The title refers to Cesare Pavese’s novel about life, just following the war, in the hills around Turin. And it is the hills one sees first, coming up from the coast, as we did, from Savona, where the Sanremo-Genoa line splits up through the subalpine valleys.
In writing this, we’re indebted to Edward Behr’s awesome the Art of Eating, as well as Fred Plotkin’s magisterial survey of the food of Italy, Italy for the Gourmet Traveller. Both publications, dated as they are, seem invaluable for understanding the food and wine of Italy, and of course, for eating well.
A trip to Piedmont is more about wine than anything. The southern hills, the Langhe, are most famous for the appellations Barolo and Barbaresco, on the southern bank of the Tanaro River. Turin lies an hour away, nestled in its cushion of mountains. The Langhe’s most famous grapes are Nebbiolo (so-called for the fog, nebbia, that blankets these hills), Barbera, and Dolcetto (the “little sweet one”). Nebbiolo sits up there with Sangiovese (the “blood of Jove”), and perhaps, with Aglianico, at least in the opinion of a proud Lucanian, amongst the pantheon of Italian grapes. All the more so because, unlike Pinot Noir or the ubiquitious Cabernets, these vines don’t take easily to the climate, land, or aggressive winemaking of the New World – somehow they mainly flourish in modest bits of Italy.
To paraphrase Behr, Barolo’s characteristic flavours are “violets, tar, faded roses…leather”, and we’re looking at a pale wine that in age “runs toward orange”. Everywhere in the Langhe, one hears of a division between traditionalist and modernist winemakers, and this goes to the heart of Piemontese winemaking’s 20th-century history. Nebbiolo is a treacherous and fickle grape, autochthonous to Piedmont (first referenced in 1303 AD), highly tannic, phenolic, acidic, and susceptible to frost due to its long ripening period. Its fruit is comparatively delicate. The upshot is that this grape takes at least 3-4 years in the bottle before the tannins soften sufficiently to make it palatable.
So why put up with the temperamental Nebbiolo grape? Because, its high tannin content serves to protect the wine and slow down oxidation, giving it more time in the bottle to age, allowing complexity (so-called “tertiary flavours” such as tar and leather) to develop, which simply don’t show up in wines that are easily drinkable within 1-2 years of production. There are nebbiolo-based wines that are drinkable 40 years on. Unfortunately, the problem in the past was that by the time the wine developed complexity, the, already ephemeral at bottling, fruit and flower flavours tended to disappear. Producers and consumers were stuck between Scylla and Charbydis: youthful harshness versus a dry, fruitless senescence (and we’re talking about the wine here). “There was never a right time to drink the wine. It was always too late for the fruit and too early for the tannin.”
La Barbera is simpler: as the most heavily planted in Piedmont, it produces a darker wine without the tannin, but is still acidic, albeit drinkable earlier than Nebbiolo. But the everyday grape of the Langhe is Dolcetto, light and easy drinking, wine for food, but not really a vino de meditazione. It goes well with the rich cuisine, the raw beef, the cheeses, the boar.
In the 1980s, winemaking in the Langhe started to change. Yields were reduced, and vines were pruned aggressively to ensure the grapes were fully ripe before picking, which seemed to reduce the bitter tannic content and maximise the fruit. The cellar technique was also modified – as grape juice ferments in vats, a dense cap of crushed skins forms; the skins, and therefore this cap, contain flavour and colour, but are also highly tannic. Various producers introduced techniques, such as agitating or puncturing the cap, or increasing fermentation temperature, to extract flavours while minimising tannins. Controversially, some introduced equipment, such as rotofermenters, which prevent a cap from forming at all. Finally, instead of the traditional tall botti grandi, which allowed for a slow oxidation and more controlled development of refined flavour, there was a move towards the barriques of new oak. Aromatics in the oak leached into the wine, giving (in the worst case), a distinct vanilla note, but also helped add sweet tannins to replace the bitter tannins which had been prevented from entering the wine by the methods above. To maximise fruit, the modernists drastically cut the ageing time, to as little as 2 or 3 years.
Still other producers used yet more interventionist methods, such as reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, and so forth, to achieve a desired flavour profile (in some cases, the so-called “international style” of young, easy-to-drink, fruit-forward wine that is promoted by market forces and wine consultants).
Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco has led the modernist revolution in Piedmont. At the other end are producers such as the Conterno brothers, Giovanni and Aldo, Bruno Giacosa, and Francesco Rinaldi, who have tried to maintain the traditional ways, with their higher production and ageing costs, and therefore higher retail break-evens. As Behr says in his 2001 articles, it’s far from clear how much the differences in methods translate into consistent differences, or values, in the final product, and indeed, many producers use a mix of modern and traditional techniques.
We made a 20km walk, along the banks of the Tanaro, from Alba to Barbaresco, through a boar-hunting zone, hazelnut groves, and acres of treacherous mud. But, in doing so, we got a great sense of the distinctive feel of the Langhe hills, rolling along, seemingly all the way to the Alps (the Matterhorn, known as Monte Cervino, was almost always visible towering over the Val d’Aosta). Most of the properties were quite small, with modest sized compounds, and almost no one about. There was the pervasive smell of roasting hazelnuts, perhaps mixed with chocolate, which is of course the smell of Nutella.
All this was a quiet and contemplative prelude to Turin, comparatively busy and chaotic, but nothing like Rome or Genoa. Turin, first capital of the united Italy, spent considerable time as part of France, and feels French in its Cartesian orderliness and grid-layout, the relatively reserved people. Although generally perfectly nice, they had little of the sparkle of Venetians, the rough bawdiness of the Romans, or the sly dark wit of the Palermitans, rather the Torinese eyes have a distinct sense of the fish that has been dead for some days. The city itself seems to have fallen on hard times, with the recession and Fiat’s troubles. But what the city lacks in warmth, it makes up for in splendid art: a world-class Egyptian collection, currently being renovated (but with a considerable portion still on display); several contemporary art galleries. Everyone seemed to be reading, and the city was filled with bookstores, things we hadn’t seen in Genoa, Sanremo, or Alba, where the sea, truffles and winemaking happily occupy one.