“Dad, can we go wine-tasting again?” Logan asked, his eyes wide with anticipation. I knew what he was really asking. “Oh, don’t worry. There will be a lot of wine-tasting,” I replied. Travelling with four young, energetic boys, the hardest thing for Nori and I to find was ‘downtime’. We never got to sleep in. We rarely went to sleep before midnight. At least one of the boys was awake by 7am, and boys are genetically incapable of being awake and quiet simultaneously. Soon all four would be stomping around, hungry and peevish, quarrelling about ridiculous issues in their somewhat considerate whisper-shouts. For us adults, breakfast marked the beginning of a 14 hour day “on the clock” at the world’s most demanding and diverse unpaid job: chef, butler, teacher, travel agent, police, judge, chauffeur, cleaner, psychologist, storyteller.
So whenever we were in wine country, we threw out the rules on ‘screen time.’ Normally, we were niggardly; we might allocate 15 iPad minutes each for a full day of good behaviour, with an additional two minutes per page of school work completed. The scarcity of available minutes made them extremely valuable. As Logan frequently said, “I’ll do almost anything for iPad minutes.” To the boys, “wine-tasting” was code for unlimited iPad time and unlimited iPad time was boy paradise.
We would park them just outside the winery, or in a quiet corner of the tasting room. Somewhere close enough to see but not hear them. Depending on their behaviour over the previous few days, we would allocate 0-20 minutes per kid per rotation, with the best-behaved going first. Sympathetic employees would usually bring the boys water and snacks like nuts, crackers or grissini. Meanwhile, Nori and I would find two seats at the counter, taste wonderful wines, hold hands and – for a few hours at least – remember the sophisticated and serene pleasures of a childless existence. “Are those children sitting outside?” winery staff often asked. “They are all so handsome and well-behaved!” “Oh thank you!” we’d reply proudly while thinking ‘You should have seen the little monsters this morning!’
This wasn’t just any old wine-tasting, either. Barolo and Barbaresco are my favourite wines in the world, which makes the Langhe my favourite wine region in the world. Though I had savoured many Barolo’s over the years, I had never seen the Nebbiolo vineyards or the hilltop villages with my own eyes. I know it sounds ridiculous – especially coming from someone from Idaho – but I don’t believe you can truly understand a wine until you’ve seen the soil it springs from. As we drove from Lake Como towards the Langhe hills, I felt like a pilgrim approaching a sacred site: Barololand.
Located in southwest Piedmont (Italian for ‘at the foot of the mountains’,) the Langhe is a roughly circular district occupying the transition zone between the flat farmland of central Lombardy and the piercing peaks of the western Alps. It’s a stunning, rippled landscape, the hills carpeted with grapevines and surmounted by medieval villages whose names were like poetry: Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Diano d’Alba, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Serralunga d’Alba.
When we were doing research, it had been hard to decide which village to stay in. But we needn’t have worried. All the villages in Barololand are within 20 minutes’ drive of each other. All the drives in Barololand are beautiful. That said, we both felt lucky to have chosen the village of La Morra. It was large enough to have a variety of shops and restaurants, small enough to explore on foot and didn’t feel like tourist town the way Barolo itself did.
La Morra’s semicircular old town occupied the highest ridge in Barololand. From viewpoints along the cobbled Via Garibaldi or on the Piazza Castello, a sea of serried green vines spread to the horizon. La Morra’s loftiness also made it easy to spot from almost anywhere in Barololand, useful when our sense of direction had been dulled by multiple wine-tastings. Nori found us a wonderful apartment to rent just below the old town. It was small, but sufficient, and furnished in a modern style. There was also a bakery across the street, a smart cafe up the road and the vineyards were steps away.
NEBBIOLO GRAPES make expressive, but expensive, wines. Most Italians couldn’t afford to drink a bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco with dinner every evening. The majority of Barolo is exported to markets like the USA, Germany and, increa singly China. Instead, Piedmontese prefer to drink the lighter and cheaper Barbera or Dolcetto. Though the name is confusingly similar to Barbaresco, Barbera is not made with Nebbiolo but Barbera grapes.
Barolo is known (in Italy, anyway) as “the king of wines and the wine of kings.” But Barolo are not ‘huge’ wines. They are not dark purple and opaque like an Aussie Shiraz or ultra-rich like a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Instead, the wine often looks like a pinot noir – a semi-transparent garnet colour, perhaps with light brown at the edges. The nose is of cherries, quince, cedar and Christmas spice. And the taste builds slowly in the mouth, a crescendo of fruit, tannin, acidity and wood. While some ‘modern’ winemakers are making Barolo’s that taste delicious upon release, the high tannin levels in most ‘traditional’ Barolo’s require at least five years of age before the tannins soften and wine comes into balance. It’s well worth waiting for. Wine-tasting in Barololand is more like Bordeaux than Napa Valley. Most wineries do not have
‘cellar doors’ open daily for walk-ins. A few have wine shops in the villages with tastings for a fee (Marcarini in La Morra, Damilano in Barolo etc.). But it’s relatively easy to arrange a tasting or winery tour with a call or email. And many villages have their own “cantina comunale” where most local wines can be sampled. Plus, there are enotecas (wine shops) everywhere. You will not be short of opportunities to drink delicious wine in Barololand.
But Barololand’s gourmet pleasures don’t stop at wine. This too is the land of wild boar, veal,venison, white Alba truffles and agnolotti pasta. Food and wine matching has few axioms, but there are two I trust. First, that the weights should match: a light wine works with light food and vice versa. Second,that ‘what grows together, goes together’: there is a natural affinity between products made in the same area, and the locals figured out what combinations sing long ago. Both rules apply here: a rich, tannic wine like Barolo tastes heavenly with the meaty, buttery, earthy food of Piedmont.We fell into a wonderful schedule: a run in the morning, homemade breakfast (the most amazing eggs!), a homeschooling session for the boys and then out for a drive and wine-tasting (maximum two wineries). We made dinner at home (penne carbonara with guanciale for the boys, and fresh ravioli with sage butter for us) and then a walk through the old town of La Morra just before the enotecas and osterias closed. Our favourite spot was Enoteca St Giorgio, a tiny wine shop-cum-restaurant with traditional desserts and an extraordinary selection of Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera wines.
We planned four nights in Barololand. This was extended to five and later six. Had we stayed much longer, I was afraid that we might never leave. A new life in the Langhe? We could learn Italian and Piedmontese, Nori could help local apartment owners manage their foreign guests and I could become a winemakers apprentice. The boys could attend an international school in Turin or Milan. We’d join truffle hunts and learn to make agnolotti by hand. Not bad at all. On second thought, perhaps we shouldn’t have opened that second bottle of Barolo. “Where are we going next?” Tai asked.
Nori and I had begun packing up. We had a long drive planned tomorrow: over the mountains into France, a brief tour of Monaco and back along the Italian riviera to Genoa.“We’ll be spending a few days in Liguria and then we’re driving to Umbria,” I replied. “Do they have wine-tasting?” he asked hopefully. “Son, almost everywhere in Italy has wine-tasting.”
“I love Italy,” he gushed.“Yes, so do I.”