Monday, September 1, 2014

The Vineyards of the Langhe

Langhe, Italy (August 4, 2014)

Don't trust the GPS. One would think that I would know well the area in the south of Piedmont where my family is from. After all I have lived there for many years, and spent many summers in a little valley where the Alps starts, right at the head of the wine region of Piedmont. Yet, when at the end of the long drive from Trieste, Waze decided that we should get off the road to take a "shortcut" through the hills, I decided that technology must trump memories. Sure as hell, we found ourselves in the middle of the Langhe, in pitch dark, driving on roads getting ever smaller and steeper.

Vineyards in the Langhe
The Langhe are the wine region at the south of Torino, where the finest wines of Piemonte are produced (and the more-precious-than-their-weight-in-gold white truffles are found). Traveling through the area is like reading through a restaurant wine list: Barolo, Barbaresco, Neive... all little towns on the top of a hill, with a castle, a church and vineyards producing the unique wines carrying the local toponyms in their names. To those famous wines one should add the least known ones, among which the red Dolcetto and the white Arneis, which I actually prefer to their better known brethrens. The center of the Langhe is Alba, a pre-roman town that became a free city during the late middle ages, and was a center of fierce resistance against the german occupying forces in WWII. Cesare Pavese, one of my favorite writers, was from Santo Stefano Belbo, one of the centers in the area. My family has also their roots in the Langhe, with my paternal grandparents born in Bra and Cherasco. On the other side of the river Tanaro these two small centers are in sight of La Morra, an ancient village where the Nebiolium (Nebbiolo) wine was already grown in roman times. It is said that the vineyards were so highly regarded that the penalty for cutting down a vine were as severe as hanging, or having the offending hand amputated.

My only regret of getting lost in the finest wine area in Italy was that it was the middle of the night, and in full darkness we could not enjoy the beautiful vistas of the region (recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site), nor the wines or the food. This was however to be remedied just a few days later, when we went back to the area on a wine expedition.

Mr. Drocco and his dogs
The attitude I was taught as a kid with respect to alcohol consumption, is that you drink wine for its flavour, not because of its inebriating qualities. A corollary of this is that there is no point in drinking crap wine: you go for quality. While in the US that would be synonym with expensive, in Italy it rather means that you only drink the wine from a producer you trust. That often means going to the source. The trusted vineyard of my family is a friend of my father, Mr. Renzo Drocco. A small family business, his production is mostly sold to local restaurants. And to a few friends. So, the next day after getting lost at night in the hills of the Langhe, we did the same route in reverse, in full daylight, to Mr. Drocco vineyards in Rodello. You can see the landscape in the area in this post's photos: rows after rows of vines, owned by small producers that strive for quality, rather than quantity. You can see him in the little photo on the right, in the cellar where his wine matures, and where he offered us a taste of his wines accompanied by a fresh slice of his own excellent salami (the latter explains the laser-focused attention of the two very interested pooches in the photo).

As I am writing this post, now that I am back in Iowa, one of his bottles is on the table, in front of me. A bottle of Arneis, a highly perfumed wine with the aroma of apricot, peaches and pears, sometimes called "Nebbiolo bianco". In the local dialect, Arneis means "little rascal", and refer to the difficulty in properly growing the vine. An art that Mr. Drocco has mastered to perfection.

Langhe, Italy (August 4, 2014)

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