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Tuscany may be Italy's best known wine region, but Hamish Anderson finds a taste of the good life when he visits Piedmont in a Mercedes-Benz CLK 220 CDI
Piedmont conjures up strong images of food and wine: bottles of Barolo and baskets of white truffles spring to mind. Yet, although this is a well-known wine area, it has a rural, intensely proud and insular feel. You'll find few grandiose wineries here, and the top producers are more likely to greet you with mud on their hands from working in the vineyards, rather than wearing a suit and tie.
The vines here grow in a rolling, intricate series of vineyards located around stunning medieval villages. Growers of the region's great grape, Nebbiolo, walk a tightrope each year as they struggle to get the demanding variety ripe. As a result, the wine produced here has an individual quality and nothing feels mass-produced or marketed.
Most of the great estates remain in family hands and it's not uncommon to taste the wines of two or three producers in a day who are related to each other. It's hardly surprising, then, that comparisons are often drawn with the proud farming community of Burgundy, while Italy's other great fine-wine producer, Tuscany, is likened to the sophisticated Bordeaux region.
It is also worth noting that Piedmont is in northern Italy, so it is as influenced by France to the west and the mountains to the north as it is from its own country to the south.
The winding road
It is a two-hour drive from Milan airport to Bra, one of the key wine-making towns in Piedmont, and this gave me plenty of time to acquaint myself with my car for the trip, the Mercedes-Benz CLK 220 CDI Elegance.
Piedmont is a small region and at its vinous heart of Barolo and Barbaresco is a compact group of villages, so I was keen to drive something that would happily navigate the small, twisting roads. And because I wasn't going to be in the car for long periods between visits, I wanted a vehicle that looked good, handled well and was fun to drive. The CLK 220 CDI fitted the brief perfectly.
It became clear as I turned off the motorway that the region was going to be every bit as beautiful as the romantic images I'd seen in books. The word Nebbiolo comes from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. It is a variety that ripens later than other grapes, often being harvested in late October, when the vineyards are shrouded in evening and morning mist.
The scene that greeted me as I turned towards Alba was stunning: the morning mist had just started to burn off, revealing the vineyards. It quickly became obvious that this is not the kind of area one can get to grips with in a day or so. Small as it is, there are seemingly endless variations in vineyard exposure among the hilltop villages that make up Barolo and Barbaresco.
Piedmont is a region that has undergone a transformation in a generation. The wines have been famous in Italy for hundreds of years, although it was only from the 1850s that they were made as dry wines. Historically, most growers did not make wine, but chose to sell their grapes to large producers.
But as the current generation has taken over family vineyards, they have chosen to make and bottle wine themselves. As a result, the new wines are far more site-specific than their predecessors. It is quite possible to taste a marked difference between the fragrant elegance of the wines from the village of La Mora, for instance, and the sturdy, masculine wines of Monforte.
The characterful nature of the wines has universally been welcomed. But there is one issue that divides opinion in this small, conservative region: how best to express the beauty of the Nebbiolo grape.
Ever since Barbaresco's most famous producer, Angelo Gaja, brought small French oak barrels into the region, the argument has raged. If you extract deep colours from the famously light-skinned Nebbiolo grape and age the wine in new oak barrels, you'll be accused of making an international style wine that betrays the region. Use large, old oak barrels and you are likely to be seen as old fashioned and out of touch with modern tastes.
Suiting all tastes
Tempers have calmed in recent years as both sides have started to appreciate the merits of each other's approach. That said, there is still no consensus of opinion and it's possible to buy both fabulous old and new-style Nebbiolo.
Many of the producers worth visiting are small-scale artisan operations, so it is best to make an appointment with them. They are a hospitable bunch who generally do not expect visitors to buy wine. Indeed, the best won't have any to sell.
Cantine Ascheri is a great starting point to explore the new face of Piedmont. This sleek, modern winery in Bra has a tasting centre, restaurant and hotel, and Matteo Ascheri produces a range of wines that blend both old and new techniques. He is a dynamic producer, constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of the region's traditional offerings, yet also experimenting with adding new varieties to the region, such as Viognier.
The day after visiting Cantine Ascheri, I drove up to Barbaresco to have a look at the wines of Renato Cigliuti. Barbaresco tends to produce more upfront wines that can be drunk earlier than Barolo, but less of it is produced than Barolo, so it is yet to be embraced by the outside world in the same way.
Despite being a near neighbour to Barolo, Barbaresco has a more rural, traditional feel, and many vineyard owners still sell their grapes to large wine-producing companies.
Cigliuti, whose vineyards, family house and winery are on a ridge outside the village of Nieve, was one of the first to take the plunge in the 1970s and bottle his own wine.
On my visit, his daughter, Claudia, greeted me and we went out to have a look at the vines in the late afternoon sun. As the mists started to form, we looked at the Dolcetto vineyards clinging to one side of the ridge and Nebbiolo on the other. Claudia pointed out her father on a hillside opposite driving an ancient tractor fitted with caterpillar tracks - tyres would not have enough grip to get up the hill.
Cigliuti showed no signs of leaving his vines, but as it was getting dark, we went inside. Over a tasting of the winery's range, Claudia explained the family set-up: she promotes the wines, her sister, Silvia, makes them, and her father never leaves the vineyards. It's a small-scale, dedicated approach that is typical of many of Piedmont's best producers.
My final tasting before heading back to the airport was at Sandrone, one of the region's legendary estates. Allocations of its top wines are closely guarded and fought over.
Because Luciano Sandrone only founded the estate in 1978, he is often wrongly labelled a modernist. In fact, he uses minimal amounts of new oak, and a tour around the winery revealed that his barrels are of the large size associated with old school production. Sandrone is a Burgundy enthusiast and his wines have the mark of a man who appreciates perfume and elegance.
Sandrone's daughter, Barbara, showed me around the winery, which is located just outside the village of Barolo itself. The first thing that struck me was how modest the family is about their wines. Only about 2,000 cases of the top two wines, Cannubi Boschis and La Vigne, are made each year, so it is nigh on impossible to buy a bottle of either.
But, while these two wines garner all the attention and command high prices, the winemaker also produces affordable wines that carry the estate's trademark elegance and are well worth a try. The 2005 Dolcetto is a lovely glass of red cherries, while the 2004 Nebbiolo d'Alba Valmaggiore is a joyous, fragrant introduction to the grape.
After the visit, I had time for lunch at La Cantinetta in Barolo before heading back to the airport. I ordered what I thought would be a simple dish of spinach ravioli, forgetting that Piedmont has as many surprises in its food as it does in its wine. Each raviolo contained a whole egg yolk and had a mound of white truffle shavings on top. It was enough to make me spend the entire drive to the airport and flight home plotting my next visit.
Piedmont wines are blissfully easy to understand. Apart from Barolo and Barbaresco (both made from Nebbiolo), the name of the grape generally appears on the label, with the name of the village or region after it. This gives you a clear idea of where the wine comes from, hence Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti.
Nebbiolo is the grape that has catapulted the region to fame. It reaches its apogee in Barolo and Barbaresco, although good-value examples can be found under the guise of Langhe or d'Alba Nebbiolo. Deceptively light in appearance (although many modernists now produce deep-coloured versions), the wines are nonetheless full-bodied and have pronounced tannins and high acidity. When they are young, they taste of spice and sour cherries, but as they mature they take on ethereal, gamey aromas - not unlike old Pinot Noir.
Barbera produces deeply coloured, full-flavoured wines. They are marked by black fruits, leather and spice and are high in acidity but low in tannins, which makes them approachable when young. There has been a resurgence of interest in Barbera over the past 10 years and some producers are making serious, age-worthy wines that sit alongside Barolo and Barbaresco.
The lightest of the three main red grapes, Dolcetto makes juicy, upfront wines designed for early drinking.
The Cortese grape produces Piedmont's most famous white wine in the Gavi di Gavi region, but to my mind Arneis is the real white star. This aromatic variety reminds me of a cross between Viognier and Riesling. It provides the perfect pick-me-up after a hard day tasting reds.
The 2003 Barolo and Barbaresco are just appearing on the market but, as with the rest of Europe, this was a year of extreme heat, which has resulted in unusually rich wines. There are plenty of the 2000 and 2001 wines still around, so my advice would be to buy the latter for your cellar and the former for drinking now.
We await with anticipation the release of the 2004s - a vintage that the growers seem very excited about. By contrast, 2002 was a difficult year, although the best producers made forward, easy-drinking wines.
2005 Arneis, Giacomo Ascheri, Langhe £11.50, available from Enotria Wine Cellars (tel: 020 8961 4411, www.enotria.co.uk). A textbook example of the joys of Arneis: floral, aromatic and cut through with a refreshing minerality.
2005 Barbera d'Alba Vignota, Conterno Fantino £14.95, available from Enotria Wine Cellars (details as above). A beautifully balanced, modern expression of the Barbera grape. It is rich, silky and laden with black cherries. Drink it now and over the next five years.
2001 Barolo La Vigne, Luciano Sandrone £69, available from Berry Bros & Rudd (tel: 0870 900 4300, www.bbr.com). This is stunning stuff, expensive but worth every penny. It's a gorgeous, violet-scented 2001 that's approachable now but will happily develop further complexities over the next 15 years.
Wine regions around the world generally take their food seriously, but the Piedmontese take it to another level. The best time to visit is during the truffle season, which usually begins in mid-October and lasts until the end of December. The truffles in question are white truffles - black ones are found in the region but treated with disdain by the locals.
White truffles are fiendishly expensive and, unlike the black variety, freshness is paramount. In a good restaurant, you are likely to be served a truffle that has been taken from the ground that morning. The price varies hugely according to the season, but when I was there, a kilo was selling for about E3,000.
Thankfully, you don't need much to appreciate the truffles' musky qualities. In many restaurants, E30 will get you a starter of white truffle and tajarin ricchi pasta, made using a high proportion of egg yolk. The same dish in a London restaurant would cost four times as much.
Truffles appear on the menu of even the humblest looking trattoria, so although they are expensive, the experience feels as if it's open to all.
The daily truffle market in Alba is great fun, although if you want make a purchase, make sure you go with someone who knows what they are doing.
But truffles are only a small part of the story in Piedmont. Every food item is treated with respect. The town of Bra is responsible for starting the slow food movement and there is a university in the nearby town of Pollenzo that is dedicated to gastronomy.
Other foodie indulgences from the region are bagno caôda (raw vegetables served with a pungent dip made from anchovies, garlic and olive oil) and carne cruda (raw, minced veal), which is delicious and surprisingly light. There are also some wonderful local cheeses.
Albergo Cantine Ascheri
25 Via Piumati, 12042 Bra
Tel: 00 39 0172 430312
Double rooms from E120
This ultra-modern hotel (see picture, above) sits on top of Ascheri's impressive winery. Located at the edge of Bra, it has a fine restaurant, Osteria Murivecchi, attached.
Hotel Villa Beccaris
1 Via Bava Beccaris,
Tel: 00 39 0173 78158
Double rooms from E150
This beautiful 18th century villa is located in the village of Monforte.
Osteria Bocco di Vino
14 Via Mendicita Istruita, Bra
Tel: 00 39 0172 425674
Simple, regional dishes are served in the courtyard, and there's a wonderful, good-value wine list.
33 Via Roma, Barolo
Tel: 00 39 0173 56198
I had two meals at this simple trattoria and both included some of the best pasta I've eaten. A great wine list, too.
4 Piazza Savona, Alba
Tel: 00 39 0173 33994
This classy converted cellar serves classic dishes with a light, modern touch and boasts one of the best wine lists in the region.
0-62mph: 10.2 seconds
Top speed: 137mph
On-the-road price: £30,780
Hamish Anderson's verdict: The perfect car to cruise the short distances between the wineries, it handled the winding roads impressively. When presented with a rare piece of straight track, it also had plenty of power to get past the slow-moving lorries. Above all, the two doors and slick leather interior put me in the mood for tasting the region's regal wines and indulging in a few white truffles.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: The four-seat CLK 220 CDI coupé has just the right amount of punch. As for the rest of the car, the CLK is a tad more conservative than its BMW or Audi rivals, but that works in its favour because its classic looks and practicality really stand the test of long ownership.