The experience of driving for the very first time through Le Langhe, a hilly, Unesco-protected region between Cuneo and Asti, is one I won’t ever forget. I felt overwhelmed — miles of rolling hills elegantly combed by grapevines as far as the eye can see; a noble landscape punctuated by postcard-pretty medieval villages that have given their names to some of Italy’s finest red wines.
The art of winemaking here goes back to pre-Roman times. The first traces of vine pollen, that we know of, date to the 5th century BC, when the area was a place of contact and trade between the Etruscans and the Celts. Yet it’s not all about tradition. On the contrary, I cannot avoid feeling a deep sense of innovation.
I am in the Monsordo Bernardina estate of the Ceretto family — one of Italy’s best-known wine producers — just a stone’s throw from the city of Alba. I am staring at the Acino — literally ‘the grape’ — a large, transparent bubble on an oak platform dramatically suspended over the vineyards below.
Inside, visitors are sipping Barolo, looking at the landscape below them. It is an almost futuristic image. I cannot help thinking this is how people in centuries to come will drink wine.
The most striking sign of innovation is not the Acino, though. Rather, it is the way the land is being managed, which reflects a perfect balance between man and nature. Federico Ceretto sounds like a visionary: “Wines once represented the winemaker they came from; nowadays they should rather reflect the vineyard itself.
We want to achieve a result that is as close as possible to nature. Making wine the way you want it to be means forcing nature. We want the opposite, that is: letting nature express itself, more than anything else.”
ALL ABOUT AUTHENTICITY
This sense of harmony is not just about the relationship between man and nature. Art is a natural consequence. My next stop is a breathtaking construction called the Barolo Chapel (aka Cappella delle Brunate, Cappella del Barolo), whose bright colours stand out against the green of the surrounding vineyards. Despite being called a ‘chapel’, it’s never been consecrated. Built in 1914 as a shelter for people working in the nearby fields, in 1999 it underwent a radical transformation which involved artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett. (Plus several barrels of paint, of course.)
Federico, whose family was behind the renovation project, enthusiastically recalls those days: “It wasn’t your usual restoration. It was rather an experiment to celebrate contemporary art within the landscape. The Langhe is a favourite with artists and architects. Many of them have left their trademark here several times. Sol LeWitt did not ask for money for his work. He decided to be paid in Barolo wine — a bottle was delivered to his place every Sunday for the rest of his life. This has nothing to do with gallerists, brokers or businessman. This is all about the magic of our land. It’s all about authenticity.”
Walking and climbing is the best way to work up an appetite, and Alba is my destination for lunch. Saying I am in ‘foodie heaven’ is an understatement. Food is a very serious affair here, from the production on an industrial scale (Nutella, the world’s most delicious hazelnut spread, was born here, and so were Kinder eggs) to the refined products of those posh food stores all along the central Via Maestra.
I am quite used to this — food has been the constant topic of conversation during most of my meals with my Albese friends. They can sit around a table for hours and talk about nothing but food, going into the smallest details. My choice for the day is La Piola restaurant, in the same square of the 12th-century Duomo. Raw veal tartare takes the lion’s share, followed by a customary portion of vitello tonnato — slices of roasted veal with tuna fish mayo. Meat is one of the main ingredients of any menu — particularly the very tender Fassona variety, which comes from anaemic cows and has a lighter colour. It’s so good it can even be eaten raw — just add salt, oil, pepper and lemon.
THE LAND OF EXCELLENCE
“When it comes to food, tradition is something you perceive from the moment you set food in the region,” explains Dennis Panzeri, chef at La Piola.
“We want to make sure that visitors bring back an indelible memory of their meals here, be it the taste of their slice of cake or the way they were greeted and served.”
After all, the Langhe region is where the Slow Food movement was born, back in 1986, thanks to food and wine journalist Carlo Petrini, in reaction to the fast food way of life eroding Italy’s culinary tradition. This is also where local entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti founded the upmarket food hall chain Eataly, which now counts 27 stores in the world.
If that wasn’t enough, nine restaurants in the area have been awarded Michelin stars, including Alba’s Piazza Duomo, just upstairs from La Piola, where chef Enrico Crippa serves unforgettable three-starred meals.
Last but not least, this is the land of the tartufo bianco – the famous white truffle is quite a local obsession. The precious tuber adds its distinctive taste to anything from a fresh egg pasta like tajarin to Fassona beef tartare.
It is celebrated every autumn during the world’s oldest truffle fair, where truffles are solemnly auctioned in the finely decorate Hall of Masks of the Grinzane Cavour castle.
Beyond Alba is a string of breathtakingly beautiful little towns, from the medieval Monforte, with its open air auditorium and its maze of narrow alleys, to Serralunga and its 14th-century fortress; from Barbaresco and its medieval tower boasting a superb view all the way to the Alps – to Neive, considered one of the most beautiful boroughs of Italy, and the birthplace of Romano Levi, of grappa fame.
I still have some time to hit the village of Barolo. Its imposing castle houses the WiMu – acronym for the Wine Museum – another perfect example of how innovative this slice of Italy is. Designed by Francois Confino, the same man behind the National Cinema Museum in Turin and the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, it is a quirky and colourful succession of installations, from the Gods that welcome you into a red-lit wine Olympus to an ever-rolling moon and a pedal-actioned bench symbolising the carousel of the seasons. The castle also houses the Enoteca Regionale, perfect for tasting a broad selection of the region’s wines – and to buy a few to bring back home.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
PIAZZA DUOMO – Piazza Risorgirnento, 4
Treat yourself to dinner in Alba’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, run by chef Enrico Crippa. Book well in advance. If there are no tables, stop downstairs at La Piola, where Dennis Panzeri will not disappoint.
OSTERIA DEI SOGNATORI – Via Macrino, 8
Always in Alba, try the vitello tommato antipasto at Osteria dei Sognatori.
OSTERIA DA GEMMA – Via Marconi, 6
If you are passing by the village of Roddino, head straight to Gemma to sample the best fresh, homemade pasta of the area.
PALAS CEREQUIO – Borgata Cerequio, La Morra
There is no shortage of charming accommodation in the Langhe. For luxurious, unsurpassed quality, hit the Palas Cerequio, which stands right in the heart of a Barolo vineyard.
BAROLO ROOMS – Piazza Castello, 3
For a more budget-conscious stay, check out the recently restored Barolo Rooms. Situated in front of the imposing Barolo castle, they offer two rooms and a suite furnished in modern style.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
ARRANGE TO VISIT A WINEMAKER – Piazza Risorgirnento, 2
When in the Langhe, visiting a winemaker is a must. The easiest way is to get some help from Piemonte On Wine in Alba, who offer a free service to book your visit.
THE MUSEUMS OF BAROLO – Piazza Falletti, Barolo
TAKE A RIDE IN A BALLOON – Via Trinita, 50, Bene Vagienna
An excellent way to get a sense of the region and its topography is to see it all from on high.
The Langhe region is less than two hours’ drive from Milan Malpensa airport. There is no direct line connecting Milan to Alba, so if you want to travel by train you’ll have to board a Malpensa express to Milan Centrale first. From there, take a high-speed Frecciarossa train to Turin Porta Susa, then transfer on train to Bra and finally a local one to Alba. All this will take little over three hours.