Hit the Slopes in Piedmont

by Jim Clarke
January 2006

Notable Vineyards:

La Morra
Arborina
Brunate and Cerequio
(both of which overlap into the Barolo commune)
Rocche dell’Annunziata

Castiglione Falletto
Fiasco
Monprivato
Rocche di Castiglione
Villero

Serralunga
Boscareto Cerretta Ornato

Monforte
Bussia Soprana Ginestra Le Coste

Barolo
Cannubi Brunate and Cerequio Sarmassa

This winter, the mountains west of Turin offer the chance to see the best skiers in the world shoot down the slopes, competing in the 2006 Winter Olympics. However, south and east of the city, the most valuable hills are the ones least suited to skiing: the slopes where the snow melts first grow the best Nebbiolo – Nebbiolo that becomes Barolo.

The melting snow tells winegrowers how much sun a vineyard receives; Nebbiolo shares the area with several other grapes, most notably Barbera and Dolcetto, but it ripens later, so it needs the extra sunlight. Many of the best slopes face south; most of these vineyards – called sorí (“sun-bathed” in the local dialect) – are known by name, and in the '70s these names started to become familiar to winedrinkers worldwide and not just local industry folks. Previously, Barolo had a tradition of blending together wines from several different vineyards to make the final product. Nowadays winemakers celebrate the individual character of the best sorí by bottling them separately.

There is a catch-22 to visiting Piedmont in winter: while wineries may have more time for visitors, some local places may be closed or on limited hours, since this is a slow time of year for hotels and restaurants. In addition, wine tourism has developed differently here than in, say, Napa Valley; fewer wineries have tasting rooms or are otherwise prepared for visitors (The villages, restaurants, and shops are more obviously tourist-oriented). Call ahead to make sure wineries will be prepared to see you, and make reservations or appointments when you can.

La Morra

Whether you come to Barolo as a day trip or spend a bit longer, La Morra is in many ways the best village to start in. Piazza Castello, in the center of the village (which is picturesque enough in itself) offers a great view south over the vineyards, with a convenient map to help you identify them. The Renato Ratti winery lies down the hill from the village. The winter’s cold weather sometimes closes their Barolo museum, but see it if you can; it’s a wonderful introduction to the wine’s history. Next to the museum is the brand-new, environmentally-friendly winery, set into the hill (Think hobbits, except full-height and with an Italian flair). The new tasting room offers a great view of some of their vineyards, so you can taste a wine, point, and say, “These grapes were grown right there.”

Notable vineyards: Arborina, Brunate and Cerequio (both of which overlap into the Barolo commune), Rocche dell’Annunziata

Grinzane Cavour

If you come in from Alba, this is the first major commune (village) of Barolo you will come to. There’s not much to see, but the castle is impressive and houses a very good Enoteca Regionale (a wine bar/shop that features the area’s wines) where you can choose from a great selection of Barolo wines.

Castiglione Falletto

At the center of the Barolo zone, Castiglione Falletto is another hilltop village endowed with a castle. (The plain, undecorated towers are eye-catching in their austerity.) This tiny town actually includes a number of great vineyards and producers, of which Vietti’s color-coded winery (different parts are painted to represent various aspects of the winegrowing process) and Paolo Scavino are the most open to visits. The mix of soils here means the wines are often well-balanced between the more muscular and more aromatic styles.

Notable vineyards: Fiasco, Monprivato, Rocche di Castiglione, Villero

Serralunga

Includes the contrasting combination of Fontanafredda, the area’s biggest producer, and lots of small, family-owned growers. Also, the obligatory castle and a village that’s worth a wander, even though it’s not heavy on shopping and other tourist interests. Keep your wallet closed and instead simply enjoy wandering through the narrow streets. Note that Fontanafredda is generally not open to visitors in winter.

Notable vineyards: Boscareto, Cerretta, Ornato

Monforte

This, the southernmost of the Barolo communes, feels larger and more expansive than its brothers. There are a number of interesting producers here including Parusso, Brovia, Domenico Clerico, and Seghesio; Principiano is a small but high-quality – and infectiously enthusiastic – producer here, well worth a visit.

Notable vineyards: Bussia Soprana, Ginestra, Le Coste

Barolo

The town, which lent its name to the wine, is not perched on a hill but in fact lies relatively low in the valley. (The name derives from the Celtic “bas reul,” meaning “low place.”) It still has a castle, though, which, as in Grinzane Cavour, houses the Enoteca Regionale; several other good wine shops compete with it on the village’s main drag. Damilano, Borgogno, Scarzello, and Marchese di Barolo are all easily visitable; Damilano, like Ratti, also has a newly remodeled winery to show off, across the road from the famous Cannubi vineyard.

Notable vineyards: Cannubi, Brunate and Cerequio (see La Morra, above), Sarmassa

These five are the primary communes of Barolo; there are, of course, others. In Novello, for example, the 19th century manor-house Elvio Cogno’s remodeled building (a string of good vintages has apparently encouraged a lot of capital investment in the area) poses as a 19th century manor-house, but inside houses a modern winery (it retains the manor-house views).

In addition, many Barolo producers have their wineries outside the Barolo zone – it’s where the grapes are grown that make a wine a Barolo, not where they are made into wine. Alba – the area’s major town – is home to Pio Cesare and Prunotto, and, since it is larger than the surrounding villages, its shops and restaurants are more reliably open during the winter months.

If you find that you’ve caught the Nebbiolo bug, Barolo’s sister Barbaresco lies on the other side of Alba; the enoteca and the cooperative Produttori del Barbaresco are particularly friendly to visitors. For that matter, if you need a break from Nebbiolo’s sometimes intense personality, there are plenty of other wines to try: Barbera, Dolcetto, Chardonnay, Gavi, Moscato…