The Club Vino trip to
Barolo September 2005
Club Vino group walking in
the vineyards of Barolo with Mario Fontana (right)
For the first Club Vino wine trip, some 17 of us came
to the Barolo wine hills for the weekend to visit our friends Mario
and Luisa Fontana, producers of the magnificent range of Cascina
Fontana wines that so many of us love so much: Dolcetto d’Alba,
Barbera d’Alba, Nebbiolo delle Langhe, and the king of Italian
wines, Barolo. Visiting a wine region at any time of the year is
a wonderful thing to do for it allows us to gain a more profound
understanding of this magical, fermented beverage, wine. Visiting
in the company of the person who grows the grapes and actually makes
the wine is a very special experience indeed, and Mario and Luisa
were the most attentive and generous of hosts.
The Barolo wine zone lies in a region of Piedmont known
as Le Langhe, a particularly rich and fortuitous ripple of hills
centred on the splendid little wine town of Alba, some 60 kilometres
to the south of Turin. This is a majestic wine zone of steep hills
and small, intimate wine towns topped with impressive, medieval
castles that look across to one another over the sea of vines —
primarily Nebbiolo, the zone’s aristocratic heavyweight used
to make Barolo, as well as grapes such as Barbera and Dolcetto.
We arrived on Friday evening and settled into our base, Gioco dell’Oca,
a most welcoming, stylish and friendly agriturismo bed
and breakfast at the base of the small wine town of Barolo itself.
It’s run by the beautiful Raffaella and on our arrival, she
immediately set up some tables in the courtyard of her old family
farmhouse, brought out glasses and bottles of Mario’s delicious
Dolcetto d’Alba, as well as platters of local salami and cheese
to nibble on. We sat back and drank deeply of this honest and simple
wine, just all happy to be here.
Breakfast nell'aria fresca
at Gioco dell'Oca
The taste of Le Langhe
For our first evening, Mario arranged what he called a 'simple meal'
at an informal, typical place in nearby Roddi called La Crota. A
'simple meal'? of course it was anything but. 'La crota'
in Piedmont dialect indicates a wine cellar, and the restaurant
is located in an atmospheric underground vaulted cave. It's not
the sort of place you find in all the guidebooks, or which gastronomes
who flock to this region in search of great wine and food may necessarily
seek out. But it is where the winegrowers themselves come to eat,
says Mario, on an unchanging menu of the typical traditional foods
of Le Langhe. Danilo Lorusso is a great traditional chef, and he
prepared us a meal that really introduced the flavours of this rich
and special land, including such classics as carne cruda all’albese
(raw chopped meat, a sort of Alba style steak tartare), funghi
porcini fritti (deliciously light, batter-fried fresh porcini
mushrooms), and vitello tonnato (poached veal bathed in
a creamy, tuna mayonnaise). Handmade pasta is Danilo’s speciality.
We enjoyed a remarkable raviolo somehow filled with an
egg yolk that was just cooked and so still delightfully runny, bathed
in frothy butter and shavings of parmigiano reggiano. And
of course we feasted on Danilo’s handmade tajarin
— very fine egg noodles served with a rich meaty ragù.
We washed down this 'simple' meal with copious quantities of
Mario's Barbera d'Alba 2003 and Barolo 2001. Simple indeed!
Alba on a Saturday
As the centre for the great wines of not just Barolo, but also Barbaresco
as well as the Roero zone to the north, Alba is truly one of the
great little wine towns of the world. What Beaune is to Burgundy,
St-Emilion to Bordeaux, and Haro to Spain’s La Rioja, Alba
is to Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero: at once the centre of a universe
that encompasses not just wine, but also one of Italy’s richest
and most delicious of all local gastronomies.
Alba of course is known worldwide
not just for wine, but also as the mecca for that rarest and most
mysterious of all food products, the tartufo bianco —
tuber magnatum pico — or white truffle of Alba. There is a
month long Fiera del Tartufo throughout October during which time
gastronomes descend here from all around the world, above all eager
to taste fresh white truffles washed down with Barolo and the other
great wines of Le Langhe.
Geoff and Anna learn about
truffles with Alessandro Bonino of Tartufi Morra
Alba has a wonderful and extensive outdoor
market that takes place every Saturday. A stroll here gives a vivid
impression of the richness and abundance of this very special corner
of Piedmont, Le Langhe.
Jane, Catherine and Daniele at
Barolo ice cream!
One of the highlights of our
visit was to the simple Caffè Duomo for a simple outdoor
lunch, followed by an outrageous ice cream tasting with homemade
ice creams made by Mario's friend Gennaro. They were all exquisite,
including gelato di nocciole (hazelenut ice cream), gelato
di pera (pear), gelato di (yes) tartufo bianco
(incredible!), and, best of all gelato di Barolo, made
with Cascina Fontana Barolo.
Gelati at Caffè
Nebbiolo delle Langhe 'vigna
A visit to the wine country allows us to place wine in the context
of the people who make it, the territorio in which it is
born, the local customs, gastronomy and culture. Thus situated,
we immerse ourselves totally within a world that may be infinitely
different to our own.
It was essential, then, to visit Sinio
to experience the vineyard behind that small town’s Castello.
For Mario’s Nebbiolo delle Langhe 'vigna il Castello' is iconic,
a wine that we have enjoyed enthusiastically over many years. The
vineyard lies just outside of the Barolo zone, and in truth, the
wine it produces, from Nebbiolo grapes grown on near white, volcanic
tufa soil, is a very different expression than Barolo, usually very
perfumed, elegant, feminine even, a true cru that is wholly
unique and individual. We visited the vineyard and there met Armando,
Mario's octogenarian cousin, whose family has farmed this particular
vineyar for generations and who still advises Mario.
Castello di Sinio
Afterwards, we enjoyed a tasting of three
vintages of Nebbiolo delle Langhe 'vigna il Castello' in the Castello
di Sinio itself. The Castello di Sinio today has been transformed
into a most welcoming hotel and restaurant, particularly geared
to wine tourism. It's run by Americans Denise Pardini and Jay Russell
and is well worth a visit. Denise and Jay organised a wonderful
tasting for us of Mario's wine, impeccably served and accompanied
by an exceptional array of delicious Piedmontese spuntini. I'm
sorry we didn't have longer to linger, but it's a place I'd love
to return to one day.
Da Cesare, an amazing evening
of wine, food and friends
One (of many) highlights of this brief trip was a special dinner
at Cesare Giaccone's L'Angolo del Paradiso in Albaretto della Torre.
Cesare is one of the greatest chefs in the Piedmont and is known
throughout the world.
There were 20 of us in our group, so
we had one big round table of 12 and another in a separate adjacent
room for 8. It is very casual, very family style, though service
was impeccable throughout. It really feels like going to the private
home of a famous maestro who is there simply to cook for
you himself! Mario had spoken to Cesare in advance of the evening,
and Cesare had simply said, 'ci penso io, non preoccuparti'
- don't worry about, I'll decide the menu based on what I find at
market. What wines will you bring?
Food, wine and friends at Cesare's
L'Angolo del Paradiso
The foods and wines were simply incredible and I can
really say this was one of the best meals of my life! Highlights
include a truly remarkable insalata d'anatra, that is a
cold duck salad with ovuli and porcini mushrooms, shavings of tartufi
bianchi, pomegranate seeds, lettuce dressed with a delicate
orange and lemon sauce. Vivid, fresh, pungent, intense, aromatic,
delicious flavours. This was just delicious with Mario's Gavi 2004.
Next another remarkable dish, porcini mushrooms sautéed
with peach slices. The slippery texture of the deeply flavoured
fresh porcini was precisely like the slippery texture of the sweet,
still al dente peach slices and it was a delightful combination.
By now we were drinking a very special Barbera d'Alba
1998 from Mario's private reserve — a bottle of Nello's house
Barbera, complete with back label. It was a wine frankly that I
never thought I'd see or taste again, and it brought back many emotional
memories. Mario spoke movingly and we honoured a much-loved and
much-missed very special friend.
The meal continued with a simple risotto
made with fresh herbs from the garden, tomatoes, zucchini, incredibly
simple, incredibly fresh, the rice very al dente, the vegetables
and herbs intense in flavour.
When we had first entered our dining room, there was
a giant bottle of Mario's Barolo 1998 on display in a special contraption.
It was a Balthazar, that is 16 bottle equivalent.
Mario now proceeded to open this special baby, easing
out the thick cork. The contraption was ingenious (Mario had had
it made in Germany): the bottle was on its side, and there was an
archimedes screw that when wound gently tilted the immense bottle
in order to decant the wine into carafes. 1998 was an excellent
year and the wine was in beautiful condition — intense, profound,
powerful. Over the course of the evening, most of us had a go at
using the contraption to fill a carafe and we did our very best
to empty that immense bottle (honest!).
The magnificent Barolo went beautifully with capretto,
or roast kid, cooked on a spit over an open fire in Cesare's kitchen.
Next came platters of faraona - guinea fowl roasted then
served in a deliciously rich cream sauce. The food was as abundant
as the wine, and it was a long, informal evening of great fun and
friendship. Few of us have had the chance to luxuriate in such a
surfeit of great wine and food, and the quality, abundance and generosity
of both was what made the evening so special. Cesare himself came
in and out, hustling around looking after us, or pausing for a chat.
For dessert, he had poached some pears and then insouciantly
whipped up a light and frothy zabaglione using Mario's
fragrant and delicately sweet Moscato del Piemonte. The dessert
had some clever touches of real genius, such as hazlenut biscotti
that looked exactly like real hazlenuts, somehow actually reattached
to the branches. Bravo, Cesare! An evening never to be
Chef Cesare Giaccone,
A walk in the wine country
The vineyards of Barolo are criss-crossed by a network of signposted
‘sentieri’ — footpaths that allow for
excursions into the heart of the wine country.
I sentieri del Barolo - signposted
paths through the wine country
On our final morning, Mario met us at Gioca dell’Oca
and we set off on a three hour trek. As we climbed towards Barolo,
the hills opened out and we could see some of the other principal
towns of the wine zone such as La Morra, Castiglione Falleto and
Serralunga d’Alba. Though it was only late September, some
winegrowers were already harvesting the precious Nebbiolo grapes.
Mario explained that for those seeking a slightly lighter, more
modern style of Barolo such early harvesting was increasingly the
norm. He himself remains stoutly traditional and it would be at
least a few more weeks before his grapes would be ready, he said.
Walking in the steep vineyards of Barolo is the best
way to work up a healthy appetite — and a thirst! We arrived
at Mario’s Cascina Fontana winery in Perno, a frazione or
hamlet of Monforte d'Alba and were greeted with a glass of cool
red Cameròt, a light quenching wine that was just delicious
after our exertions.
Walking in the wine country
works up a thirst!
Mario then showed us his small winery, explained
the processes of vinification (the Dolcetto was in the process of
fermentation). Mario utilises a winemaking process known as rimontaggio.
The black grapes ferment on their skins which rise to the top of
the fermentation vat. Twice a day (sometimes three times) Mario
draws out wine from the bottom of the vat, then pumps it back over
the top to keep this mass of skins wet and to allow colour and flavouring
elements to percolate through without drawing out harsh tannins.
Geoff helps with the
Afterwards we sat outside overlooking the wine country
and enjoyed the most splendid family meal of homecooked foods, prepared
by Mario’s lovely mother Elda and by Luisa: first those gorgeous
peppers, roasted and bathed in bagna caôda; then
homemade agnolotti al plin, tiny, handmade, meat-filled
stuffed pasta, bathed in butter and topped with chopped black summer
truffles. The real treat was brasato al Barolo, yes, beef
really braised in that king of wines (you will only find this special
dish in the home of a wingrower, where it’s possible simply
to nip down to the cellar and draw off a jug straight from the vat!).
The profound and full flavour of this exceptional wine really permeated
the meat and of course it was accompanied by yet more Barolo.
Lunch at Cascina Fontana with
Mario and Luisa
All too soon it was time to jump on the mini-bus and head back to
the airports. (We made our flight by all of five minutes...)
It was an infuriatingly brief weekend away in the
wine country. Yet what a wonderful short break. We returned home
refreshed, exhilarated, above all inspired. Inspired by the annual
miracle that sees the transformation of fresh grapes, cultivated
and grown with care and hand attention, and through the dedication
and efforts of winegrowers like Mario Fontana, into something quite
A thousand thanks to Mario, Luisa and family! Sieti tutti bravissimi!