Tag Archives: E. Pira e Figli

Winery Doors to Vinous Paradise

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.

For centuries, the E. Pira e Figli winery has occupied the corner of via Monforte and via Vittorio Veneto in Barolo.
For centuries, the E. Pira e Figli winery has occupied the corner of via Monforte and via Vittorio Veneto in Barolo.

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.

At home in the tasting room of Chiara Boschis, E. Pira e Figli, in Barolo, Italy.
At home in the tasting room of Chiara Boschis, E. Pira e Figli, in Barolo, Italy.

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.

Chiara enjoying the sweet summer fragrance of roses in the vineyards.
Chiara enjoying the sweet summer fragrance of roses in the vineyards.

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.

The "cantina vecchia" (old cellar) that has housed barrels of aging wine for centuries.
The “cantina vecchia” (old cellar) that has housed barrels of aging wine for centuries.

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.

No job is too menial for Chiara and she takes great delight in the handwork of winemaking. Here she is cleaning a wine vat.
No job is too menial for Chiara and she takes great delight in the handwork of winemaking. Here she is cleaning a wine vat.

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.

One of Barolo's first women winemaker's, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines
One of Barolo’s first women winemaker’s, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines

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.

Chiara Boschis' three Barolo "children"
Chiara Boschis’ three Barolo “children”

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 enjoys taking her wines on the road. Here she is at Zino Ristorante near Vail, CO with Executive Chef Nick, Giuseppe Bosco and her loyal, trusted importer, Steve Lewis of Giuliana Imports.
Chiara enjoys taking her wines on the road. Here she is at Zino Ristorante near Vail, CO with Executive Chef Nick, Giuseppe Bosco and her loyal, trusted importer, Steve Lewis of Giuliana Imports.

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.

Chiara Boschis with Giuseppe and Alisha Bosco of Vail Valley's Ristorante Zino enjoying Chiara's wines in her tasting room.
Chiara Boschis with Giuseppe and Alisha Bosco of Vail Valley’s Ristorante Zino enjoying Chiara’s wines in her tasting room.
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's feet are rooted in the soil of Barolo. She is most at peace among her vines.
Chiara’s feet are rooted in the soil of Barolo. She is most at peace among her vines.

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.

Chiara Boschis enjoying lunch al fresco at Rifugio Valliera in Castelmagno.
Chiara Boschis enjoying lunch al fresco at Rifugio Valliera in Castelmagno.

“Light” Lunch at La Cantinetta

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.

Monte Viso on a clear day
Monte Viso on a clear day

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.

Image 14

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.

Vitello Tonnato at Profumo di VIno in Treiso
Vitello Tonnato at Profumo di Vino in Treiso

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.

Raviolo at La CantinettaRaviolo at La Cantinetta

 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.

Cardi flan with fonduta
Cardi flan with fonduta

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.

See my articles on Chiara Boschis at:



And TripAdvisor review of La Cantinetta: