Travaasa Austin sommelier, Edward Morgan, embarked on a two-week long journey through Italy, learning the intricacies of Italian winemaking along the way. Here is an excerpt from his incredible Italian saga highlighting the first leg of his trip in the Piedmont region.
In the Italian Opera “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini, the painter Mario Cavaradossi becomes conflicted when comparing his love to a portrait of Mary Magdalene he is painting. When we attempt to describe the world of wine, no matter where we may begin in context, a brush stroke reminiscent of the face of Italy always finds its way into the composition. It is something a bit intrinsic, a bit symbiotic.
On a warm day in late May, I arrived in Italy, tired and stiff from the 14 hour flight but ready for the adventure that was afoot. One evening, months prior, while suffering from a bout of insomnia and surfing the Guild of Sommelier’s website, I came upon an opportunity for North American Sommeliers to experience Italy first-hand through a scholarship sponsored by Banfi Wine Imports.
Weeks later, I would be contacted by their National Director telling me I had in fact been chosen from 200 applicants to attend this year’s Banfi Enrichment Trip!
On this year’s trip, five other individuals would accompany me from places like Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans and Seattle. I would meet these other individuals on various legs throughout the “getting there” portion of the trip. At JFK, I broke bread and a beer with Lars and soon after would collect another Sommelier from Seattle.
When we touched down in Milan, the rest of the crew joined us at the Illy Coffee Bar for the inaugural and customary shot of Fernet and side of espresso. Half asleep, something like this is definitely recommended to “right the wrong” international travel wreaks on the body. The caffeine from the espresso defibrillates the system while the amaro and touch of alcohol acts as a stabilizing component. Trust me, it works.
We drove 45 minutes from Milan to Alba – a small province located in the northwest of Italy near the base of the Alps in a region called Piedmont. This region is known for its production of Barolo, a fiercely tannic wine made from the Nebbiolo grape. Being surrounded on three sides by mountains, its provincial name literally means “the foot of the mountains.” Due to the powerful climactic influences of the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea nearby, a relatively cool, dry and sunny environment persists year round, perfect for the local crush and even demeanor of the Piedmontese people.
After a brief tour of The Giovanni Rosso Winery, Davide Rosso, proprietor and chief decision maker, had us adjourn to the barrel room to experience the evolution of excellence. Within his incubating vintages of Barolo, grapes from La Serra, a small cru (vineyard site), were being born.
Pulling wine from 3 separate Bottis (large 500L barrels), we were given a first-hand experience of how a wine evolves from vine to glass, and why time and barrel aging are so important in creating a well-rounded product. You would believe this in it of itself was a real treat but as luck would have it, this was only an example of sheer excellence preceding a moment of absolute perfection and of course, an afternoon of fun.
The rockstar of the tasting lay in a small decanter Davide had placed upon an empty 60 liter barrel just before we arrived – a 2010 Vigna Rionda, which is a cru of Barolo known to catch the eyes of some of the most coveted of auction houses and capture the hearts of some of the most discerning collectors. Based not only on its scarcity, a mere 1,500 bottles, but also its extreme individual profile, this specific cru of Barolo finds its unique demeanor based on a micro-terroir and vine age of nearly 80 years. This particular label entranced the senses with subtle savory nuances wrapped in tart red currant, spice, tobacco, black tea and cacao all resting nicely on the broad shoulders of sweet gripping tannins that define this varietal and, subsequently, the appellation.
It was now off to lunch just over the hill at Davide’s mother, Ester’s house. I would like to believe, and am coming to understand, the Italian culture is one of community and family. They welcome you with open arms and seem rarely suspicious of a kind demeanor.
We adjourned on the terrazzo overlooking the western facing slopes of Piedmont. Davide shares a quaint little neighborhood with such well-known producers as Gaja and Pio Cesare so the dispersion of style, continuity and architecture was a treat. The rolling hills were blanketed with a patchwork of vineyards alternating aspect and color that met the peaks of the Langhe Foothills.
Andres and his friend Daniel disappeared and emerged moments later with a magnum of Laurent Perrier as a christening of our arrival.
Nothing says celebration like sparkling wine. Of course, you get any number of Somms in a room with a bottle of bubbly, be it a split or a magnum, and the topic of sabering becomes fair game. I stripped the bottle down and sliced down the glass, dancing off my back foot and stepping into the motion as if throwing an inaugural pitch out on opening day – cleaner than a preacher’s sheets, I might add. Yes, it was exaggerated, but I wasn’t about to leave this event to chance. I figure better to look foolish completing the task than to fall short and be remembered for folly.
By mid-afternoon, we began the meal with what is known locally as “Carne Cruddo”. It resembles raw ground beef garnished with lemon wedges and capers. This, however, isn’t your typical ground chuck. It had color, consistency, texture and above all flavor! It was a country staple. Lars told me it is best enjoyed with a bit of olive oil and some crushed red pepper flakes. This followed a barrage of local favorites including, “Vitello Tonnato” (Tunified Veal), “Tajarin” with sugo (fresh made egg noodles with meat sauce) trust me, you have never had pasta like this. Egg noodles here are almost orange from the amount of fresh egg yolk they use in them. “Rosto d’Vitello” (Roasted Veal) with carrot sauce followed and for dessert, “Bonnet” (a local cake made with hazelnuts, milk, egg yolks and caramel). The entire ordeal spanned the course of three and a half hours, and a slew of absolutely superb wines from the Giovanni Vineyards accompanied every bite.
Immediately following lunch, my new colleagues and I walked down the hill to peruse the vineyards that cultivated these lovely libations. We took a few pictures, tasted soil and tested each other on the local terroir. It was nice to be surrounded by other individuals who sought the same passion and pursuit of excellence in the world of wine. The vineyards rest on soils of calcium and iron represented by a creamy mocha color and resembling shards of bone when dry and broken apart. It is known for holding on to its moisture. Rain is not something that happens often here, but Mother Nature finds away to make it work; the proof is in the pudding so to speak.
We returned some time later to dip into a conversation Davide was having with one of the vineyard managers, Alfonso, a 60-something gentlemen who looks to have worked every day of his life and enjoyed a cigarette or two in the process. They kept on about an “auto de corsa” and chuckled while tracing their eyes to see who would be the first victim. Davide saw my curiosity had been piqued and asked me politely if I want to take a ride in a racecar. I wasn’t sure how to respond except to known that declining his offer was not an option on the table. I cordially obliged and met him downstairs in the driveway.
Minutes later Alfonso drove up in a late 80’s model Lancia S4 Delta. This particular automobile looks like a late 80′s model Subaru with a heftier stance and a bit more bite under the hood. I also might add, this particular automobile also won three World Rally Championships prior to being retired into the Rosso family. I climbed in to the gas fumed shotgun seat and Alfonso took off. We took to the hills of Alba sticking the turns and gunning the straights, occasional slowing down to 40 to miss on-coming traffic around the hairpin turns up through the foothills and back down again. A nice way to settle your stomach after a three-hour marathon meal peppered with a bevy of the best Barolo has to offer.
The day came to a close after we said our goodbyes and set off for our accommodations at Hotel Langhe, 30 minutes from Serralunga. The 10-room Hotel was run by a handful of individuals who wore different hats depending on the time of day and the type of guest. It reminded me a bit of Travaasa; everyone accenting the local landscape with a piece of their own personality while pitching in wherever necessary to contribute to a seamless guest experience. Everything was made of what appeared to be cedar with a fresh coat of high gloss stain attached to it. Three bottles of Grappa sat to the right of the reception desk and a number of local business owners had stacked their cards about the counter to entice tourists to the local flavor.
It was a long day, and I still hadn’t slept, so we decided to call it done after pizza and a local beer around the corner. We toasted our arrival and the beginning of a very special adventure and, hopefully, the beginning of a long relationship built on the memories of this exceptional excursion. Tomorrow we take on the Veneto.