It all began, as so many of life’s wonderful experiences, on Facebook chat. I told my friend Johan I was going to Vienna, he thought I said Venice (Freudian mind slip?) and invited me to come join him and his friend David in Alba for a few days of wine tasting and truffle eating. The fact that instead of a short train ride from Venice I would have to fly an hour from Vienna left me undeterred. Really, who says no to an invitation like that?
And so I arrived at Malpensa on Monday afternoon October 3, ready for two days of drinking and eating adventures on the wine route.
Dinner at La Libera
Our first evening we ate at an osteria that came highly recommended in Alba, where we were based, called La Libera. We started with small plates of “cruda di fassone” which is like a distant cousin of steak tartare – incredibly fresh, raw beef diced and tossed with a little salt and a dash of olive oil. Yes please.
For our main course we all ordered homemade, hand cut tajarin noodles with white truffles. Three plates arrived at the table with small mounds of bright yellow pasta, then our waitress brought over a bowl full of white truffles and commenced to shave them directly onto our plates. A little sprinkle of salt, and we passed the next five minutes in uninterrupted silence.
I was very spoiled on this trip to be in the company of two oenophiles – Johan is a professional sommelier and has a restaurant, and David is a serious lay expert – so the only thing I had to do with a wine list was look at it for fun and occasionally a bit of education. This particular evening, we drank a bottle of 2004 Cappellano Barolo Otin Fiorin Pie Rupestris.
Of course we also gave in to our sweet tooths (teeth?) and ordered some dolci. I am a slave to tiramisu, and this one was particularly delicious – crunchy lady finger cookies, without the usual soaking in coffee and liquor, were topped with creamy mascarpone and a generous dusting of cocoa.
Wine Tasting #1: Rinaldi
The next morning we had an 11am tasting at one of the legendary vineyards of Piemonte, Rinaldi, located just outside the town of Barolo. We pulled up at the beautiful stone house, with palm trees in the front yard and grape vines covering the door, ten minutes early, and, typically, were made to wait twenty.
Marta Rinaldi, daughter of Giuseppe (“Beppe”), greeted us and led us down to the cantina. All the winemakers we visited are engaged in natural wine making – using traditional methods and no stabilizers or new-fangled inventions like temperature control. At Rinaldi, the wine is first aged in large wooden vats called “tine” (pronounced tee-nay) which are left open on top, then transferred to steel containers. While Johan and David engaged in intelligent conversation about winemaking methods, aging and grape varietals interspersed with smelling, tasting and spitting, I tried my best to imitate them and look like I had some vague idea about what was going on.
Location: Via Monforte, 12060 Barolo Cuneo, Italy
Prices: Expensive. Bottles retail in the US between $100-$200, depending on the year and blend.
Wine Tasting #2: Bartolo Mascarello
Our first afternoon visit was at Bartolo Mascarello, a short way down the road in the town of Barolo. Sadly, Bartolo passed away in 2005 (read the New York Times obit here), but his daughter Maria Teresa continues as the fourth generation to run the family vineyard.
For this tasting we were joined by a rather large group of German tourists, so our tour was conducted in an interesting mix of German and English peppered with Italian by Alan Manley (a fellow American from Colorado – see his wine blog here.) Maria Teresa also uses only the traditional winemaking methods, macerating her grapes in large concrete lockers before transferring to large oak “botti” (enormous wooden barrels, not to be confused with “barrique”, small, French oak barrels, of which more later). When absolutely necessary (after decades of use), new botti are bought and put through a strenuous process to remove all the wood flavor so as not to contaminate the terroir of the wine. They are filled and left to sit multiple times full of water and salt until finally deemed ready.
Bartolo was notoriously against technological innovations when it came to wine, and to date the only automated process in the cantina is a machine for labeling, which Maria Teresa only allows because it doesn’t actually touch the wine. However, many labels are still applied by hand – as witnessed by yours truly.
In addition to being a prodigious winemaker, Bartolo was also an artist, designing a number of whimsical, sometimes political labels for his produce. One of the best known of these, and cause of a scandal at the time, reads “No barrique, no Berlusconi.”
Behind that photo of a pig is one of Silvio himself. Rumor is that when the wine was released in 2001, they were forced to do a mass recall in the Italian market. The phrase has now become something of a tagline for the natural wine producers of the region.
Location: Via Roma, 15, 12060 Barolo Cuneo, Italy
Prices: You can score a bottle of Dolcetto for about $30, but the more coveted Barolo runs upward of $100.
Wine Tasting #3: Trinchero
We then raced off to our final tasting of the day at Azienda Agricola Trinchero in Agliano Terme. After some disagreements with the GPS (thanks Hertz NeverLost), we finally arrived about an hour late. Typically, they hardly seemed to notice. We made it past Gilda, the rather fierce looking and manically barking dog at the entrance, and were given the obligatory tour of the cellars. Our hostess for this producer spoke no English, so I was the official translator.
Unusually, Trinchero produces a few white wines in addition to the reds typical of the region. We tasted one of these, the Palmé, a so-called “orange” wine, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes which are macerated with the seeds and skins for 12 days.
It was perhaps more interesting than anything else. We also tasted a range of their reds, one of which Johan pronounced corked, prompting a heated monologue from our hostess, with short pauses so I could translate, explaining that it was just the strong tannins. Johan remains unconvinced.
Location: Vianoce 56, 14041 Agliano Terme, Italy
Prices: More affordable – a quick internet search suggests bottles range from $18-$60. But in this case you get what you pay for.
Combal.zero is a two-star Michelin restaurant and ranks 28 on the Pellegrino top 50 list for 2011, located in an old castle outside of Turin. So naturally we set out from Alba with great expectations for our dinner. I’ll spare you the suspense – it was one of the worst dining experiences of my life, as well as among the most expensive. I will also thus spare you the agony of reading about each of the tasting menu’s eleven courses and skip to the high and low-lights.
Highlight #1: The wine (which Johan chose so it doesn’t really count, but it was really good). We started with a 2007 Riesling from Clemens Busch in the Mosel Valley, then moved on to a Cavallotto Barolo Vignolo 1990. Also, the sommelier was a very adorable, older Italian man.
Highlight #2: The beef consommé that came with the breaded beef filet as the last dinner course. The actual filet was also good, although by the time it arrived I was mostly full and somewhat out of patience. When we told the chef, Davide, after dinner that the consommé was the best dish we’d had, he smiled and laughed. I’m not sure if he thought it was funny, or whether he was considering throwing us out.
Highlight #3: The very last course, Cyber Elio Campari, which consisted of campari in a small plastic bag that you popped in your mouth, attached to a white helium-filled balloon and a bag of mini-M&Ms for weight. More for the comic relief than anything else.
Lowlight #1: The Empire State Building of Pepper. Our waiter was very excited to serve us this dish, explaining that the name was due to the obvious resemblance of the rectangular plexiglass towers to the Empire State Building. As a native New Yorker, the first thing that sprang to mind was “This looks nothing like the Empire State Building, it looks like a plain vanilla skyscraper, or maybe one of the Twin Towers if I’m feeling indulgent.” I exercised restraint in the waiter’s presence however and did not point this out.
The dish consisted of six mouthfuls of pepper prepared in various ways. The bottom one, involving foie gras, was okay, while the gray marshmallow cube dusted in red pepper and the bonbon with a kind of pepper filling were downright gross. The rest were tolerable at best.
Lowlight #2: Service & Ambiance. In fact, most of the food was fine to mediocre, but what really colored the experience was the overall mood in the restaurant. First of all, the dining room was empty. This on its own is not a deal breaker, but it means the service needs to work that much harder to put you at ease, which the service here did not. Overly stilted and largely absent, we had to walk back to the kitchen to ask for our coffee, after which the waitress arrived with the three silver pots and a serious glower.
Lowlight #3: Everything was overdone. There was a water menu with at least 15 kinds of H20, grouped by their level of minerality and effervescence. We seriously considered ordering tap water just to see what would happen. Then, there were three different bread options – homemade breadsticks (in the center of the table), cheesy bread straws (each person got their own personal serving), and small rolls (served one at a time from a passed basket). And finally, at the end of the meal when all we really wanted was to leave, and were forced to walk to the kitchen to get our coffee, our request for three espressos was met with yet another special menu with ten different brews to choose from.
Additional pet peeve: As the lady, my menu had no prices on it. Now, I am a great lover of chivalry and generally consider that I was born in the wrong decade, however, since I was instead born in the ’80s and am an independent woman paying my own way, I found this mildly insulting. Thank you Berlusconi and Italian chauvinism.
Post dinner note: Like some restaurants give you a breakfast muffin for the next day, Combal.zero gave us each a “gift.” It was a tin can with a custom paper label wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon. We were told it was a “surprise.” After successfully convincing airport security in Turin that there was no liquid and it was no danger for the plane, I opened it in London. It was canned tomatoes. Seriously. Not even special canned tomatoes. Just average. I was furious.
Lunch in Barolo
And now to end on an up note, our lunch the following day at Brezza in Barolo was exceedingly simple and just delicious – the opposite of dinner the night before. It was another hot day and we sat outside on the terrace overlooking the vineyards and town center. There was no food menu. They asked us what we wanted, we requested antipasti and pasta bolognese and they said fine. To accompany, we chose a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s Dolcetto, which all the winemakers we visited described as a wine to drink every day.
The first bottle was corked, but when the second one was poured I interrupted the smelling, swirling, aerating wine ritual of my companions for a good old fashioned cheers.
Then the antipasti arrived – each plate with one thin slice of beef carpaccio topped with olive oil and lemon – so fresh it melted in my mouth; a small portion of fennel salad with mustard and sliced veal; and a roasted pepper wrapped around a ball of tunafish.
And finally our bowls of bolognese – hand cut, homemade noodles – again, a stunning yellow – topped with a hearty tomato and meat sauce. Classic.
We were too full for dessert, unfortunately, so we ordered three espressos and set out for Bra, where I was to catch the train to Turin for my flight back to London. The perfect end to a whirlwind European trip, and closing of the London chapter of my life – at least for the time being. This will thus be the last European post for a while – but get ready for some good New York picks in the future.
- We stayed in the town of Alba at the Hotel Savona, which was very serviceable. Low on charm but the price was right, and it was clean and convenient. Terrible breakfast, but that’s par for the course in Italy. It was easy to navigate from Alba to the neighboring small towns like Barolo, and handy to be in a larger town so we didn’t constantly have to drive a long way for dinner. However, I did like the look of the Hotel Barolo where Ristorante Brezza was housed, and there were a few other cute places in the town that seemed like they would be good choices.
- British Airways flies from London to Turin for relatively cheap, and, should you ever find yourself in this position, Air Berlin has competitive fares from Vienna to Milan.
- If your goal is to visit Piemonte, Turin is the city to fly to, located about an hour from Alba. Turin itself is fairly soulless so don’t recommend staying there. Milan is two hours from Alba, so do-able, especially if you are flying transatlantic.