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The enchanted land of Italy’s great red wines

Typical vine-carpeted Langhe lanscape

Typical vine-carpeted Langhe lanscape

A long drive of nearly 200 kilometres took us all the way from Bergamo airport across most of the Po valley through four successive motorways. When we reached our agritourism – nestled among the hills south of Asti – it was almost dusk and we were as hungry as wolves.

After visiting our rooms, we jumped back into our nine-seater and headed a few kilometres further south into a small village called Costigliole d’Asti, where our agritourism hostess Kirsten had booked us a nice and cosy enoteca, called Café Roma, for our first dinner.

The author and his wife Anna with Costigliole d’Asti in the background.The author and his wife Anna with Costigliole d’Asti in the background.

Gino and Anna Rossi, the owners, reserved for us a long table under a beautiful red brick, barrel-vaulted hall and served us a hearty dinner worthy of Italian fame as the gastronomic gurus of the area.

Now I am not usually an admirer of Barbera, but I have to admit that Gino’s Barbera d’Asti was pure silk and tasted like nectar. And since all the group, especially the women, agreed about this, Gino was thoroughly pleased. Well, he was playing on home turf for this part of Italy (called the Astigiano) is Barbera country per eccellenza.

The next morning, as we drove slowly and expectantly round the last bend of Via Alba and beheld the Castello of Barolo, rising out of the vineyards on a hill, with its borgo clustered around it like a hen’s brood, all eight of us started clapping and cheering with joy.

For this was the most beautiful sight we had seen yet. We parked in the town’s outer car park, which, luckily for us, was hosting a jaw-dropping raduno of vintage classic Alfa-Romeos. We then walked briskly into this small, picturesque village and lunched in a small enoteca called Barolofriends, right in front of the castle. Luckily, I had booked this particular pranzo from Malta with a simple e-mail, for the place was popular and most tables were being snapped up very quickly.

My primo of lingua di vitello – roasted tongue of veal with porcini mushrooms and animelle (sweetbreads, in English, are small lymphoid growths around the pulmonary tract of cows and calves, similar to tonsils, served fried and a delicacy of Italian regional cuisine) – was simply mouthwatering but the secondo – Stinco di Vitello (veal shank served in its own Barolo reduction with polenta) was unforgettable. My wife and friends had tajarin (pasta typical of the Piedmont region), ravioli, more lingua and more stincos.

Gino’s Barbera d’Asti was pure silk and tasted like nectar

But the real stars of the show here were the wines, all invariably full-bodied – silky-smooth Barolos of the highest quality, to be expected from a wine that is described as ‘The king of wines and the wine of kings’.

In our jolly mood, half-drunk with beauty and grape nectar, we next drove into the very heartland of the world famous Langhe (a Unesco World Heritage site stretching south of Alba, roughly 45 km southeast of Turin), a veritable picture-perfect landscape of rolling hills carpeted with vines of the ubiquitous Nebbiolo grape. Other small, quaint towns awaited us: Monforte d’Alba and, especially, Serralunga d’Alba with its spectacular castello.

In four full days we also drove up to La Morra, Barbaresco, Neive and finally Grinzane Cavour, with its towering, red brick castle, once the residence of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, first prime minister and mastermind of a united Italy way back in the 1860s.

There was only one disappointment: the famous white atruffle of Alba, unique in all Italy, was nowhere to be had. Every restaurant, every enoteca we went to, simply declined to serve us tartufo bianco. The main cause of this near ‘tragedy’ was the lack of rainfall during September.

We were here primarily for the yearly Sagra del Tartufo Bianco and, like true colossal sfigati (losers), we were left roaming around for the elusive tuber like headless chickens.

Nonetheless, this area of northern Italy still regaled us with breathtaking, magical landscapes of rolling hills carpeted with vines stretching infinitely on every side.

Robert and Anna with a group of friends amid the vines near Barolo.Robert and Anna with a group of friends amid the vines near Barolo.

All roads in this region lead ultimately to Alba, the mother hen of Langhe, a city which, despite modern, non-descript apartment blocks on its periferia, still possesses a historical centre of decent proportions and a discreet historical beauty.

We managed to go there three times in as many days. The Duomo has an impressive red brick, three-partite façade in a singular north Italian Romanesque style. Facing it is Piazza Risorgimento, and adjoining Via Cavour, with three still standing medieval towers – an impressive area which for two days running held a sort of Notte Bianca or Baccanale with food stalls offering typical Piemontese fare and games of all sorts run by extras in colourful medieval costumes.

However, there were too many crowds for my liking, and this world-renowned Sagra, unfortunately, is being overrun by its own popularity.

One last great satisfaction we had was visiting the small, sleepy village of Barbaresco and tasting its world-famous red wine in two private cellars (cantine) right in the shadow of the village tower, which we climbed for a glorious 360-degree panoramic vista of all the surrounding countryside.

This was a happy invigorating break shared with dear wine-loving friends. As I feel hooked on to these wine and food-tasting holidays, hopefully more of them will happen in the future. Let’s see: Burgundy, Tuscany (did that!)… Bordeaux? Perhaps.

tabertu@maltanet.net

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