Driving south from Alba, on a foggy, rainy morning, the hills began to rise up around us like a misty dream. As our little Fiat traversed the windy roads, the world we were about to spend four days in came sharply into focus (see photo slideshow at bottom).
Hillsides swallowed up hillsides; vistas stretched endlessly to the horizon and tiny castles and towers marked hilltop towns in every direction. After countless pictures I’d seen of this area, I was ill prepared for the magnitude of it. The cathedral of vines on all sides was staggering. The land was blanketed from head to toe in tidy rows of them, many with stakes rooting each one to the earth. The sporadic hamlets and farmhouses seemed to be nuisances to the vines’ path, like large rocks in a lazy, green river.
We had three winery appointments, which hardly even scratched the surface of the hundreds of passionate winemakers and grape growers who call these hills home. But they are top dogs, trendsetters, and innovators in this world. Over two days, we were welcomed into the cellars and tasting rooms of Aldo Conterno, Gaja and Renato Ratti. Each spent an excessively gracious amount of time with us and told us their stories and tasted us on their wines as we discussed life, philosophy, business and even beer.
For overview sake, Italy was not taken seriously on the quality wine stage until very recently. While growing a hell of a lot of grapes over a hell of a long period of time, it was not until the 1970’s and 1980’s that the country adopted winemaking practices that showed the world it’s capability of producing world-class wines. Much of this early groundswell began in Piemonte (a name that literally translates to “foot of the Alps”).
And behind this driving force, the families of Conterno, Gaja and Ratti (plus a handful of others) fought tirelessly to change centuries of hard-wired perceptions—not just outside of Italy, but also of their very own neighbors and family. Convincing someone to tear up their vineyards and replant them, or to drastically reduce the amount of grapes grown on their land to increase their quality, is not easy. Why would you ask me to grow fewer grapes (or to toss them to the ground weeks before harvest) when I’ve worked so long to get to this level of production?
The Conterno family was ripped apart over a shift in winemaking philosophies (today, you can find wines from both Aldo Conterno and Giacomo Conterno). Angelo Gaja’s father shed tears every time he passed the vineyard that Angelo had ripped up to plant Cabernet Sauvignon vines in (a grape not previously grown here). Renato Ratti personally analyzed all the vineyards of Barolo; by sampling soils and drawing a map to identify sites capable of producing great, single-vineyard wines, he convinced many growers they had something unique.
Before then, most Piemontese farmers only grew grapes to sell to large cooperatives where they were then made into bulk wines. The idea of growing grapes to produce their own wine was radical.
In meeting these producers and seeing their operations, you can feel their grit, their toughness, their dedication. Their passion is infectious and their pride in their land unmistakable. Integrity and class are two words to describe them.
Seeing the geography of this land brought it all home. The comunes of Barolo and Barbaresco are relatively small, but composed of countless, tiny hilltop towns. And when I say tiny, I mean it. One can drive them from start to finish in less time than it would take to finish a three-ounce pour of wine. And if fueled on enough grappa, I just might be able to throw a baseball from one end of town to the other (and trust me, I don’t throw a lot of baseballs).
While there are many grapes grown here (whites like Arneis, Cortese, Moscato, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, or reds like Barbera, Vespolina, Bonarda or Dolcetto), the queen of the Piedmontese grapes is Nebbiolo. I danced with her many times over the four days I spent in her kingdom. She is a randy, ornery, sometimes viciously powerful lady, but so full of life and depth that one cannot overlook her majesty.
As I tasted and smelled my way through her aromas of tar, leather, violets, licorice, earth and chocolate, my senses were assaulted by complexity. And the legendary grip of her tannins led my gums to shriek and my teeth to writhe in violent embraces. If you’re looking for soft, simple, velvety wines, these are not they. These are wild stallions that will bounce you across the landscape on unpredictable journeys.
As the days wore on, the weather cleared up. And what was once a land of grey mist turned into a wonderland of sunshine and color. Roads I’d driven previously felt new and different. It is a land that one cannot crack in a day, a week, or even a month; and her wines mirror this. And while I was fortunate to meet these three incredible producers and taste dozens of wines, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of their world.
On my last day, I went into a cathedral at the center of Monforte d’ Alba and found myself entirely alone. There was not a sound in the air, and my eyes scanned the walls covered in frescoes and sculptures. Centuries of artists had used their hands to shape these walls. And for a moment, I lost myself. I felt connected to the earth and to the heavens; part of something that my mind couldn’t comprehend.
Piedmont had entered my soul and I was but a mere player on its vast stage.