My Piemonte labor of love is progressing beautifully.
In seven months – God willing – I will introduce you to the women with whom I’ve spent so much of the last 30 months. Many of them are delightful ghosts who have been with me day and night as I labored to learn more about them, their families and the times in which they lived.
You will meet strong, brilliant women like Luigia Oddero, her daughter-in-law Maria and granddaughter-in-law Carla, all of whom played crucial roles in the success of their family’s winery in Santa Maria La Morra. I doubt, however, you would find their names in wine publications, something that saddens Luigia’s great-great-granddaughter Isabella Boffa Oddero. She knows how significant those women were to the patrimony of the Giacomo Oddero family.
After you read “Labor of Love,” I know you’ll be inspired to visit Monchiero Carbone in Canale in Roero. As you sit in the tasting room sipping their luscious wines, you’ll notice on the wall the black and white photo of Clotilde Valente Raimondo, known as Tilde, the woman who created the legacy of the wine you will enjoy there possible. The black, kind eyes of the petite woman will enchant you. You’ll want to ask about her daughter Francesca (Cesca). If you meet Cesca’s great-granddaughter Lucia Monchiero, you’ll be meeting the future of the winery.
In Barbaresco, you’ll discover a woman you may of heard of before – Clotilde Rey – because her name and that of her great-granddaughter Gaia were merged to create the brand name of the legendary winery’s Langhe Chardonnay – Gaia & Rey. But did you know about her crucial roll in her father-in-law Giovanni Gaja’s legacy? Clotilde died long before I set foot in Piemonte, but I can’t help but believe that to meet Gaia Gaja is to meet Clotilde Rey such is her great-granddaughter’s brilliance and drive.
On the ridge in Tre Stelle in Barbaresco you’ll find Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. There’s a strong, formidable woman in her family whose story is known to so few, but whose life touched so many, particularly during the dark, brutal days of the German Occupation between September 1943 and May 1945. You can find the name of Beatrice Rizzolio inscribed on the wall of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
These are but a few of the women from the 23 different families that you’ll meet if you follow me on my labor of love. Sadly, these grandmothers across the generations are no longer here for me to interview, but their families have brought them alive for me and by extension for you. What a delight and an honor it has been to get to know them and have the opportunity to be their storyteller.
I live in Vail Valley, Colorado. It’s a very special gastronomic community filled with creative chefs and talented sommeliers. We are blessed to count Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Vail Resorts‘ Mountain Dining Beverage Director, among the oenological dwellers of our valley. That means whenever I am in need of oenological wisdom, Sean is my “go-to” professional. Needless to say, his tireless support of local charities in planning and executing their fundraising dinners is a delight to witness.
While writing a chapter in my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Women of Piemonte,” I got I stuck on a question regarding the differences between California Cabernet Blends and Barolo. My ability to explain the differences leads me, an attorney, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see and taste it.” So who better to turn to than Sean for a more detailed explanation? No one in my universe is better at mastering differences between these two wines.
What I got was a 455 word education. And this is one education I definitely wanted to share. Sean graciously agreed to allow me to guest post his response to my question. I hope you enjoy the primer. I certainly did!
“How would you describe the difference between a California Cabernet Blend and Barolo?”
Immense differences exist between California Cabernet Blend and Barolo. These differences are apparent in the color, flavor profile and structure of the wines. Some differences are due to climate differences between California’s Napa Valley and the northwest Italian region of Piemonte(specifically the Langhe). Differences in vinification also make the wines distinct from one another.
California Cabernet Blend
I would describe a California Cabernet Blend (in youth) as a deep ruby color with black fruits (currant, plum, cherry).
There should be a whiff of green herbs (tobacco, mint) with dark chocolate and coffee. The oak on the wine is prominent, displaying new French oak barrels (smoke, toast, vanilla, baking spices). Earthiness is not prominent.
The structure of the wine is medium-plus to high tannin (silky) medium to medium-plus acidity, with medium-plus to high alcohol.
Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape of high color pigmentation. The vinification methods used in production extract large amounts of tannin from the skins. A fruity and a silky, smooth palate dominates the wine. The tannin in a California Cabernet Blend tends to be “fully ripe” which gives the wine’s tannin a silky feeling on the palate.
For Barolo (made from 100% Nebbiolo), the color is more garnet to light ruby with red fruits as opposed to black fruits (cherry, raspberry, pomegranate). The fruits are sometimes both ripe and dried (with some age). There can sometimes be notes of spice, anise, tar, leather, and balsamic. Notes of volatile acidity are common giving the wines a lifted, perfumey aroma. Some producers are using some new French barrels, adding the corresponding flavor profile of those barrels. However, the traditional production methods do not lend oak to the flavor profile.
Unlike a California Cabernet Blend, a Barolo might be bone dry, with high tannin, high acidity and medium-plus to high alcohol.
Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape with light color that contradicts the wine’s weight and aggressive tannin. It is highly aromatic and driven by non-fruit characters. Unlike the tannin in a California Cabernet Blend that possesses silkiness virtually upon release, the tannin in Barolo may need years to soften. This is historically why Barolo was required by law to age for many years before release. With today’s viticultural and vinification techniques though, this has changed a bit and Barolo is becoming much more approachable in its youth.
This last part of my Nebbiolo description (underlined) leads to why many people who like new world, California Cabernets do not like Barolo. For a person that wants a “smooth” wine, with high color, high extraction, high fruit content, high alcohol, silky tannins and some sweetness to the wine, Barolo is almost the antithesis of this model. Barolo is light colored, highly aromatic, is non-fruit driven, and has an aggressive tannin and acid profile.
I was delighted to read Will Lyon’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “Why Piemonte is the new Burgundy.” I’m always thrilled to see Piemonte get such positive, enthusiastic ink, particularly in the Journal. I’m even more delighted to see Punset amongst the list of recommended wines since it’s long overdue for feisty organic pioneer Marina Marcarino and her wines to receive such accolades!
So my hat is off to Mr. Lyons for such a nice article; I must respectfully demur, however, and note that Piemonte is not the new Burgundy. Nor the old. Piemonte is Piemonte. And, as Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio pointed out, it is Italian.
Piemonte has its own heart and soul that is reflected in its wines. And its heart and soul emanate from the cornerstone of the region – the wine families.
It’s a little sad – at least to me – that Piemonte’s wine families were not mentioned. Without their indomitable spirit and unyielding drive, the incredible oenological delights wine lovers are finally recognizing would not be possible.
The wine families of Piemonte are the source of the charisma and individualism of the region’s wines. Some prime examples include Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli whose noble red wines reflect her spirit and passion;
Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco who fought a tsunami of opposition to be the first woman in Barbaresco to own and operate her own winery;
the Rocca sisters – Daniela, Paola and Monica – of Albino Rocca in Barbaresco whose own beautiful oenological signature was written on their 2013 Barbaresco, their first vintage to emerge on their own without their late father, Angelo Rocca.
and the Grasso family of Cà del Baio in Treiso in Barbaresco and Deltetto family of Canale in Roero;
…..and so on (it will all be in my book “A Labor of Love – Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”)
Incidentally, I don’t believe Piemonte is the “new Burgundy.” Piemonte is AND ALWAYS WILL BE Piemonte. I kind of feel passionate about that if you haven’t noticed!
Please never forget that the soul of Piemonte’s wines are forever tied to the families who create them. Their’s truly is a labor of love!
Many winery doors in Europe are thick, wooden barriers to domains through which centuries of winemakers have passed. On the edge of Barolo’s central district, on Via Vittorio Veneto just below sprawling Nebbiolo vineyards, there is one such door.
A black plaque with four large white letters affixed on the right of the door prominently displaying the name of the legendary wine family “PIRA” alerts visitors they’ve arrived. Press the button on the brass plaque to ring the bell that could easily wake the dead of centuries past. You’ll hear hurried steps – albeit maybe not immediately – lock turning, a bolt scraping open and finally the centuries-old door creaks open.
If your timing is right – the probability of which is improved dramatically if you’ve cleverly booked an appointment – Chiara Boschis’ bright, welcoming smile will be the first thing you see on the other side of the door to E. Pira e Figli.
On a cold March day shrouded in a light mist more akin to November than Easter, I met Chiara Boschis, E. Pira’s proprietor and winemaker. The door burst open and before me was a petite, smiling woman in leggings and a flowing skirt, bundled up in a puffy coat she clutched around her neck. I stood before her in jeans and a light, powder blue sweater and tee shirt, freezing. For some reason – as I stood there, slightly shivering – admitting it seemed out of the question. I live in the Rockies after all. We’re tough and rarely admit we’re cold.
Chiara greeted me as she would a long lost friend. Here before me was a much-loved woman who had successfully staked out her territory in Barolo’s male-dominated world and who was the subject of many laudatory articles in wine journals and blogs. But immediately I could see, despite her fame, she was no wine diva.
There was no period of uncomfortable formalities, only a warm two-handed handshake, a deep sincere look into my eyes and concern over my lightweight attire. Here was a woman in love with her craft and grateful for my interest in the women of Piemonte. I was humbled.
The conversation flowed effortlessly as we descended steep, concrete stairs, through another heavy wooden door into the maze of subterranean rooms of the centuries old winery. I was thrilled when we entered the warm barrel room where a humidifier bellowing steam transformed the space into a mild sauna. Low level lights shining up through the fog at the vaulted ceiling created an ethereal affect, giving the musty space a timeless feeling. I could see through the fog a small forest of large wooden barrels and smaller barriques where nature, guided by Chiara, was finishing its work aging and imparting aromas into her precious wines.
On later visits, I thought the cantina seemed the sort of place the ghost of sainted Giulia Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo – the 19th century mother of modern Barolo – would be comfortable. I believe she would have enjoyed Chiara, the woman who burst through gender barriers to become Barolo’s first woman winery proprietor and winemaker. Chiara draws inspiration from the Marchesa. Perhaps Giulia’s spirit guides Chiara and all the women who are her oenological legatees. I like to think so. But I digress.
A woman to the rescue
Once a rarity, women winemakers are taking their place in the Piemonte wine industry, particularly in the Langhe and Roero regions. Famous last names previously associated with men are now brands belonging to women winemakers and proprietors such as Chiara.
In 1980, following the death of Luigi Pira, Chiara emerged as the first of her gender in her family’s nine generations in Barolo to tend the vines and vinify the noble Nebbiolo grape. Luigi was the last male heir of the renowned centuries-old E. Pira e Figli winery in Barolo.
At Chiara’s behest, her father, Franco for whom she had worked at Giacomo Borgogno e Figli, bought the winery from Pira’s two sisters. The vineyards, including parcels in the prized Cannubi, and the winery would become the launching pad of Chiara’s meteoric career.
Chiara possess an innate talent for growing high quality grapes and making luscious wines from her vines’ bounty. A combination of swimming in the right gene pool and on-the-job experiences spanning a lifetime prepared her to successfully assume control of the operation in 1990.
New generation, new philosophy
On that first visit, Chiara poetically described her winemaking philosophy with words like “joy,” “passion” and “love” garnishing her language. The biggest change in her generation was not only women entering winemaking, but also giving more attention to the vineyards. “You cannot abandon the fruit in the vineyard during the growing season,” she warns. The work in the vineyards is 80% of the process. The other 20% is in the cellar. It’s logical that without the best fruit possible, nothing in the cellar will change mediocre grapes into stellar wines.
Chiara was one of the first to conduct a green harvest – crop thinning – in Barolo. If done correctly, as she does, the process of cutting shoots and bunches during the growing season produces quality over yield. Chiara strongly believes quality cannot be achieved when the vine is preoccupied and stressed with too much growth. It’s a delicate process, however, that is sometimes done three or four times as she monitors the vines’ development and the weather between June and harvest.
Her first green harvest, however, brought calls to her father from locals saying, “Chiara is crazy! She is cutting the vines!” She admits her father was also skeptical, but the proof of her logic rests in the high quality of her elegant wines.
Meteoric Rise to Fame
The splendid 1990 vintage was Chiara’s first on her own. She downplays somewhat the significance of the Tre Biccheri the Gambero Rosso awarded her her maiden vintage declaring, “It was a fabulous vintage.” True, it was, but she need not be humble about her achievement with that vintage. Four years later, with the release of the 1994 vintage, Chiara proved she was no flash in the pan.
In Europe, rain and mud were the hallmarks of the second half of 1994. Long before vines surrendered their grapes, the vintage was branded as poor. Although it gave only two out of five stars to the 1994 Piemontese vintage, Britain’s Decanter magazine noted, “Prolonged rain caused serious problems, although a few producers still made good wines.” One of those wines was Chiara’s cru from the legendary Cannubi vineyard.
As the winner of the sole Tre Bicchieri awarded for Barolo that year, her 1994 Barolo Cannubi proved she could make great wines even when Mother Nature was cranky. “Consistency is most important to success,” Chiara asserts. Weather can be changeable, but winemakers must always be at the top of their game to achieve consistently high quality wines. Since 1994, Chiara garnered numerous accolades for her Baroli that exhibit power, but with a Burgundian-like elegance, finesse and soft tannins, the signature of her wines.
In its 2013 Duemilavini wine guide, the Italian Sommelier Association awarded its highest honor, “Cinque Grapoli” (five bunches), to Chiara’s 2008 and 2010 Barolo Cannubi. So I’d say that now, as she brings in her 24th vintage as the head of Pira, Chiara Boschis has proven herself worthy of her winemaking heritage.
Chiara’s wines continue to garner praise across the globe. Her personality, devotion and talent emerge from each bottle of wine opened in lands far from the humble Piemonte village of its origins. No doubt, most days someone meets Chiara for the first time by merely sipping her vinous creations.
Looking To The Future
Chiara bridges the past and future through her devotion to preserving Piemonte’s cultural heritage, insuring future generations remain connected to region’s land and the culture surrounding all it produces.
Chiara is married to the land and protects it as she would her own offspring. As a certified organic wine producer who never exposes her vines to pesticides, she guards the environment and the health of her clients and neighbors. Her ardent belief – a view many of her peers share – is vineyards can survive without chemicals. A healthy future and continuation of centuries of Piemontese viticulture depend on farmers such as Chiara to protect the terroir.
With brother Giorgio who left Borgogno and joined her at Pira in 2010, she’s well into her third decade of creating beautiful, award-winning wines. Brother Cesare also left Borogono and now works with his sister and eight others in the “ethical” project to preserve the culture and production of Castelmagno in Rifugio Valliera. Together, the close-knit siblings are working to insure the region’s traditions remain a part of its fabric, leaving generations to come a bright future in Piemonte.
In 2002, in only my third year of visiting Piemonte, I discovered the English translation of the recently published, “Barolo: Personaggi e Mito” (“The Mystique of Barolo”). It was a rare find in the under-discovered northwest Italian wine region: a book about the region’s people, in English no less!
What a beauty I unearthed! A book filled with bewitching photographs, rich history and, most notably, captivating stories about Barolo producers told in their own words.
For author Maurizio Rosso of Cantina Gigi Rosso on Via Alba Barolo in Castiglione Falletto, it was a labor of love. Rosso, whose own roots are buried deep in Barolo’s clay soil, gives us a unique opportunity to read the personal accounts of Barolo producers he lovingly chronicled.
Although born into a rich winemaking tradition in the heart of the Barolo appellation, Rosso pursued an education in foreign languages and literature at Università di Venezia Cà Foscari and Anglo-American literature at University of California Santa Cruz.
Rosso penned many historical novels, including the award winning “Il Castello dei Catari” (The Cathar Castle). His is a fictional account of the burning in Milan of over 1,000 Cathars from Monforte d’Alba in 1028, nearly 200 years before the much studied, frenzied annihilation of heretics in France.
Labor of Love
So why did this journalist-author turn from history and captivating tales he wove from it to a wine book? Rosso provided an answer in own words, “In those days [late 1990s] most press on Barolo was about the wines and hardly about the people.I wanted to stress the human factor and I gave the producers a chance to speak for themselves.”
During a two-year period from 1998, Rosso conducted extensive research and interviews, compiling what is more than a “mere” wine book. It’s akin to a compendium of love letters from vintners to the noble grape they collectively popularized across the globe and the land in which its vines are anchored.
Not only does Rosso capture the essence of the Barolo men, but also provides one of the few (if not only) English language accounts of Juliette (Giulia) Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo. Because of her vision, this aristocratic French saint-on-earth made it possible for today’s Barolo producers to provide the world with a noble wine from a humble land.
Given some of those whose stories Rosso captured and visages Chris Meier photographed belong to men who sadly left us in the years since the book’s release, it will be treasured for generations as an historically valuable tribute to the hard work, dedication and unfailing love for the appellation by those whose families for centuries made Barolo their home.
When I first read the book, I thought perhaps it was written in English. It was not despite Rosso incredible language skills. Josephine Taylor’s translation perfectly captures the essence of Rosso’s introduction of the land and its wines that spans the first 73 pages of the book and makes accessible to Anglophones the winemakers’ words.
Stuttgart-born photographer, Chris Meier shot his beautiful photos in each season of the year. Meier, a gifted photographer specializing in gastronomy and still-life, is also a gastronome fond of Italian food and wine. He has a penned several books about his travels including books featuring the cuisine of Sicily and Piemonte.
The product of Meier’s magical work behind his camera is intertwined with historical documents and photographs, many of which the producers provided from their family archives.
“The Human Factor”
The “human factor” is crucial to the viability of this land and its greats wines. Yet, scores and vintages are often discussed in near sterile terms, devoid of recognition of the humanity behind the labels.
Yes, many oenophiles and journalists know producers, but do they know the stories of their families’ triumphs, tribulations and aspirations? Do they know the sacrifices made to acquire and retain their precious crus? What about the family schisms that divided centuries’ old wineries?
With Rosso’s help, we can all discover the rich human spirit needed to create these luscious wines. “The Mystique of Barolo” has been an invaluable research resource for my own book on Piemonte and the women of its wine families. It’s a must-read for every lover of food, wine and the indominable spirits of these Piemontese winemakers.
Sidebar: Where to find the book? Unfortunately, in the U.S. it is a pricey proposition on Amazon. My best suggestion is to jump on a plane to Malpensa (or the European gateway of your choice), hightail it to Barolo and purchase your own copy at Cantina Gigi Rosso on the main Alba-Barolo road in Castiglione Falletto. Not only will you have the opportunity to purchase this treasure, but also to taste the lovely wines of the estate and have the author sign your precious possession.
Piemonte – the land where Nebbiolo not only grows best, but the alchemy of grapes to wine would delight Bacchus himself. One of the region’s rising alchemists is 31 year-old Elisa Scavino. Her family name should be familiar to any Barolo-phile since she is the granddaughter of Paolo Scavino, founder of the venerable Castiglione Falletto winery bearing his name.
Although famous for its 7 Baroli produced from grapes of 19 single crus in 6 of the 11 Barolo appellation villages, Paolo Scavino’s portfolio also includes other lovely wines of distinction. What I love most about Piemonte – what’s missing from Tuscany, in my opinion – is the broad range of different interesting varietals, both red and white, the Langhe and Roero offer. That’s certainly not missing at Scavino. Six other wines grace the winery’s portfolio, all beautiful expressions of the region’s varietals.
This month I visited Piemonte to continue research for my book, “Under Discovered: Le Donne di Piemonte.” One of the women of Piemonte who will grace my book’s pages, Paola Grasso of Ca’ del Baio, introduced me to Elisa. Since I restrict my writing to family owned wineries where the “family business speaks to the culture of wine,” in Paola’s words, I delighted in the opportunity to meet someone from the famous Scavino family.
Discovering a Barolo Treasure
On my last full day in Piemonte, I drove to the Scavino winery, spitting distance from our agriturismo, Gioco dell’Oca, on the outskirts of Barolo. The winery’s buildings reflect its owners: non-pretentious, but distinctive. Setback from the busy Barolo – Alba highway, the winery lies behind a lovely iron gate with a simple “S” on each panel. Other than the obscure sign I barely saw from the highway, it was the only clue I was in the right spot.
The familiar tinkling sound of bottles moving along a bottling machine’s conveyor belt greeted me when I walked through the massive wooden doors into the courtyard. It seems like everywhere I went, something delicious was going into bottles, some for sale now, some to age for a few more years.
After a few short minutes alone in the tasting room, the door opened. In trotted a large, somewhat smiling yellow lab, Lino (short for Ercolino), and Elisa Scavino. The first thing I noticed about Elisa was her smile. Unlike many people whose smiles are restricted to the muscles around their mouths, Elisa’s smile sparkled in her dark, half-moon eyes as well. My intuition is usually spot-on. It was screaming, “This is going to be a wonderful experience.” It certainly was.
No more “Due di Picchi”
Elisa has plenty to smile about. Like Paola Grasso, Elisa was born in a time when women are no longer relegated to the shadows. “Women’s work” no longer excludes making wine. Elisa is a member of a growing demographic of talented, rising stars of Piemonte: young women.
Since the 1980s, Piemontese women now possess career choices. However, for Elisa, there was no “choice” to make, only opportunity to grasp. She was born into a wine producing family. To her, like Grasso, there was never any doubt she would be a winemaker. Since early in her life, Elisa worked hard to join her father Enrico’s profession. To her, to be a successful winemaker is to honor her father.
It’s a good thing women are now accepted in the wine industry since so many of the prominent Piemonte houses will pass into women’s hands in coming decades. This was not always possible. For generations, the birth of daughters and no sons doomed estates. Given the culture of the times, having girls was akin to being dealt a “due di picchi” (bad hand) at cards. Those times have changed.
In the 1980s, women like Chiara Boschis and Livia Fontana graduated from the “school of hard knocks” after learning viticulture and oenology from their fathers. These pioneering women emerged as Barolo’s first women wine producers. When Barolo master, Bartolo Mascarello, passed away in 2005, daughter Maria Teresa assumed control of the family winery, continuing in her father’s footsteps. Now, Elisa and sister Enrica, Marta Rinaldi, the three Grasso sisters – Paola, Valentina and Federica – and many other women are in line to inherit generations old wineries. The future of great estates is no longer at risk to the whims of genetics.
Cracking the Educational Glass Ceiling
Although daughters of wine families could learn winemaking from the time they first walked, formal wine industry training was not possible. Only in recent decades did the famous Wine School of Alba (formerly the Royal Enological School) Domizio Cavazza founded in the late 19th century accept women students. Elisa and two other women, including Rosanna Gaja, comprised one of the earliest classes of women oenologists the famous school graduated.
For Elisa, however, the only education she wanted was the one she got in the vineyards and cellar with her father. Her parents encouraged her to consider other studies, such as science or classical studies, but only wine school’s six-year program would do for Elisa.
Next, Elisa graduated with an oenology degree from the University of Torino’s three-year program. Since long before her first awareness of Barolo’s special nature with the release of 1985 vintage in 1989, Elisa knew what she wanted to do in life. She now had the tools to do it. In January 2005, Elisa returned to Castiglione Falletto and took up her position in the family business.
Finding Her Place
Family businesses often are daunting places to launch careers. Pressures to contribute and learn all aspects of the business, including marketing and competition, created new challenges for Elisa. No longer were her days in the vineyards part of crafting career aspirations. This was reality, not dreams and longing. Her career took flight as she accepted the heavy responsibility that comes with being a member of a wine producing family. Elisa considers that time to have been a “big moment for her” in her “changing life.”
Shortly after graduating, with older sister Enrica, Elisa made her first marketing trip to America. Enrica, who studied languages and now handles marketing and sales for the winery, wanted Elisa to experience firsthand the their wines’ American market. It was an eye opening experience. Following the birth of Enrica’s first child in 2011, Elisa assumed more responsibility for traveling the world to show the wines.
Elisa enjoys tasting their wines with clients in different countries, but home definitely is where her heart lies. Although Elisa cherishes her earliest childhood memories of her father playing the harmonica while he drained casks in the cellar, she loves her work in the vineyards most of all. She explained to me how liberating she finds the lack of control one has when growing grapes.
Elisa finds “playing and interacting with nature” and following “nature’s philosophy” less intimidating than working in the cellar where she must confront the alchemy of the wine. Control is crucial in the cellar. I envy Elisa’s ability to eschew control and let nature take its course. It’s a gift.
No doubt, Paolo Scavino would be proud to see his granddaughters, members of an evolving generation, walking the path he laid for them when he started his winery in 1921. No more shadows for the women of Piemonte.
After a week of travel and back-to-back fascinating interviews of le donne di Piemonte (women of Piemonte), I was ready for a break to process all that I had learned. Spending my Saturday morning strolling through the Alba mercato and through the ancient city’s old town was just what I needed. But now it was time for lunch!
I’m such a creature of habit. Fortunately, some are good habits, like never missing an opportunity to have lunch at La Cantinetta in Barolo.
As I drove to the western side of the Langhe, the skies were darkening and curtains of rain fell in the distance. Monte Viso and its neighbors in the Cottian Alps had been so prominent below the azure blue skies two days ago, but now were hidden in the clouds. The autumn-like chill in the damp air made me feel as though I should be in search of tartufi bianci. But looking out over the barren, pruned vineyards, there was no mistaking the season. It was spring and the vines were merely waiting for the sun’s signal that it was safe for the swelling buds to break. The locals were a bit worried about the never-ending cold, damp weather. But there was still time for Mother Nature to help the vines along before flowering in the waning days of spring.
When I walked into La Cantinetta, with its walls covered with shelves of wine in the front room and simple larger dining room to the back, I was disappointed not to find co-owner and manager Maurilio Chiappetto running about the restaurant. Everything was the same as it had been since we first ate there with 16 year-old Giuseppe Vaira nearly 14 years ago, except there was no Maurilio, dressed in an apron – usually a blue Deltetto one – bustling about.
But I was assured he would be in the afternoon. Good. It wasn’t just the food I was after. I wanted to interview Maurilio and to finally have a chance to learn more about him, his brother and chef Paolo, their 89 year old “agnolotti-loving” father, Giovanni, and their fascinating traditional Piemontese restaurant they had been running since 1981, first in Alba then in Barolo since 1995.
Somethings must change and since I was on my own at the restaurant for the first time, I opted for a small table in the front room, next to shelves of some of the most noble names in Piemontese wines. I also figured I had a better chance of catching Maurilio in the front near the cash register.
La Cantinetta is one of those marvelous restaurants that has a menu, I think, but offers you whatever chef is cooking for the day. All you have to do is say “yes” or “no” to the courses as they come out. That day I was determined to keep the calorie count below 5,000 and only have the small plates of uber-traditional antipasti.
I could write a 1,200 word column on antipasto (singular of antipasti – but let’s face it, when have you ever had just one antipasto?). I’m not doing that now.The word, derived from Latin and meaning “before the meal,” dates to the 1500’s, according to one dictionary source. For the most part, Americans equate antipasti with a plate of salumi, olives and the like. But the Piemontese concept of dishes “before the meal” in fact can be a meal!
At La Cantinetta, it is more than a meal! Can’t believe I usually have Paolo’s antipasti (which is about five different plates, cold then hot) and primi piatti (usually two different different pastas and one risotto) and seconde (usually brasato, roasted lamb or chinghiale – wild boar). Of course, let’s not forget the incredibly delicious, crispy grissini that grace every table in Piemonte. Grissini are basically Piemontese bread sticks, but not like the skinny massed produced, pre-packaged kind. A glass of Dolcetto and grissini would probably have sufficed, but what a waste of a gustatory opportunity!
Where was I? Sorry, I fade into a culinary stupor just thinking about Piemontese food!
First up was Insalata Russa, or Russian Salad. I wonder if the Russians call it Italian Salad when served in Moscow. It is to Piemonte (and the rest of Italy) what potato salad is to a Texas barbecue. Actually, it’s an Italian version of potato salad, with lots of extras like eggs, pickles, carrots, capers, peas and even tuna thrown in. Everyone has their own recipe, just like potato salad. Quite honestly, it’s a meal in itself. Grissini, Insalata Russa and a glass of Dolcetto. Nope. There’s more.
Maurilio came in, as usual in a bit of a hurry, and greeted me warmly as he had on so many previous occasions. He was moving and had planned on taking the day off given it was quiet. But here he was and it wasn’t long before he was lending a hand. First, he poured me a glass of the house Dolcetto. Forgive me, I forgot to get the name of it, but it was lovely.
I spooned a bit of the Insalata Russa on my plate, savored it – yup, delicious as always – and then began snapping photos of it. Italians have a God-given talent of transforming simple, pedestrian ingredients into delicious taste sensations. My server brought the next dish. Thinking I was finished, she picked up the small gratin plate still filled with the golden concoction. I grew up in a household with three older brothers and had learned at a tender age to stop someone from taking my food. And I did. It wasn’t greed; it would have been insane not to have just a wee bit more!
I’ve never had the same antipasti choices twice. Sometimes it includes carne cruda – another dish for another post – and sometimes sweet bell peppers stuffed with tuna and capers. But always the Insalata Russa, Vitello Tonnato and, Chef Paolo’s sought-after chicken liver pate with sweet onion relish and brioche. That was next.
This time the 2″ size ball of liver pate had a slice of terrine with pistachio nuts as a sidekick on the plate. This was not a time to be counting calories or fat grams. And certainly I didn’t want to hurt Maurilio’s feelings, so I ate is all. Just remember, it’s all from scratch and no preservatives!
Not finished yet.
Vitello tonnato is a dish that screams “Piemonte!” Chef Nick Haley of Zino Ristorante in Edwards, CO studied at the prestigious Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti and is a huge fan of this simple dish of veal rump – usually poached or braised – and tuna sauce. But he marvels at how Americans are so turned off at the thought of combination of veal and tuna. What a pity because he would like to serve it more often in his restaurant. When properly prepared and yellowfin tuna in olive oil is used, it’s a marvelous dish.
Like every other dish you’ll find in Italy, everyone has their own variations of the creamy sauce. Chef Paolo’s preparation of chilled paper-thin slices of rare veal with a dollop of sauce is never anything less than delicious.
Vitello tonnato makes an excellent summer main course and holiday celebration antipasto. It’s also a popular dish in Argentina, no doubt brought there by Piemontese immigrants similar to Papa Francesco’s ancestors.
Not sure why, perhaps I was protecting my plate, but I didn’t get a picture of the vitello tonnato at La Cantinetta. So here’s a snapshot of one I had at Profumo di Vino in Treiso with winemaker Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino earlier in the week.
Still not finished. And don’t forget, this is “merely” the antipasti.
Although made with pasta, Chef Paolo’s tender raviolo is a popular item amongst the antipasti choices. The presentation changes a bit with the seasons, but it always stuffed with a deep golden, runny egg yolk and pureed spinach and topped with grated Parmigiani-Reggiano. In keeping with the season – despite what the weather was saying – tender green, pencil-thin asparagus were cut and sprinkled on top.
Any one of the preceding dishes would have qualified as a meal, not merely something “before the meal.” But there was more to come. The cardi (thistle) flan with fonduta is another Piemontese specialty. Although slightly bitter, the flavorful vegetable flan is a perfect companion to the creamy sauce made from fontina cheese, egg yolks – and theirs are such a deep golden color! – and milk. Maurilio was adamant in telling me no flour is used in their fonduta as it gives the sauce a slight grainy texture with a taste of flour.
This was nothing short of sublime decadence and a great ending to my meal although Maurilio was trying to convince me to have some pasta. Willpower prevailed, helped along by the knowledge I was going to have a lovely four-course dinner back at Agriturismo Il Bricco that evening! And I didn’t even have a second glass of Dolcetto knowing how strict the drink driving laws are now.
Discovering Chiara Boschis
Finally, without the distraction of food, I had Maurilio all to myself for an interview, except for the occasional break to say “Grazie” and “Ciao” to departing guests. We spent an hour talking and you’ll have to wait until my Vail Daily article on that, but it was the discussion of my book project that finally turned the conversation onto the path of the serendipitous discovery of Chiara Boschis.
In my journal, I simply wrote “Chiara Boschis, owner E. Pira e Figli.” Her family’s name was of course familiar, but this women who was one of the first of her gender to run a winery in Barolo was new to me.
Maurilio said “I’ll take you to meet her.” So into the misty rain we went up the street and across the main road that skirts town to the winery on the corner. Beside the thick, imposing wooden door was a plaque that read simply, “Pira.” The loud bell brought to the door a smiling man I later discovered was Chiara’s younger brother, Giorgio, who has been with her in the winery since 2010. Chiara was away, but he gave me her card. I would have to wait, perhaps until June, to meet her.
Then again, not. The coming week would bring me back to Barolo to finally have an opportunity to interview this incredibly passionate, poetic winemaker who just so happened to be a woman. One of le donne di Piemonte.
You’ll have to wait for my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women” to get the full story. In the meantime, I thought I’d introduce you to some of the wonderful women and their families who will populate the pages of my book. Many I’ve known for nearly 14 years, but a few I’ve only just met through the process of researching my book. One of those women is the effervescent and immensely talented Chiara Boschis, winemaker and owner of E. Pira e Figli in Barolo.
On Monday, I introduced my Vail Daily readers near and far to Chiara. You can read more about her at:
What I didn’t tell you was how I discovered this well-known, under-discovered maven of Barolo. Serendipity is wonderful and often its surprises can yield incredible fruit.
After a grueling month of first getting my husband Dani off on his long trip to Israel, I was off on my odyssey in Piemonte. I arrived in Treiso at Agriturismo Il Bricco evening of March 19th. The journey had taken nearly 27 hours, but I was excited to be back in the land of the noble grape.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday took me back and forth between Treiso, Barbaresco and Barolo interviewing fascinating women and men from the winemaking families of Cantina del Pino, Marchesi di Gresy, Gaja, G. D. Vajra, Livia Fontana and Cascina delle Rose. Although I still had interviews to conduct at Deltetto, Ca’ del Baio and Matteo Correggia the following week, the weekend gave me a much-needed break to process all that I had learned in the hours of interviews. Most of all, the weekend meant market day in Alba.
The Alba mercato is located on the fringes of the old city. During the week the area under and around the massive roof is a parking lot. But on Saturdays it becomes an expansive gastronomic venue. Everything one needs to make prepare a stunning Piemontese feast – including the utensils, gadgets, pots and pans – can be found at the market. Ok, so you have to shop elsewhere for the treasured tartufo bianci in autumn, but even the clothes and shoes to wear for the occasion can be purchased here. Nothing like an hour walking around, envying the availability of beautiful vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood to remind me of what I miss most about living in Europe. Why can’t we have markets like that in Colorado instead of the over-priced weekend farmers’ markets?
WIth that obligatory stroll through the mercato complete, I drove back to Il Bricco, deposited my goodies – chestnut honey, roasted hazelnuts, lace scarves and the Parmigiano-Reggiano given to me as a gift from the cheese couple I wrote about last year – and headed west to Barolo (see below).
I was on a mission. Ristorante La Cantinetta was my destination.