eggs, which have deep-orange yolks.

Ragù di Salsiccia (Sausage Ragù) with Tajarin
Ragù di Salsiccia (Sausage Ragù) with Tajarin

Stracotto di Fassona Piemontese (Piedmont Braised Beef)

Chef Otto Lucà considers this rustic top blade roast, slow-braised in red wine until it's falling-apart tender, the most important main course of classical Piedmontese cuisine. Marinating the roast overnight jump-starts tenderizing and helps season the meat all the way through. Mashed potatoes make an excellent side for this dish, providing a delicious way to mop up the sauce.

Stracotto di Fassona Piemontese (Piedmont Braised Beef)
Stracotto di Fassona Piemontese (Piedmont Braised Beef)

Bunet (Chocolate Crème Caramel with Amaretti)

Bunet (also known as bonet) is a creamy, rich custard dessert hailing from Piedmont. The addition of amaretti cookies as a garnish enhances the almond flavor of the pudding while adding a lovely crunch. This version is from Daniel Zeilinga at Fàula Ristorante, whose recipe offers a simple technique for this silky Piedmontese dessert.

Bunet (Chocolate Crème Caramel with Amaretti
Bunet (Chocolate Crème Caramel with Amaretti