How to Enjoy Your Hard-earned Fees: Exploring Barolo, Italy

by Suzanne Hoffman on July 9, 2012

Last month I wrote about the regulatory obstacle course wine producers and importers have to navigate to sell their product in Colorado.  In deciding what to write this month, I thought perhaps I’d give some suggestions on how my colleagues can spend their hard-earned fees on a relaxing gastronomic trip to Piemonte, Italy, the source of many of the wineries I once represented as a federal importer.

For more than two decades, we lived in central Europe and enjoyed the oenological pleasures of several wine regions. Our home in Valais, Switzerland, gave us a front row seat to the beautiful Swiss wines of the Rhone Valley.  The Romans planted grapes in Valais’ optimal microclimate more than 2,000 years ago. Many of today’s generation of winemakers trained abroad at UC Davis or in Australia and Argentina to bring to Switzerland New World vinification and marketing ideas, turning Valais into an important, albeit small, wine region.

From Valais, Burgundy (Bourgogne) was easily accessible for a weekend getaway.  From Dijon to the south of Beaune, the vineyards and cuisine of the Côte d’Or provided an escape from the pressures of the workweek in Zurich.

But our favorite region is Piemonte, a little over four hours from Zurich.  Whether recuperating from a long business trip or to find gastronomic solace during the scary weeks after 9/11, Piemonte was a refuge we sought several times a year.  Political discussions were banished in favor of spirited discourses about all things epicurean. What a delight when the most controversial discussions were on wine guide ratings and the suspicions some producers harbor about them.

Most Americans flock to Tuscany, but in my opinion, the noble wines of this province in northwestern Italy offer a greater variety and higher quality. Increasingly Alba, Barbaresco, and Barolo are drawing Americans who have discovered there is much more to this region than the vaunted tartufo bianci (white truffles) of the late autumn.

This month I’ll take you to the Barolo appellation in the western part of the Langhe region of Piemonte.

Just above Barolo, in the village of Virgne with its beautiful vineyards planted in soil full of fossils, Aldo and Milena Vajra have built a world-class winery, G. D. Vajra.  Their love of and reverence for the land they farm is present in the wines they produce.  Even the inox room has an ethereal, heavenly feel to it thanks to blue tinted stain glass windows that bring the outside to the inside by design.  The two oldest Vajra offspring, Giuseppe, and daughter Francesca, are well on their way to becoming stars of Piemonte’s next generation of winemakers.

The Vajra portfolio includes Barolo, Freisa, Riesling (a beautiful Italian incarnation of this German grape), Barbera d’Alba, Moscato, and Chinato, to name a few.  From their royal Barolo Bricco delle Viole to their simple Barbera d’Alba, the Vajra wines are beautiful representations of the diversity of Piemonte’s wines.  Newly married Giuseppe Vajra is now running the family’s latest venture in nearby Serrelunga, where he is producing Chardonnay and Barolo, among others.

After enjoying a morning visit to the Vajra winery where every stranger quickly becomes a friend, make your way down the hill to Barolo for a lovely lunch at La Cantinetta, just off the square on the main road through town.

Brothers Maurilio and Paolo Chiappetto own and run this little gem.  Maurilio – who is usually is sporting a Deltetto apron – is in the front of the house welcoming you, taking your order, serving you food and wine, and taking your payment, which is incredibly reasonable considering the quality.  Paolo is in the back of the house no doubt working magic in their tiny kitchen. I think in nearly 13 years I’ve only seen him once.

Do not accept a menu. Do as most do in these small restaurants; just let them bring on the food.  If you are in the mood for a big lunch, which I recommend to be your main meal of the day in Piemonte, go for all the courses.  You can also just tell Maurilio, who speaks English, that you only want such-and-such course.  Try at least the antipasti, primi (pasta and risotto), and docli.  You will have a parade of traditional Piemontese dishes such as tuna stuffed sweet peppers, Russian salad, carne cruda (Fassone veal tartare), agnolotti (a family specialty), and risotto with porcini.  I’m hungry just writing about it.

So there’s a little taste of Piemonte to get you thinking about a trip this autumn, one of the best times of the year.  We’ll discuss other appellations to visit and the best lodgings next month.  In the meantime, if you’re hankering for some great Mediterranean cuisine, but without the hassles of the TSA, checkout Olivea in Denver.  It’s a great way to treat yourself.

For more information, email me at primivini@gmail.com.

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