Tag Archives: wine

Discovering Under-Discovered Piemonte

Seeking the Sun in Piemonte

I’m in Piemonte now, spending a month wrapping up final interviews and research for my book project on the wine women of the Langhe and Roero.

It’s mid-May, a time when the weather can be unpredictable, but is generally kind to visitors and vintners. Although snowstorms still plague my home in the Colorado Rockies, here the sun is shining. At my agriturismo in the countryside, I am suspended between Heaven and earth, azure blue skies and rolling green hills.

Panoramic view of the Barolo appellation and the Cottian Alps and Alpes Maritime in the background as seen from Diano d'Alba.
Panoramic view of the Barolo appellation and the Cottian Alps and Alpes Maritime in the background as seen from Diano d’Alba.

Unfortunately, my experiences haven’t always been like today. The shyness of the sun in those early trips nearly foiled later adventures to the region. How I came to love this land and find a connection so deep that I am consumed with writing about it is something that did not come easy.

Since so many of my storytelling-moments involve Piemonte, people often people ask why I’m drawn to the province, particularly the Langhe and Roero, the two most prominent wine districts (my apologies to Montferrato and northern Piemonte wineries). It’s a fair question and actually quite easy to answer. This region in the northwestern corner of Italy is an endearing amalgamation of people, culture and natural beauty that literally bewitched me.

Spell-binding autumn colors of Piemonte's vineyards can still be seen and enjoyed on cloudy, autumn days.
Spell-binding autumn colors of Piemonte’s vineyards can still be seen and enjoyed on cloudy, autumn days.

A year passed before I experienced a sunny day in Piemonte and saw for myself what I had only seen in photographs – vine-covered rolling landscapes peppered with medieval hilltop towns against a backdrop of snow-covered alps far away on the western and northern horizons.

Reconnaissance Mission

In early November 1999, I set out on my first Piemontese adventure with my mom and my mini-Schnauzer, Otis.

Otis the Wine Dog
Otis the Wine Dog was welcome everywhere we went in Europe.

My mom was visiting and my husband Dani was in China overseeing a shipbuilding project at Jiangnan Shipyards in Shanghai, so this was a great opportunity to take mom on a reconnaissance mission to learn about this under-discovered region. We lived in neighboring Switzerland, so I loaded up mom who was visiting from south Louisiana, and Otis who enjoyed the benefits of Europe’s enlightened pet access rules into our white Ford Explorer for the nearly 5 hour drive south from Zurich.

Dani with the Wine Panzer at Marchesi di Gresy in Barbaresco appellation.
Dani with the Wine Panzer at Marchesi di Gresy in Barbaresco appellation.

Anyone who knows Piemonte knows Mother Nature usually unleashes her foul mood on the region in November after (hopefully) holding rains in abeyance through the autumn harvest. At a minimum, there’s always fog. But there is also rain. We had rain. Lots of it. Walking a dog in the pouring rain through sticky mud was not the experience I sought. Frankly, I was miserable.

In those days before bloggers and writers began spreading the gospel of Piemonte, there were few travel resources in any language much less English. A few of my colleagues at Swiss Re gave me tips, but for the most part, I didn’t know where to go or what to eat. I was just told it was hard to make a bad choice. My mom was along for the ride. Normally someone who wanted to be in full control, she happily ceded control to me. You might say it was a classic case of the blind leading the blind.

I discovered agriturismo Villa Meridiana on the outskirts of Alba. Perched on a west-facing slope high above the town with a view, I was told, of the Roero to the north and the Langhe to the west, it was one of the few agriturismi in existence at the time. As I had discovered when I booked, it was full. No one had told me early November was still high season when gastronomes across Europe descended on Alba to dine on and purchase tartufi bianchi d’Alba.

Sunset over Alba from Villa Meridiana on a later trip to the region.
Sunset over Alba from Villa Meridiana on a later trip to the region.

Fortunately, the owners had two vacant apartments in Neviglie, a hilltop hamlet in the Barbaresco appellation about 10 minutes to the east. We were delighted, but the terrifying drive on narrow, winding roads in pouring rain in what we would in later years dub the “wine panzer,” proved to be an unexpected stressor. Wine was needed.

We spent four rainy days and nights there, only once venturing outside at night. Although we didn’t discover very much beyond the apartment’s door, each day we had a delightful time buying grissini, bread, salumi, cheese and, of course, wine from the mercato d’Alba and small salumerie, panetterie, alimentari and enoteche.

A wide selection of delicious Piemontese specialities are always available at Alba Market on Thursday's and Saturday's, year round.
A wide selection of delicious Piemontese specialities are always available at Alba Market on Thursday’s and Saturday’s, year round.

The experience connected me to the region and I knew I would return if for no other reason than to see the sun shining on the vineyards.

Still Seeking the Sun

During the first February of the new millennium, I made my second trip to Piemonte, this time with Dani and my ever-present companion, Otis. Still not the best seasonal choice, but at least the persistent clouds didn’t rain on us. Although we didn’t see the vistas the Langhe was known for, the abundance of medieval villages, seemingly ghost towns in the mid-winter cold, held gastronomic secrets we soon discovered – excellent, family-owned restaurants.

Fog in autumn and winter can create beautiful scenery when settled into vineyard lined valleys.
Fog in autumn and winter can create beautiful scenery when settled into vineyard lined valleys.

We couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate introduction to classic Piemontese cucina. It was as it should be: simple, fresh and made with love. Needless to say, the concept of eating food grown within a few miles of the restaurants was a fabulous discovery.

The basics in all traditional Piemontese restaurants: fresh grissini and local cheese, salumi and, of course, wine.
The basics in all traditional Piemontese restaurants: fresh grissini and local cheese, salumi and, of course, wine.

The warmth of the food and those who prepared and served it made us long for more. We still hadn’t seen the landscape nor had we truly experienced the wine culture. That would soon change in a – positive – seismic way.

Discovering a part of New Zealand in Barbaresco

It wasn’t until later that year, again in November, when I saw the bright sunshine and what the clouds and fog had hidden from me. The trip began as expected: foggy days and even foggier nights. On the third day, an early season snowstorm blanketed the near naked vineyards with snow so that when the clouds surrendered to the sun, we discovered the landscape in all its splendor.

Early winter snow blanketing the vineyards of Martinenga. (Photo courtesy of Marchesi di Gresy).
Early winter snow blanketing the vineyards of Martinenga. (Photo courtesy of Marchesi di Gresy).

Snow-covered vineyards, azure blue sky – we call it “bluebird skies” in Colorado – and soaring mountains on the horizon made the wait worthwhile. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s way of making visitors to the region worthy of witnessing the splendor she could unveil.

On that trip, we not only discovered what fog and clouds had hidden from us, but it was the beginning of our adventures in wine. After the brief period of sun, the snow melted and the fog returned. Piemonte was once again shrouded in her foggy winter mantle.

Nevertheless, despite the fog and daunting directions, we discovered the Kiwi wine wizard, Jeffrey Chilcott, maître de chais of the vaunted Barbaresco winery, Tenuta Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Grésy.

Marchesi di Gresy Maitre de Chais Jeffrey Chilcott
Marchesi di Gresy Maitre de Chais Jeffrey Chilcott

Nestled on the slopes of the Martinenga ampitheatre, it’s not an easy place to find, particularly when the pea-soup thick fog obscures signs. But we persevered and our lives changed forever. We quickly discovered it wasn’t just sun that had been missing, but an anglophone wine sage to guide us through the exciting world of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis and all the other varietals that make their home in Piemonte.

At Home – Briefly – in Piemonte

Fast-forward 15 years and over 20 trips to this morning in the Langhe. Once again, I’m rewarded with deep blue skies above, but now it’s lush green below my feet that dominates the colors of the landscape. Nascent grapes are profiting from warm, sunny days and vines are growing fast to produce leaves that will capture the nurturing sun’s rays.

Early season Dolcetto grapes in vineyards of Cantina Gigi Rosso in Diano d'Alba.
Early season Dolcetto grapes in vineyards of Cantina Gigi Rosso in Diano d’Alba.

Another vintage is dawning in the heart of Piemonte. I’m here to witness it and share with you stories of Piemonte’s wine families and their region.

Come back in the days ahead as I share stories and guide visitors to some of the under-discovered places that enchant us. Needless to say, I will introduce you to many people who have become dear friends, including Jeffrey, the tall Kiwi of Martinenga.

Ci vediamo tutti!

Valais, Switzerland’s Vinous Pleasures

I know it’s only spring (and if you’re up here in the Colorado High Country you might think it’s still winter).  But it’s never too early to start planning your autumn wine trip to Valais, Switzerland where you will find an abundance of wine families.  So I thought I’d post an article I did some months ago that was published in the Vail Daily.  If you have questions or need travel tips, send me an email through this website.

map of Valais 171

For those of you old enough to remember the movie and Broadway production, Camelot, you’ll recall Lancelot’s crooning song to Guinevere “If Ever I Would Leave You.”  Basically, Lancelot loves her so much he can’t think of a season he could bear leaving her. I was like that when I left Switzerland’s third largest canton, Valais, after calling it home for nearly 25 years.  There really is no a season when Valais isn’t special.  But autumn is the season my love for Valais is greatest and the one I miss the most, even here in the visual splendor of the Rocky Mountain High Country.

View of Val Anniviers from La Tieche near Crans-Montana, Switzerland
View of Val Anniviers from the alpages along La Tieche near Crans-Montana, Switzerland

Other than Zermatt, most Americans are unfamiliar with Valais (Wallis in the German part of the canton).  And that’s a pity.  Valais’ beauty are the 300 million year old mountains of the Bernese and Peninne ranges soaring 14,000 feet above sea level over the lush Rhone River valley 13,000 feet below.  The resulting diverse landscape is suitable for agriculture, viticulture, dairy farms, hydroelectric plants and recreation, most notably skiing, hiking and mountain biking.  It’s the agrarian economy of Valais juxtaposed with the recreational wonderland that I love so much.  Needless to say, viticulture creates particularly enjoyable recreational opportunities for oenophiles.

The breathtaking panorama and rich culture – the amalgamation of over two millennia of various peoples, from the original Celtic inhabitants to Romans and Germanic Burgundians – makes Valais one of the most intriguing places in Europe.

The breathtaking panorama and rich culture – the amalgamation of over two millennia of various peoples, from the original Celtic inhabitants to Romans and Germanic Burgundians – makes Valais one of the most intriguing places in Europe.

View from Bluche up the Rhone Valley in Valais, Switzerland
View from Bluche up the Rhone Valley in Valais, Switzerland

In America, tourists – and locals – flock to maple and aspen forests in autumn to witness colors dying leaves unleashed as chlorophyll levels diminish and vibrant colors masked by green emerge.  Even in dry, hot years like this one, aspens paint the slopes in colors I liken to calico cats.  No set pattern.  Just a mélange of gold, red and white when early snows come. Valais has its own foliage, but its stars are changing grape leaves.  Ancient vineyards use south-facing lower slopes of steep, craggy mountains and the floor of the Rhone valley as a canvas to paint their own botanical masterpieces.

So now you have a vision of Valais in autumn.  Let’s explore a bit the delights this season has to offer.  This week, wine.

Vineyard foliage provides the backdrop for the vendanges, or grape harvest.  The oldest evidence of wine consumption in Valais is a 2nd century BC Celtic ceramic bottle found in a woman’s tomb.  Odd habit of the Celts; they offered wine to the dead.  Romans, who history tells us were into imbibing while still alive, picked up where the Celts left off.  Wine has been continually produced in Valais since Roman times with production records from the Middle Ages found in church registers.

Aerial autumn view of the vineyards of Nicolas Bagnoud in Valencon above the Rhone River
Aerial autumn view of the vineyards of Nicolas Bagnoud in Valencon above the Rhone River

When I mention Swiss wines, particularly to guests in our home, I get a kick out of watching their skeptical faces turn to smiles of enjoyment as they take their first sips of these Alpine wines.  Primarily due to the relatively small production and high labor costs, not to mention the skyrocketing value of the Swiss Franc, over 98% of Swiss wines are consumed domestically.  And that’s pity.  The wines are truly special.

During the vendanges, growers pick grapes for over 23 locally produced wines from Visp (the turn for Zermatt) west to Martigny.  The often hot and dry microclimate of Valais, one of the sunniest spots in Europe, is perfect for growing a number of cultivars, some familiar to Americans, some not.

Fendant, one of the over 100 synonyms for Chasselas and used exclusively in Valais, is the second most planted grape in Valais, behind Pinot Noir.  To the Valaisans, Fendant AOC is as iconic a Swiss symbol as cows, cheese and chocolate.  The Valaisans are pragmatic people.  All good food needs good wine and starting off a meal in Valais with a cold bottle of Fendant is a gastronomic must amongst locals.  Makes sense since it is a natural pairing for cheese dishes such as Raclette AOC produced in high mountain pastures – alpages – during the summer and enjoyed throughout the year.  The origin of “Fendant” is thought to be a local patois derivation of the French verb “fondre,” to melt.  The tough outer skin is in stark contrast to the large grape’s delicate meat that melts when squeezed.  Easy to remember what’s great with raclette and fondue – both melted cheese dishes – think Fendant, the grape that melts!

One might call Pinot Noir “the grape that saved the Valais wine industry.”  Its appearance in the mid-19th century was part of efforts to regenerate viticulture in Valais.  Like the home of Pinot Noir, Burgundy, Valais is prone to both dryness and cold weather, both of which the grape tolerates well.  Unlike Burgundy where irrigation is forbidden, both drip and sprinkler irrigation provide summer moisture in this semi-arid Alpine environment.  Legendary Valais wine producer, the late Simon Maye, brought drip irrigation to Valais from Israel in the mid-20th century.  His impact on wine production, both through innovation and dedication to quality, cannot be overstated.  His sons, Axel and Jean-Francois along with their mother, Antoinette, carry on production of excellent Valais wines, most notably Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes (old vines), Dole (a classic Valais blend primarily of Pinot Noir), Syrah, Petite Arvine, Paien, and Fendant.

Paien, or Heida as it is called in Upper Valais, is the Valais version of Savagnin Blanc.  This grape, that pairs beautifully with wild mushrooms and fresh mountain cheeses that abound in Valais, is cultivated in both the French and German speaking parts of the canton.  The earliest record of Heida was found in Visperterminen where since the 16th century it has been grown in Europe’s highest vineyards at 3600 feet above sea level.

Many indigenous varietals were on the wane as other more trendy – and lucrative – wines appeared in the mid-20th century.  But since the Valais government’s initiative in the 1980s to preserve these ancient members of Swiss viticulture, production has increased. Cornalin du Valais, the rich, bold red that ages nicely and stands up to the powerful flavors of game, is one varietal that has enjoyed a renaissance.  It has become so important that there’s a festival (fete) in Flanthey to honor it every September.  It’s my favorite Swiss wine in autumn given the availability of a bounty of flavors that so nicely pair with it.  Enjoying a bottle of Cornalin in autumn on vintner Nicolas Bagnoud’s winery patio, drinking in both his excellent Cornalin and the spectacular optics of autumn while enjoying dried sausages and local cheeses, should be on any oenophile’s itinerary for Valais.  Other indigenous wines include Armigne, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge, also known as Cornalin d’Aosta.  This red wine is referred to as “gentleman’s wine” because of its low alcohol content that makes it great for lunch when followed by an afternoon of work.

Vintner Nicolas Bagnoud during the pinot gris harvest.
Vintner Nicolas Bagnoud during the pinot gris harvest.

Now that you have a little more knowledge of the Valais wine portfolio, I urge you refer to www.lesvinsduvalais.ch for a broader view of the vinous pleasures hidden in plain sight in Valais.