“The vineyard landscapes of Langhe…offer panoramas of carefully cultivated hillsides, following ancient land divisions punctuated with buildings that lend structure to the visual space: hilltop villages, castles, Romanesque churches, farms, ciabots, cellars and storehouses for cellaring and for the commercial distribution of the wine in the small towns and larger towns on the margins of the vineyards”. From: UNESCO World Heritage Centre 1992-2016
When planning and thinking about our upcoming visit to Italy, if food and wine weren’t at the top of the list of things I was most excited about, I was having a really bad day. I wanted to avoid high tourist areas and concentrate on less traveled regions that were highly recommended by people who know good food and fine wine.
We took the TGV train from Orange in Provence to Torino in northwestern Italy, rented a spiffy new Alfa Romeo (with an out-of-date portable Galvin GPS but more about that later) and headed south into Piemonte.The name – Piemonte – is a Medieval Latin term Pedemontium, meaning “at the foot of the mountains.” The aptly named region lies at the foot of the Alps.
We drove to the province of Cuneo in the west-central part of Piemonte. It is one of Italy’s viticultural meccas. A hilly area within Cuneo runs south and east of the Tanaro River and is known as the Langhe. The Langhe was recently placed on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List and includes the cities of Alba and Bra along with the tiny communes of Barolo, La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, and Barbaresco. It is world famous for Barolo and Barbaresco wines.
My mom and dad were essentially “teetotalers.” There was nothing alcoholic in our house except some weird kind of sherry purchased from the state ABC store. I am not talking about Tío Pepe or La Ina here – this was vile stuff! For some reason unbeknownst to me, they used sherry to season their annual production of Christmas fruitcakes. I was a ten-year-old, nosy, precocious kid when I pilfered my first taste. I took one sip of the sherry and was convinced that God was punishing me right there on the spot! It felt like liquid fire had burned a gaping hole down my throat and into my stomach. I no longer had any sensation past my lips except fire. I staggered to the bathroom mirror and was tearfully relieved to see no visible damage.
It’s a long way from cut-rate sherry to Barolo but happily, we were there.
Our tour of the Langhe in Piemonte included a goodly amount of exploring to better understand what made the region so special. When racing my rented Alfa Romeo around curvy winding roads, I had no trouble imagining I was driving the Mille Miglia. Actually, I did some Solo I and Solo II sports car racing in my younger days – much younger.
I raced a Fiat Abarth 1000 OT Spyder and was getting pretty good until we had our first child. Karel decided that my racing days were over. I didn’t argue – too much.
We often got lost (there’s the pesky Galvin GPS I mentioned earlier) searching out a romantic mountaintop village with the requisite medieval castle or church. Each new village seemed more beautiful than the last.
Vineyards covered the steep hillsides and when we were there, appeared to be only a few weeks away from bud break.
The Langhe is devoted to growing grapes and wine. Wine was made there 2500 years ago (perhaps as long as 7000 years ago) and there is little doubt that the Nebbiolo grape has grown there for 700 years. During the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder mentions the Piemonte region as being one of the most favorable for growing vines in ancient Italy.
Throughout Italy, good wines are next door to good food and restaurants. Piemonte is certainly no exception, especially in Alba. In addition to the wines, the region is famous for cheese, hazelnuts, chocolate and white truffles. Alba is home to the Nutella factory and holds an annual white truffle festival in October.
Our home base was in Casa Agnese in the center of Alba’s famous historic district with only three guest rooms per house permitted.
From the moment we spotted Alberto Agnese, the owner, and consummate host, waiting for us by the gate to his courtyard, we knew we were in good hands. We quickly developed a solid friendship.
We found the Piemontese to be sensitive and industrious people who were very proud of their culture. Initially, they seemed reserved but soon showed us just how hospitable and friendly they were. Tourism is not yet a big business so prices for everything were very reasonable. The landscapes, villages, cuisine and wines were just as stunning as any found in Tuscany, but Piemonte could have been a million miles from Chianti.