Wines of Alba, Italy—Close to Home!
we love to travel. This past October, less than five months after our quasi-world cruise, we were at it again, this time back in Northwestern Italy where Manuela was born – in the region known as Piemonte, or Piedmont for the English speakers. And, of course, our travels would not be complete without a trip to a few wineries.
About an hour and a half south of Ivrea, now our second home, and south of Turin, are two cities – Alba and Asti. Surrounding Alba are the two well-known Italian AVAs, Barolo and Barbaresco. We stayed near Alba to see the sights but also to visit three outstanding wineries that produce wines from these AVAs.
Some more background for you. Italy has some very specific rules and standards that are set for its AVAs that assures both quality and distinct characteristics to be found in the specific AVA. You know them as DOC and DOCG. I will spare you from the Italian, but the later – DOCG – implies the highest quality and distinction. And in all of Italy, Piemonte has the greatest number of DOCs, 37, and DOCGs, 18, than any other Italian region, more than the famous Tuscan region. I will get into this more as I talk about the three wineries, but one example of the regional requirements is that there can only be natural irrigation of the vines, regardless of the climate and weather. The three wineries that we visited, adhere to that requirement, producing Barolo and Barbaresco DOC and DOCG wines.
Something else I want to share with you that is no small achievement. All three of the wineries that we visited were not just fourth- or fifth-generation family-owned establishments, they were all owned and managed by the women of the families. And well managed they were. So, let’s get to the specifics.
After learning about Pio Cesare from a network channel called V is for Vino – something else that I found and recommend to OCWS – we knew we had to come find out for ourselves. Pio Cesare was started in 1881 within the city of Alba, just twenty years after the formation of country that we currently know as Italy. Five generations later it is one of the most historical and well-known wineries in Italy and elsewhere, producing 450,000 bottles mainly of Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto and Chardonnay.
Our host for the two-hour tour and tasting was Davide. And as is the practice of Pio Cesare, he devoted the entire time just to Manuela and me. Davide began with a bit of the history of both the family and the home that became the cellar and winery. It is still the home of the current family to this day. The cellars, comprising four levels, are constrained by ancient Roman walls dating back to 50 B.C. Over the decades, expansion of the facility included going under the adjacent Tanaro river. The cellars were abound with massive French and Slavonian (similar to Hungarian) oak barrels. Our guide pointed out two distinctive highlights to be found in the cellars. One was the century-old single bottle “elevator” that brought filled bottles to the top level and empty bottles back down. Another highlight was to see at some three levels belowground an original vine still growing after more than one hundred years. Davide also pointed out that there are bottled wines still in the racks dating back to at least 1916 and that the labels had not changed significantly in over the past one hundred years.
The current managing family member is Federica Boffa, only 25 years old. She does have other family members to support her. As for the vineyards, which are distinct throughout Barolo and Barbaresco, Pio Cesare owns many. Davide told us that all grapes are grown on estates contained within the family-owned 170 acres and within the Barolo or Barbaresco AVAs.
The tour was phenomenal, but then we came to the best part – the tasting. We were seated at the table that the family still uses for its holiday gatherings. Davide brought out four reds and, surprisingly, a Chardonnay. Apparently, back when fourth generation owner, Mr. Pio Boffa, was visiting California, he became enthralled with Chardonnay. He thought that if France and California can grow it, so could he, despite local assertion that it would never thrive. Pio Boffa was one of the great pioneers of Chardonnay planted and produced in Italy in the early 1980’s. I can tell you that after tasting the 2020 Piodilei Chardonnay, he exceeded all expectations. After a taste and some more explanation by Davide, he had me set my glass of Chard aside while we went on to the reds.
And, of course, each of the reds had some history behind them.
The first that I tried was a 2021 Grignolino. I had only learned of this varietal just a few days before while in Ivrea – Manuela’s home town – and was quite pleased. The Grignolino presented by Davide was fantastic, something between a Malbec and a Pinot Noir, in my opinion.
The remaining three reds were the commonly known ones of the region, the first being a 2020 Fides Barbera d’Alba. Wonderful! It should age a bit longer, but was still ready to drink now. Typical of Barbera, it was medium bodied, but like a Pinot, it would be great with white meats, fish and pasta.
This was followed by two Nebbiolos, a 2019 Barbaresco, and a 2018 Barolo. Both were outstanding but needed to age a few more years to reach their peak. In fact, Davide told me that only the family had previously tried the 2019 Barbaresco since bottling. I was the first outside the family – what an honor! It was still young though. Two to four years from now, it will be phenomenal.
Wrapping up the tasting, we went back to the Chardonnay, now that it had been open for a while. You could definitely discern a subtle difference. And after the full-bodied reds, it held its own, while expressing some of the characteristics of the Nebbiolos! Excellent.
As we were saying good-byes, Davide informed me that the wines are not sold on the premises. Thus, you are not pressured to buy after your tour. He also said that Pio Cesare was undisputedly, the best winery in all of Alba… it’s the only winery within the city. A mere technicality!
The next day we traveled south toward the Barolo region to a town called La Morra. There we encountered a winery facility, primarily the aging cellar, on top of the hillside, outside of town. The winery is called Agricola Gian Piero Marrone, or simply, Marrone. We were met by Nina Schurer, who was our tour guide and hostess. Nina is originally from the Netherlands, but had moved to the region with her family only a few years earlier. Needless to say, she was fluent in several languages.
Gian Piero Marrone, a third-generation owner and operator of the winery, has turned operations over to his three daughters, Denise, Serena and Valentina, making it now four generations of winemakers. The current winemaker is Valentina, the youngest of the three Marrone sisters, but still with the helping hand from her dad Gian Pierro Marrone. The three sisters are already the 4th generation in this family making wine, each of them with her own task. Be it sales and marketing, administration or process management. The three of them together are well equipped to lead this family business further into the future.
If Pio Cesare could be considered a large operation, Marrone was on the medium size. Yet, it was by far, a more diverse producer of wine. The family owns vineyards both within the Barolo and Barbaresco AVAs, as well as outside in the nearby region of Madonna di Como. At least twenty different lines (for lack of a better word) of wine were bottled by Marrone. Varietals included Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis, Chardonnay and Moscato could be found here, but to retain their DOC or DOCG status from one of the regions, such as Barolo, then they could only produce the wine of the varietal from that region. Barolo and Barbaresco wines are 100% of the Nebbiolo varietal, but come from the two distinct regions with different terroir and different production requirements.
We received an informative and impressive tour of Marrone’s aging cellar. It appeared to be substantially underground, maintaining a constant temperature. The facility was very impressive, as you would expect, containing the numerous oak barrels or “bottes.”
At one point though, Nina pointed out something we had never seen before. For some of the varietals, part of the aging process is carried out with the lees (or inactive yeast material) still in the barrel. But what Marrone does that is different is that the barrels are stacked on rollers. Then, for as long as the wine is in the cellar, which varies from six to eighteen months, the barrels are hand cranked to rotate and, thus, stir up the lees. The churning process, known as battonage, takes place two to three times a week. This enhances the exposure of the lees to the wine and allows for more extraction of the elements that Marrone’s winemaker wants as part of his final product. The photo shows some of the barrels on rollers.
At the end of the tour, Nina took us to their aboveground tasting room. More like a veranda, it had an incredible view of the region. And we had ideal weather for it too.
I was able to choose from a number of wines for my tasting. Naturally, I went for what the region is famous for, starting with a 2019 Barbera d’Alba Superiore. If you know Barberas, this was right there – lighter than the Nebbiolo, very fruity but surprisingly purplish in color. And also surprisingly, it was 14.5% ABV. My tasting notes say I must find this one in the California markets.
Next up was a 2019 Nebbiolo d’Alba Superiore. Not a Barolo or Barbaresco, but still in the neighborhood. Nina told me that this wine spent six months in small botte, one year in large botte and one year in the bottles before being served. It was excellent. And side note: For those of you that know that I make Nebbiolo at home, this Marrone Nebbiolo was exactly why I do!
But perhaps the best was saved for last, I tasted the 2018 Pichemej, a Barolo DOCG. It was bold and flavorful, as I would expect from a Barolo, but clearly at the top of the class. OK, the sad part is, I was so into this wine, I failed to write down my notes, but I remember it well and that isn’t that what drinking great wine is all about!
Azienda Agricola Pietro Rinaldi
Heading back toward Alba, we stopped at Azienda Agricola Petro Rinaldi. We selected this winery based on the very positive recommendation of one of my close Italian friends. Once again, we hit the jackpot. Like so many in the area, the Pietro Rinaldi winery is located high up on a hill. And like the two I had visited previously, this was another four-generation family-owned winery dating back to 1920, currently owned and operated by Monica Rinaldi.
Smallest of the three I visited, Pietro Rinaldi was every bit as charming as the other two. And, of course, all grapes for their wines are estate grown and were DOC or DOCG (only their Rosato was not). Pietro Rinaldi’s production included Barolos, Barbarescos, Barbera d’Albas, Dolcetto, and Langhe Arneis.
Our host, Ombretta, told us of the history and production of the wines, but quickly set us down for the tasting.
Ombretta presented me with five wines for tasting – shown in the adjacent photo.
We started off with a 2021 Rosato. This rose wine was 13½% ABV, so you know it was dry. Our host told me that it was macerated for two hours and that this was only the third vintage of this wine. It was dry and a bit bitter but could still be aged for three more years. Clearly this was intended for pairing with summer meals.
On to the reds… First up was a 2020 Barbera d’Alba. Fermented to 14% ABV, and aged in steel tanks, it was medium bodied, dry, fruity and quite pleasant. This is a summertime wine. Ombretta said it did not require further aging. This was followed by a 2018 Barbera d’Alba Superiore. This Barbera was aged one year in steel tanks followed by one year in oak. Barbera is not known to be tannic, but this one was very mild in oak tannins when I tasted it. Definitely a notch above the prior Barbera and it can be enjoyed year round. Definitely a good wine to have around.
My fourth tasting was a 2020 Langhe Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo is, by far, the predominate varietal of this part of Italy. Langhe is another broader name for the AVA region. This particular wine was a blend of Barolo and Barbaresco, taking the best and distinctive differences of these AVAs – and, thus, the name Langhe. It had been aged in oak for one year. Our host said this would age well for up to ten years. Since I make Nebbiolo, I am always a fan. I found this wine to be light for a Nebbiolo, but would be very good with most foods year round.
For my final tasting, I was offered a newly released 2018 Barbaresco – sound familiar – that was excellent. It had a strong fruity aroma. It was a single-vineyard source, which is referred to as an MGA. MGAs, or menzioni geografiche aggiuntive (there will be a test on this later), are specifically delineated place-names, that is, vineyards, within Barolo and Barbaresco that have been codified since 2010.
All were excellent wines. I bought two – one was the 2018 Barbaresco (new release) – to hold for a few years. But unless you plan to visit us in Italy, I won’t be able to share them with you.
In conclusion, I can say my trip to this region was outstanding. It was not our first time, and certainly won’t be our last. And, as they will be receiving copies of this article, I wish to take this moment to thank our three wonderful hosts. They each added to the experience. If you make it to this part of Italy, please seek them out!
– W. Scott Harral, Contributing Writer