Spotlight on Barolo, Barbaresco & Barbera
Enjoy private, sit-down tastings at at Elio Altare, Aldo Contero, Renato Ratti, Marchesi di Gresy, Produttori del Barbaresco, La Spinetta, Braida and more
See 5 of the 11 communes making up the Barolo DOCG zone
Visit La Banca del Vino in Pollenzo, a Slow Food project
Feast on artisan cheese and salumi during a buffet lunch at a cheese farm in the Alte Langhe
Dine at two wineries (Marchesi di Barolo & Brezza)
A few years ago, the Society of Wine Educators asked us to organize a tour in Piedmont. Something that really focused on the wine, they said, skipping incidentals like cooking lessons, truffle hunts, and food fairs. Something for people who wanted to learn as much as possible about Piedmont’s most important wines, namely Barolo and Barbaresco.
That’s how XTREME PIEDMONT was born. We liked the tour so much that we’ve kept it on our calendar ever since—and even started a comparable trip in Tuscany. Both XTREME tours include an extra tasting or so per day. They also include some hard-to-get-into estates that we visit only on these tours.
So this is our wine-intensive tour featuring marquee names in Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera. People like Elio Altare, who changed the game in the 1970s and became a mentor to a whole new generation of Barolo winemakers. Like Braida, whose founder, Giacomo Bologna, was the prince who turned Cinderella—aka Barbera—into a world-class wine. Like the Produttori del Barbaresco, a nonprofit wine cooperative that’s unquestionably one of the best in Italy.
Because our focus is the Langhe—that hilly region south of the Tanaro River—we stay in just one hotel the entire time (unlike our other tours, which typically include two). Our base is Alba, a charming city with Roman roots and medieval veneer that’s considered the red-wine and white-truffle capital of Piedmont. Its wine shops alone are a big draw, stocked with older vintages, and its restaurants offer the best of Piedmont’s elegant cuisine.
During XTREME PIEDMONT, you’ll learn about terroir and see the three geologically diverse mountain ridges that run through Barolo’s 11 communes. We’ll get acquainted with the most important historical vineyards like Cannubi, Cerrequio, Brunate, and Martinega and do taste comparisons of cru Barolos and Barbarescos. You’ll hear the debates surrounding traditionalist vs. modernist styles, barrique vs. botte. And you’ll learn about the pioneers and personalities that shaped these wines in the 19th century and the 1970s, and meet some of today’s leading lights. In sum, you’ll get to know Piedmont wine like a pro.
Spotlight on Barolo, Barbaresco & Barbera
DAY 1 – BAROLO’S PIONEERS
Barolo is dubbed “the king of wines and wine of kings,” and today we see why. After a pick-up in Tortona, we shuttle to the Langhe (an hour’s drive). Our first destination is the Castle of Grinzane Cavour. Now a museum, this was the home of Italy’s first Prime Minister, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour. Like an Italian Thomas Jefferson, this politician was equally adept at wine and became a seminal figure in the creation of Barolo wine in the 1800s. At the museum, a film will provide an excellent historic overview and prepare us for our next tasting at the Marchesi di Barolo. It was here that Cavour’s good friend, the Marchesa Giulietta Colbert Tancredi, produced the very first Barolo. And it’s here that we’ll have our first tasting over lunch in the winery’s private dining room.
In the afternoon, the focus shifts from 19th century pioneers to 1970s winemaking radicals, namely Renato Ratti and Elio Altare. At Renato Ratti’s new state-of-the-art winery, we’ll hear his role in mapping the original historic vineyards, designing the distinctive Albeisa bottle, and revamping how Barolo is made. Then we visit his neighbor Elio Altare. Because of Altare’s then-radical innovations such as green harvest and French barrique, the winemaker was disowned by his father. But his methods have since taken hold, and Altare has been an influential mentor to the next generation of winemakers. A welcome dinner in the medieval city of Alba introduces the elegant cuisine of Piedmont. Here menus are loaded with plin (tiny meat-filled ravioli), countless renditions of risotto, meats braised in Barolo, and delectable hazelnut-and-chocolate desserts.
L, D • Hotel I Castelli
DAY 2 – BAROLO CRU
Brunate, Cannubi, Bricco Lucciani…. These are among the historic vineyard names that resonate with Barolo connoisseurs. Today we’ll taste cru Barolos from these and other star vineyards. We start at Ceretto. Located just outside of Alba, this estate was one of the hunting lodges maintained by King Carlo Alberto and his son, Vittorio Emanuele. Now it’s headquarters to Ceretto, a family that has been producing wine for 70 years and has a constellation of small-estate wineries. In addition to its Barolos and Arneis (the Langhe’s newly fashionable white), Ceretto is known for its innovative architectural commissions, such as the colorful Brunate chapel.
Then it’s back to the village of Barolo for lunch and our second tasting. Damilano controls over half of the historic Cannubi vineyard and has parcels in other prized sites, such as Liste. Yet while aiming for quality, Paolo Damilano and enologist Beppe Caviola have also prioritized value. As a result, theirs are among the best price-value Barolos around. Our third winery is on a boutique scale, but gets the big scores: Silvio Grasso. Grapegrowers since the 1920s, the Grasso family began bottling their own wines in the 1980s. Our gracious host, Marilena Grasso, will pour an array of Barberas, Barolos, and Super Piedmont blends. But most fascinating will be the side-by-side comparisons between cru and vintages. We finish up the day with dinner at a Slow Food restaurant in Alba.
B, D • Hotel I Castelli
DAY 3 – MOUNTAIN CHEESE
Founded in 1870, Aldo Conterno was the first to export Barolo to the U.S. Today, the fifth generation runs the show, adhering to a traditionalist approach to Barolo while prizing fruit and freshness. Our eloquent host Giacomo Conterno will entertain and enlighten as he walks us through the family’s Monforte estate and pours both classics (Barolo) and novelties (Super Piedmont blends). Then we head south into the Alte Langhe, the higher elevation zone of the Langhe, where hazelnut groves and pastures replace vineyards. Our destination is a cheese farm in Murazzano, a DOP area known for rounds of fresh cows’, sheep’s, and goat’s milk cheese. We’ll tour the family-run farm, where mama makes the salumi and daughter the cheese, then enjoy a buffet lunch.
Afternoon takes us to Pollenzo, a Roman town where King Carlo Alberto built another magnificent hunting lodge. Today this regal property houses a multimillion-dollar food & wine complex, opened in 2004, which includes a professional cooking school, a 4-star restaurant, and La Banca del Vino or Wine Bank. We’ll tour this archive-cum-laboratory, then continue to the town of Bra, home to the Slow Food movement. Here we’ll visit the Ascheri winery for a stand-up tasting in their public tasting room. Ascheri works with traditional grapes of the Langhe and is also experimenting with Rhone varietals Syrah and Viognier. We then return to Alba for dinner on your own.
B • Hotel I Castelli
DAY 4 – BARBARESCO
Today we head to the village of Barbaresco, on the alluvial banks of the Tanaro River. Here nebbiolo makes a more silky, elegant, perfumed wine, representing the “queen” to Barolo’s “king.” We’ll start with the Produttori del Barbaresco, one of Italy’s most highly respected cooperatives, which makes benchmark Barbaresco in a traditionalist style. We’ll hear how its 55 growers decide when to pick, how to pay, and what to bottle as a cru. We then contrast this with modernist winery, Marchesi di Gresy. Barbaresco’s oldest and largest winery in private hands, Marchesi di Gresy owns Martinenga, the only cru belonging to just one owner. Here Barbaresco sees some time in barrique, as it does at our third winery, a boutique estate such as Moccagatta or Bruno Rocca. After a brief stop back to the hotel, we’ll head to dinner in Barolo at the Brezza winery, where we’ll sample their wines in the restaurant of their B&B.
B, D • Hotel I Castelli
DAY 5 – BARBERA’S STANDARD-BEARERS
Today we focus on Barbera, Piedmont’s most widely grown grape. Until the 1980s, it was little more than a rustic table wine. But thanks to key innovators, it’s been transformed from a farmhouse quaffer to a wine of great character and finesse—another prized plum of Piedmont. The story starts at Braida, the estate of Giacomo Bologna. Now deceased, this man single-handedly revolutionized Barbera d’Asti. We’ll hear this Cinderella story and taste through the estate’s bottlings, which range from a dry frizzante Barbera to barrique-aged powerhouses. Then we head to Castagnolo Lanze, headquarters of La Spinetta. The Rivetti brothers have made succulent Barberas since 1985, but have also pioneered single-vineyard Moscato and added Barolo and Barbaresco to their portfolio, which achieved instant cult status. (In 2001, they also expanded to the Tuscan coast, founding Casanova della Spinetta.) We return to Alba for some time on your own. You can search for older Barolo vintages in well-stocked wine shops, pick up white truffles and yummy chocolate-hazelnut candies in the gourmet shops, or visit the baroque and medieval churches. Our farewell dinner will be at the Restaurant Piola, owned by the Ceretto winery.
B, L, D • Hotel I Castelli
DAY 6 – BUON VIAGGIO!
A shuttle to the Asti or Tortona train station and assistance with your travel plans. B
Milan’s Malpensa or Linate. Both have convenient airport shuttle buses to Milan’s central train station, the Stazione Centrale (50 minutes from Malpensa, 30 minutes from Linate).
Plan to land in Italy a day before the tour begins; that’s necessary to be at our starting point on time. Most people spend the preceding night in Milan. For hotel suggestions, email us or consult a good hotel search engine, such as TripAdvisor or Venere. We recommend staying either near the main train station, called the Stazione Centrale (more convenient for catching the train on Day 1), or in the historic center near the Duomo (more convenient for pre-tour sightseeing). From one area to the other, it’s about a 45-minute walk, a few stops on the subway, or a 15-minute taxi ride.
Our meeting point is the train station in Tortona [map], a small town on the rail line from Milan to Genoa. Assuming you spend the previous night in Milan, you’ll go to Milan’s Stazione Centrale and take the 9 A.M. commuter train to Tortona. (We’ll provide precise train details in your information packet.) It takes less than an hour, and we’ll meet you at the Tortona station. Please let us know if you’re coming from elsewhere or spending the previous night in Tortona. From Tortona, we shuttle to Alba (about 1 hour), where the tour gets underway.
On our final day, we’ll shuttle you to the train station of Asti [map] or Tortona by noon, depending on your travel plans.
Italian train schedule
Click here for an English-language version of TrenItalia. Be aware that the schedule is posted only several months in advance, so if you’re looking for long-range dates, try something sooner, just to get an idea of departure frequency and trip length.
Three popular destinations that are within easy reach of Piedmont are Turin (Torino), the Lake country and the Italian Riviera, including the Cinque Terre. Turin was a royal capital of the Kingdom of Piedmont and it still has a regal elegance, as well as excellent museums, cafes, and the Shroud of Turin. Because Malpensa airport is about halfway between the city of Milan and Lake Como, a pre-tour stay in Como and/or along Lake Maggiore is quite do-able. Post-tour, one could continue south to Genoa (about 60 minutes by express train). A working port city, Genoa is the birthplace of Christopher Colombus and offers a world-class aquarium, waterfront promenade (designed by architect Renzo Piano, a local son), wonderful art museums houses in 18th palaces, and a fascinating medieval section. Continue further down the coast, and you’ll reach Portofino and the Cinque Terre. Both offer hiking trails and boat excursions, while the Cinque Terre also has scuba diving and public beaches.
This is recommended to protect you from needless loss caused by last-minute cancellations, lost luggage, and more. One source is Travelex Insurance: http://www.travelexinsurance.com, (800) 228-9792 (please use our compay code: 21-0043 LDV).
When packing, check http://www.weather.com. Go to “Alba, Italy” to get a general idea of temperatures and forecast. May is spring-like, with wildflowers in full bloom. Average daytime temperatures are comfortable, in the lower 70s, but nights are still somewhat cool, averaging 50º.