Cezar Kusik / @cezartastesearth
I went on my first wine trip to Italy in the mid-2000s. I visited the country before, but it was not wine-related. I had just landed a prestigious job as a wine director at Rubicon Restaurant in San Francisco, and with it came abundant opportunities for wine travel.
A friend of mine from Seattle, Maggie Hoyle, recently moved to the small town of Como in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy with its fashion- and opera-famed capital city, Milan.
Como, Como, Como... I kept thinking. It rang a bell. “You can stay with us. We have a small guest room”, Maggie offered, and I accepted. I picked the middle of May for my trip, the best time to visit Northern Italy according to frequent visitors of the region.
Lombardy is bordered to the west by Piedmont, where the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco are situated. But, more importantly, it is also where The Holy Trinity of Nebbiolo, Alba Truffles and my favorite dessert, panna cotta come originate. Out of the three, it’s Nebbiolo I want to focus on first.
Often compared to Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is a finicky and challenging grape to cultivate. It flowers early, ripens late and unevenly, and is extremely terroir sensitive and expressive, meaning that even the slightest nuances in micro-climate and soil will affect the quality and flavor of the grapes and ultimately the wine.
Unlike Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo wine, especially in its youth, can be aggressively tannic, which in the context of its light, wan, seemingly diluted color, makes it deceptive. At its best, Nebbiolo wine smells of red cherries, plums and rose petals with notes of anise, leather, mushrooms and a forest bed after a fresh rain.
The grape seems to belong intrinsically to Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco regions. There have been attempts to grow it outside these areas, but the results have rarely been even remotely comparable. Its name “Nebbiolo” derives from nebbia, Italian for “fog”. A fog which often lazily rolls over the hills of Barolo and Barbaresco, cooling off the vines.
I did not know much about Como before arriving there. I was stunned. It was breathtaking. The old town of medieval architecture was plastered to the steep shores of the Como Lake, and it hardly seemed real. Its landscapes looked like an intricately painted postcard of dreamy scenery, which would inspire even the most jaded traveler.
Narrow, usually one-way traffic roads carved in the rock meandered around the lake, often disappearing and reappearing again in numerous tunnels.
“We have a spare car in the garage,” said Maggie. “You can use it whenever you need it.” It was a blue, two-door Mini Cooper. The Italian Job was on!
“By the way,” Maggie added, “George Clooney’s house is a block away, down the road.” That’s why Como rang a bell.
Before departing for Italy, I arranged for a few winery visits and tastings.
The first on the list was the Gaja winery in Barbaresco. Angelo Gaja is arguably the most influential and recognized wine personality in Italy. He is the godfather of Nebbiolo, a man who single-handedly revolutionized and modernized the wine making of Piedmont, Italy, and beyond.
His top wines are some of the most coveted and expensive in the world. Personal visits and tastings to the winery aren’t easily obtained and are very exclusive. Some strings had to be pulled. It is about a three-plus hour drive from Como to Barbaresco.
Knowing how mysteriously difficult the navigation of rural Italian roads can be even with GPS (which often fails), I gave myself two hours of extra time.
I arrived barely on schedule after seemingly honest but completely contradictory direction from numerous locals (expectedly, my GPS had a nervous breakdown).
I rang the bell outside of an impressive gate on the Gaja property and was let in. Angelo was unfortunately away on one of his business trips. But I was informed his daughter Gaia Gaja would show me around. After being knocked out by disappointment at not being able to meet the man himself, I was quickly resuscitated by meeting Gaia. She was gorgeous! Italian gorgeous! And for the rest of the visit, I had a difficult time concentrating on wine. But I did.
Over a couple of hours, we tasted dozens of different bottles spanning decades, walking through the winery where the old architecture seamlessly blended with the modern. We walked through the famed vineyards of Sori San Lorenzo, Sori Tildin, and Costa Russi, crumbling their soils between our fingers and talking about the importance of heritage and tradition.
When all was said and done, Gaia asked if I was hungry. Of course, I said, “Yes.” She handed me her business card and gave me directions to her favorite trattoria in town.
“Tell them I sent you,” she said, and we exchanged customary cheek pecks. After a 10-minute walk through narrow streets of Barbaresco, I came to an old, stone chapel converted into a small restaurant. After handing a hostess a Gaia’s card, I was greeted with extra hospitality and seated at a corner table.
I looked at a handwritten menu in Italian and pointed to a few random items. After a while, the food started arriving, followed by small pours of wine. Time seemed to stop. At the end—after six savory courses—panna cotta was brought to me with a glass of Moscato d’Asti. I took a bite of the dessert, a sip of the wine, and... I broke down sobbing. Everything was harmoniously divine.
A must-try: Barolo Chinato is a unique wine that originated within Barolo DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). It is considered an after-dinner digestive infused through slow maceration with cardamom seed, cinchona bark, rhubarb, gentian root and orange peel among others in neutral grape spirit and added to Barolo wine.
The towns of Barolo and Barbaresco are across-the-fence neighbors. As a matter of fact, Barolo wines were first on the wine stage with their roots (no pun intended) going as far back as the late 13th century. Back then, the grapes from Barbaresco vineyards were used in Barolo bottlings. It was not until the late 19th century when Barbaresco made a name for itself as a wine making area.
Wines labeled DOCG Barolo or Barbaresco have to be made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes. Despite their proximity and basic similarities, the wines of both areas differ noticeably in some subtle aspects.
Barolos tend to be denser with firmer structure and more intense, savory flavors. They also have longer aging potential. The Barbarescos are more floral and fruitier, with a softer structure, which makes them more approachable in their youth. These differences are due mainly to topographical, geological, and some wine making variations. The soils of Barbaresco are more fertile and denser while Barolo offers slightly looser and rockier soil composition.
The micro-climate of Barbaresco is a bit warmer than Barolo’s because of its slightly closer proximity to the Tanaro River and the Ligurian Sea, allowing the grapes to ripen earlier. Another factor contributing to later ripening of Barolo grapes is the elevation. The vineyards of Barolo are situated about 200 feet higher above the sea level than those of Barbaresco. The area of Barolo is much larger than that of Barbaresco, making the style of Barbaresco more uniform and the wines of Barolo more diverse.
Finally, because of their gentler structure, the wines of Barbaresco have shorter aging requirements, 24 months versus 32 months for Barolo. In the case of reserve bottling, it is 48 months for Barbaresco versus 62 months for Barolo. Barolos, on average, are slightly higher priced.
Did you know? There are dozens of different truffle species, but the most sought after and automatically the most expensive of them all is the tuber magnatum pico, the white truffle, known as the Diamond of Alba. It can be found almost exclusively in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato areas of Piedmont near Barolo and Barbaresco. In scarce years a pound of these little nuggets can cost up to $3,000.
Food and wine have been inherently bound together since the inception of civilizations, and over the centuries, that bond has worked itself into an organic matrimony. In Piedmont, the symbiosis of that relationship is, at its best, most profound. The diversity of the land and its seasonality offer a plethora of ingredients resulting in boundless culinary creations.
Classic dishes like Bagna Cauda (fondu style dish of anchovies, garlic, heavy cream, and olive oil), Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced roasted veal topped with tuna sauce), Brasato al Barolo (slowly cooked beef in Barolo wine) and numerous preparations of local pastas and gnocchis with Tajarin are among my favorites. Then you have dozens of local cheeses: Rocchetta, Toma, Castelmagno, and desserts: Bunet, Torta di Nocciola con lo Zabaione di Moscato, and Panna Cotta leading the way. And there is always a wine to go with them. Piedmont isn’t just about Nebbiolo grape. Other reds like Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Croatina, and Pelaverga, to mention a few produce quality wines, offer alternative flavors and body types to the serious Barolos and Barbarescos. There are whites as well: Arneis, Cortese, Malvasia, and of course, the hauntingly aromatic Moscato.
My five days in Piedmont were the most memorable wine and food experiences of my life. However, it was time to go, time to thank my generous hosts, and move on. I looked down the map, all the way south, to the island of Sicily, which hangs there teasingly like a soccer ball at the tip of the Italian boot and I knew that Piedmont was only the beginning of The Italian Job I had embarked on. Thirteen years and four visits to Italy later, I still have a long way to go.
My favorite Barbaresco producers, aside from the above mentioned Gaja, are: Marchesi di Gresy, Ceretto, Pio Cesare, Fontanabianca and La Spinetta.
My favorite Barolo producers are Michelle Chiarlo, Aldo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Renato Ratti, Paolo Scavino and Roberto Voerzio.
Did you know: The town of Alba, near Barolo and Barbaresco, is known for its hazelnut production and it there, in Pietro Ferraro’s bakery in the 1950s where Nutella was born.