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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.

Le Langhe
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.

Barolo vinescape

Gioco dell'Oca
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 Alba market

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 Duomo

Nebbiolo delle Langhe 'vigna il Castello'
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.

Some bottle!

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 forgotten.

Chef Cesare Giaccone, il maestro

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.

Nebbiolo grapes

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 rimontaggio

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 wondrous: wine.

Mille grazie
A thousand thanks to Mario, Luisa and family! Sieti tutti bravissimi!


Copyright Marc Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved
Images copyright Kim Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved

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