Truffles, Barolo and Mountain Nebbiolo
Every time we drive back from Italy, we snake up the motorway through the narrow Val d’Aosta to the Mont Blanc tunnel, and admire the hilltop castles, old villages and vertiginous vineyards. Epic scenery, violent history and impossible vine growing - it’s a compelling mixture that makes us say we must stop next time. And we never do. Until this year, and just as well, as a long time after we had turned off the A6 going south to head east through the Alps, I finally spotted an overhead panel.
‘Tunnel de Mont Blanc ferme’.
By then we were almost in Chamonix, the alternative Frejus tunnel was hours away and we ended up wending our way through the vineyards of the very northern Rhone in Switzerland. All super pretty, but the clock was ticking, the daylight fading, rain coming and our destination seemingly getting ever further away.
Donnas vineyards perched over the town
As it was, we only got to see the Val d’Aosta up close the next morning, perched on top of a hill in a hotel-converted fortress in Bard that had been destroyed after a major siege by Napoleon. A river curled around us, the mountains squeezing the valley into a narrow pass, guarded by a fortified village and our battlements up top. No wonder Napoleon cursed it.
To get up to the hotel from the fortress car park takes four external lifts, an interesting treasure hunt in the pitch black and rain long after everything is closed with not a soul abroad. We were late for dinner, tired and stressed, but the Al Maniero restaurant in the neighbouring village was like a step back in time, heavy wood interior design, canned music from our youth and wine service from another age – the trolley, the candle, the decanter. Traditional, unhurried, unfashionable, and lovely. The white truffles were remarkably affordable, the wine list well under retail prices. I later asked the chef who came over to explain the best wines of the region and he kindly typed out a list of contacts for us, but in my ignorance, I had plumped for a Massolino 2011 Vigna Rionda, one of the most famous vineyards in Serralunga and all of Barolo. That translucent, bricky Barolo colour, some oak caramel, lots of slightly cooked red fruit, aromatic and soft though still a bit tight with some tannings hanging in there. A perfect start, and happy relaxation after the tunnel closure and endless hairpins, mountains playing hide and seek in the clouds.
There is a Roman road that you can easily walk from Bard to neighbouring Donnas which just happened to have a large sign at the entrance - ‘Cite des Vins’, which was encouraging. Crazily steep terraced vineyards were carved out of the mountainside and walled in to stop them collapsing into the valley. In town an old wooden wine press and fifteen-foot-high wine bottle stood in the car park in front of a large chalet-like building, the Donnas wine co-operative, where the most expensive old vines Nebbiolo from 2016 cost all of 20 euros, slim recompense for all the strenuous Alpine work involved.
Driving out of Donnas we crossed into Alto Piemonte and Carema, a village that reminded me of my youth when Barolo was out of my budget and Carema offered much cheaper Nebbiolo, probably back then with added rusticity and tannins struggling to ripen. But with global warming nowadays? The vineyards were supported by strange conical concrete columns with wooden pergolas on top, a few leftover bunches of grapes hanging down above your head. Here the co-op was shut for lunch, but do these mountain wines offer the best value Nebbiolo these days as prices in Valtellina begin to climb? More research required, but for now we had a dinner date in Monforte d’Alba so sadly we needed to press on.
Of the towns to stay in, Barolo is of course the biggest, but sits more down in the valley. La Morra is high up on top, with wonderful views across the vineyards of Barolo towards Castiglione Falleto and in the distance Serralunga, and to the west you have the Alps and the perfect triangular shape of MonViso jutting out imperiously, snowclad even in October. Both can be crowded and touristy. Novello is really perched on a mountain top with a fabulous view of the Alps and the vineyards towards Monforte, but it’s the least wine-tourism developed, sleepy, older, with a wonderful Romanesque church and imposing castle. Monforte has the views to the Alps, a little old village up the top of a puffingly steep hill and enough restaurants within walking distance to keep you happy. As well as plenty of good wine bars and wine shops…
Dinner at the historic Trattoria della Posta was again inflected with an unchanging wood panelled interior, but this time with more pompous aspiration. Waiters in uniform, smart tassels on the napkins, nice china, but to my amusement (& horror) the first thing to arrive was the water menu. Badoit at 10 euros a pop anyone? We waited. And waited, and waited. Eventually, irritation mounting, I asked for the wine list. No, we had to a) chose the water b) eventually get the menu c) finally order the food and then, only then, the sacred sommelier would deign to give us the wine list.
After fifty minutes had ticked by without anything other than over-priced water, the sommelier turned up and I was as they say, fit to kill. But the list was extensive, good and, again, well below retail prices, and I was lusting over the now cult star Burlotto who was on the list at well under half price. But the sommelier demurred – great wine, impressive label but 2017? Way too young. If we wanted elegance, he suggested a 2018 Enzo Boglietto Brunate, the famed vineyard in La Morra (and a bit over the border in Barolo). Unintuitively a year younger, but a much lighter vintage that was very approachable now. It was half the price of the Burlotto.
And he was right. It poured out a beautiful transparent ruby red, a pinot colour, and the nose did a pretty good job of Chambolle-Musigny meets Nebbiolo too, a summer flowerbed coupled with a basket of red fruits. Soft, not too heavy, touch of Nebbiolo almonds and tickle of tannins. We were so happy I rushed off in search of the 2019 to put into the cellar. Now that is what a real sommelier should be like, thank you! But please get your service in normal order.
If the weather permits, one of the great joys of visiting the region is not only the food and wine, but the ability to walk through the vineyards from village to village, nowadays all clearly signposted and easy to follow. If you want to try even to start to understand the wines, the geography and the complexity, you have to put on your walking boots and grab a map. By the way Barolo has a wonderful topological vineyard map which as far as I know is unique. All the MGA vineyards in colour and shaped relief. Brilliant.
Burgundy is the home of ‘terroir’, that rather nebulous Holy Grail that includes location, slope/drainage, exposition/shade, geology/soil etc. It is a patchwork quilt of ‘climats’, named vineyards up and down the slope. But compared to Barolo it’s a piece of cake, basically one long ridge facing eastish (as in Cote d’Or, ie orient, not ‘gold’). Go to Barolo and yes you have a single red grape variety (for Barolo, I’m not talking Barbera or Dolcetto here) and predominantly limestone/clay soils, so for lovers of Burgundy and pinot noir who have given up due to the prices, Barolo offers many similarities. But instead of one extended ridge you have at least 3 valleys that run in different directions, a multiplicity of hills and vineyards on all sorts of inclines and facing in every direction of the compass. Before you even consider the soil underneath, the endless slopes and expositions offers a major headache of complexity. Even after several visits I struggle to get my points of the compass straight and remember which village is where, the sites of the top vineyards, the endless folds and contours of the valleys.
Morning light seen from Bussia, Monforte
And if the sun sets a blazing orange behind Novello, La Morra and MonViso, and/or if the autumn colours turn the Nebbiolo leaves to a burnished yellow and the Barbera to ruby scarlet, you have a picture postcard of beauty to contemplate. In the mornings the light can be special, hilltop villages seemingly floating in clouds of mist, the Alps brightly spotlit. On top of Monforte, you can see the effects of the flight from Burgundy to Barolo, the influx of money, the old, dilapidated houses now newly refurbished and prettily painted in vibrant colours, chic restaurants and hotels popping up. For the moment it’s not spoiled, and the cash is helping breathe life back into what I guess was a pretty moribund place just a few decades ago. It’s difficult to imagine the Barolo of the last century, just a blink away, when crops such as chickpeas were grown to make a living in now famous vineyards like Rocche d’Annunziata rather than vines. There was almost no local wine to drink in the few places to eat, and much of it was badly made with no hygiene, no investment and substandard quality. It really is a region reborn in the last 30 years or so. Now there are several Michelin starred restaurants willing to part you from a lot of your savings. But, for the moment, apart from a dozen or so star/cult wineries, it remains pretty much affordable for top class red wine that brings complexity and ageability. Compared to modern Burgundy, it’s a major relief.
Old Monforte atop the hill
We are not really into rushing about trying to visit lots of wineries – the best ones will not sell you a drop, tasting from tank or barrel is (for me) very difficult as the wines are so young and unfinished, and I don’t really need to see another set of nice new stainless-steel tanks and pretty casks. And on your fourth or fifth visit of the day tasting young tannic wines that stain your teeth purple, do you really appreciate the nuances anymore? We were lucky to visit the likes of both Mascarellos and Rinaldi before they became superstars, and I’m not really interested in trying again (even if they did say yes which I rather doubt). So for us, a couple of more relaxed visits where we can chat and learn are enough (and where the wines remain affordable and very good).
But our morning visit did indeed link back to our first trip a decade ago when we enjoyed the now totally unaffordable Bartolo (Maria Teresa) Mascarello, marvellous traditional wines, just one Barolo made from various vineyard designations, the epitome of elegance. The man who had conducted the tasting, Alan Manley, was an American and we struck up a bit of correspondence thereafter. Roll the clock forward and I was in my favourite Enoteca du Midi in Paris asking if there was any good, traditional Barolo that I could still afford. He suggested Margherita Otto, a cantina I’d never heard of. They only produced a Langhe Nebbiolo and a Barolo, no single vineyards, just like Maria Teresa. I bought the wine, went home, and surfed the net to know more. And whom did I find?
Alan had driven back from Turin and arrived just as we did. He opened his garage and there were, yes, gleaming tanks and a few nice newish botti. He had warned me that he had no wine to sell but had somehow remembered us from a decade ago and very kindly invited us to visit (and there were 6 of us).
Sometimes you meet people with an unusual passion and drive which leads to a rather fabulous story, in the true sense of the phrase. He’d been in the trade in Colorado; fallen in love with the Langhe; worked for a bunch of big names such as Elio Altare (a renowned ‘modernist’ who took a chainsaw to his father’s dirty old barrels), Luciano Sandrone and MT Mascarello; started up in 2005 renting a small parcel of vines and making a bit of wine for home consumption in the converted stable underneath his apartment in the main square of Monforte; managed to rent a bit more and had to get official and regulated, finally setting up a small commercial winery just 8 years ago.
The full story of course you need to hear from him, but the passion shines through the wines as does the traditional technique. We learned the critical difference between a blend of vineyards, fermented separately and then mixed/blended after tasting, and an old school assemblage when all the different vineyards’ grapes are fermented together. I am guessing a lot of influence from Mascarello and who can say better than that in Barolo? The wines have a clarity, a purity and elegance that certainly hints at that school. And if you want a lesson in the different shapes, forests and toasts of oak barrels, come here. Fascinating.
Across the valley in La Morra, Trediberri has only a few years’ start on Alan, but some of the vineyards were in the family for years (alongside the chickpeas). We met father and son at work, stood in the slightly amphitheatrical bowl of Roche d’Annunziata (MTM’s grapes behind us but of course assembled into her Barolo, no Rocche label here), the famed plots of Voerzio and Accomasso over there, the sun right in front, looking across another valley to Castiglione and its prized Monprivato vineyard (of the other, Giuseppe, Mascarello fame). At Trediberri they have Rocche and on the other side of La Morra, to the southwest, close to the Tanaro river (which curls around under Verduno and then to the town of Barbaresco) the vineyard of Berri, facing the Alps behind the town and hill. In a complicated weather year like 2023, the difference in climatic conditions and crop is huge.
Nick is a larger-than-life character with the same passion and honesty and an amazing amount of energy. We pitched up at precisely the wrong moment, another major lesson to learn. In Barolo you must declare the number of hectolitres for each wine denomination by the end of October, and you need to get it right, both economically and because of subsequent controls. But just how much wine will you have and how much ‘gross lees’ otherwise known as purple gunk full of sediments, pips, a few skins and assorted stuff – it looks like soup. Father and son were debating how much heavy sediment would be removed, and how then to top up the tank and with what. Wine was being pumped in all directions and we were invited to see the gunk as it settled, as well as trying the wines in cask and in tank, including one with an experimental submerged cap. Nick insisted that to understand the wine we need to see it at all stages, from cradle to grave. He’s right. Don’t just pitch up and taste the finished product in bottle with no idea how or why it got there.
The end effect, apart from a certain level of chaos and the feeling that we really shouldn’t be there bothering them, despite Nick’s insistence, was that the old adage that ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ is utter and complete drivel. No, it is not! Grapes are made in the vineyard and that’s it. Yes, you cannot make good wine with bad grapes but even with the finest bunches you can make appalling wine. The number of hurdles to surmount and decisions to take is endless, a mass of adjustments each of which adds or subtracts nuances from the finished product which we drink without realising just how much thought, stress and care went into creating it. The farming is only half of the process, producing the raw materials. The construction happens in the winery thereafter, and ‘non- interventionist’ does not mean that you do nothing unless you want vinegar. There is so much romanticised, naïve rubbish written! Wine is not made in the vineyard and winemakers do not just sit back and let the terroir miraculously ferment and appear in bottle.
I am no oenologist, but let’s just list a few questions to give you an idea: stainless steel/cement or wood?; temperature controlled or not?; cold soak?; for how long?; pump over, punch down, submerged cap?; stems?; how much sulphur and when?; how many rackings?; type, shape, size of barrel/cask?; or indeed egg, glass demijohn, botti or barrique? How long in cask? Blended, assembled or single vineyards? The list goes on, but even the answers to those questions will totally alter your finished wine, regardless of how good the initial grapes were.
I remember David Croix in Beaune once serving us two wines. One was impressive, but tight and austere, obviously needing a lot of time. The other was much softer, rounder and more open. He asked what we thought they were.
Who knows? Maybe a Volnay, something softer, gentler and then something sterner and tighter, a Gevrey perhaps? Well no. The stern one was actually a Volnay. And so was the softer. In fact the exact same wine but in different sized casks. The difference was purely the effect on the size of the barrel and the volume of wine to the wood surface.
Every time I visit a serious winemaker and can discuss, I realise how little I know, how risky is their business and just how complicated it is to make fine wine year in year out. I think we tend to forget that when we glibly open a bottle and pronounce judgement sitting comfortably in our living room. And that’s without thinking of the climate and the endless threats of drought, flood, hail, freeze and sunburn plus disease, rot, phylloxera, and other pests…
Interestingly after these two visits and one in Beaune on the way home, all 3 talked about whether to use any stems or not, depending on the vintage and individual plot, as well as the practice of letting the apex of the vines continue to grow and then looping them back and tying them down. No more neatly cropped/topped rows of wines in the summer. Leaving the growth doesn’t stress the vine with having its extremities lopped off, allows more canopy cover and shade if it’s sunny and reduces growth in that if you prune on top, you just push the plant to bush out, which then requires further attention later. More questioning. Plus experiments with submerged caps, different sized barrels and glass demijohns (for white in Beaune). Alan had a couple of barriques in his garage (shock horror!) which I guessed were there purely for size (first to fit into a limited space, secondly because a small winery can’t always fill large botti, and you can’t leave a barrel half full). He asked us which wine that we had tasted we thought had been in barrique for a period and we all got it wrong. No it wasn’t the 2019 Barolo, it was the Langhe. Wrong again.
The debate as to whether to trim or not is becoming quite a current issue. In Beaune David Croix was trying it (untrimmed) in the Bressandes vineyard, and the wine from cask was excellent. Charles Lachaux does it to huge acclaim only outstretched by the enormous prices, and I now see the odd row of much higher staked vines all over Burgundy and even in Barolo. Coincidentally, I came across this, which comes from the High Priestess of biodynamics, probably the most expensive wine producer in the world and I think the precursor of the non-trimming ‘movement’, Mme Lalou Bize-Leroy:
‘Just like a protective mother, vines are already protecting the next vintage while still in the present. Since the June flowering its terminal buds have been preparing the following harvest opening out in March, 9 months later. Clipping 4 or 5 times a year, sometimes more is nothing but mutilating the vine. Trimming its terminal buds, whose role is to give life the next year is a serious shock that runs counter to life. In 1999 we stopped trimming the vines altogether.’
I will leave out the references to ‘cosmic light’, but this makes feet on the ground sense? Alan was also very instructive taking about pruning this year’s, and the next one’s canes. But given the worldwide success of Leroy wines and stratospheric prices, why has it taken 20+ years to have anyone else follow the trend? I’d be very interested to learn more.
We had one other sommelier moment, in the ultra-cool Italian designed Casa della Saracca, (a modern restaurant built inside an ancient tower). The first 3 wines I ordered off the list ended up being sold out, so eventually an embarrassed sommelier asked me to go down with him into the cellar. He pointed to Tiziano Grasso whom I presumed to be the son of well-known Silvio Grasso in La Morra. No, this was a much smaller family winery in Serrralunga, and the 2014 – another difficult vintage, was lovely now. If I didn’t like it, we could choose something else, and you can’t say fairer than that. And, again, spot on – a seamless floral/fruity grace with just a prickle of Nebbiolo tannin. That too now graces my cellar (at the price of a decent village Burgundy).
The prices of wines on the restaurants here is often a pleasure, none of the 3 times marks ups we see so often in UK and France. Even the big names often appear for half the cost that I could buy them for, or less. The shops too seem in general (cult wines apart) to be fair. Sadly, when we saw the price of Alan’s wines in London their distributor had more than doubled the price, which I find disgraceful. They are making more money than the winemaker and what risks do they take and what skill do they have other than marketing? Just greed and taking advantage of a consumer who wants something in small production.
But I should end on a high note. A decade ago, Elena Mascarello had contacted a real trifolau for us, a real truffle hunter with a private forest, restaurant and love of Barolo. To watch man and dog work in such unison is uplifting, the musical patter of falling leaves as the breeze whispers between the rows of trees, the excitement of the hunt, the frenzy of the dog as he sniffs gold and starts frantically to dig. And then, best of all, the aromatic intensity of a white truffle, a plate of the local egg-heavy tajarin pasta and, of course, a glass of Barolo, in this case a Bovio Gattera from 2013, a really good value wine now pretty much ready, just the first hints of meatiness backing up the fruit. But then this time I didn’t even look at the wine list, but merely asked him what we should drink…
An Appendix – The Best Places to Eat & Drink in Monforte d’Alba
This is not a tourist guide, and I am not a restaurant critic, but I thought I could pass on a few suggestions from our experience of where to eat, drink and be merry in Monforte as we have been there a good few times. We are looking for authentic local food and good value well-chosen wine lists, not big labels or posh dining. There are now several Michelin starred ‘fine dining’ places popping up, but I can’t afford them and frankly am not interested in eating terribly clever, trendy or Frenchified haute cuisine in Piemonte. Give me a tasty vitello tonnato, guincale (veal cheeks) and – of course – the thin, eggy local pasta tajarin with local meat sauce (sausages from Bra) or, holy of holies, freshly grated white truffles. Tajarin con tartuffi… bliss.
Vinoland is a good wine shop and bar on the main square. Next to it is the Caffe Rocca, another good place for coffee, top class pasta, rice etc as well as a fine wine shop. Both have older vintages available too. It’s easy to load up the car boot here without walking more than a few metres!
Across the way is Grappolo d’Oro, a hotel with good coffee and amazingly tasty croissants (and we’ve lived in France over 30 years!).
Just next door to Vinoland up the (very steep) hill is a tiny hazelnut shop. And if you are in Caffe Rocca and see Giovanni Cogno’s hazelnut biscuits, buy them (in the plural!).
I can’t really comment on the Barolo Bar as I’ve not been there except for a nice lunch, but it’s always busy (& noisy!).
So, eating dinner… as said, we ignore the starry places, and in general we like to be in town where we can easily walk (safely).
Osteria dei Catari: simple local food and very good value, plus some amusing if slightly odd murals. Nice wine list and probably the least costly truffles.
Osteria la Salita: recommended by sommeliers, good food and serious wine list with older vintages too. The Mauro Veglio Barolos offer amazing value for mature wines (2004, 1999…).
Case della Saracca: such clever design, built inside an ancient tower, multi-level, various little rooms. Again, food and wine very good, sommelier too.
Out of town (5 minutes’ drive) is Trattoria della Posta: a bit more like an old school hotel, large dining room, a lot of wood, slightly odd ideas about service and (I suspect) being classy, but the food and wine (& sommelier) is seriously good, just don’t arrive at 8pm when everyone else does unless you want a very long wait with nothing but the water menu…
Also out of town in is La Coccinella where we have had good value truffles…
There are some smarter new hotels in town and some old established ones like Felicin, though I find dining there a bit too stuffy and heavy, though it’s very well known (and the rooms have lovely balconies overlooking the Alps). And the fancier newer places tend to carry fancier décor and prices which doesn’t particularly interest me personally.
What really does interest me is that all of the above places will serve you a broad selection of Barolo from across the region (plus Barbera, Langhe Nebbiolo, local whites etc) at often less than retail price and sometimes with several vintages available. If only the French (& UK) would do the same rather than the ludicrous wine price mark ups they generally insist upon (with a few blessed exceptions in Burgundy).
And though it’s not in Monforte but in Barolo (town), La Vite Turchese wine bar offers simple food (cheese/charcuterie etc), a wine shop and, above all, the chance to have a tasting across villages. We often walk over there for a light lunch and will order glasses (or even half glasses) of a number of the villages, and they will chat to you about where the wines come from, the geology and the differences between, say, Barolo, La Morra, Serralunga and Verduno… or traditional versus more modern style… it’s a great way to taste your way around the Langhe and learn a lot without having to buy a load of full bottles.
All in all, even now you can buy and taste a lot of good Barolo without breaking the bank. Finally, if you want to walk to a pretty hilltop village go to Novello (and walk past the famed Ravera vineyard). And whatever you do, I’d advise you to eat the glorious truffles in situ in the local restaurants. If you buy them, you need to get them from a real trifolau (truffle hunter) and know that they are super fresh. Bringing them home is often an expensive disaster – they are delicate and lose flavour easily and rapidly, so the heady truffle you sniffed with such anticipation can end up very sotto voce at home, and you a hundred or more euros less well off…
But the combination is truly an orgy for the senses. A white truffle must be the most aromatic of foodstuffs and Nebbiolo competes with Pinot Noir in the aroma stakes, so put the two together and you are in for a treat. Just go for a more mature and elegant Barolo, not a 15% blockbuster. Our best memory was of a 2004 Bartolo Mascarello (when you didn’t need an offshore bank account to fund it) and a white truffle grated over a plate of tajarin by the trifolau who found it. You can keep your fancy Michelin stars – this may be ‘simple’ food, but it’s glorious.