Lovin’ the Langhe – Land of Wine, Hazlenuts & Truffles
“How do you plan where to go on your trips?”
A good question. It is one that we’re often asked, although, the answer is not straightforward.
I like red wine. A good few decades ago, I sampled Barolo for the first time with my brother. It was love.
For our 40th birthdays, I visited Turin with my best friend. I was on a mission – to visit the Mole tower, drink a Bicerin (Turin’s luscious mix of espresso with melted chocolate) and purchase a nice bottle of Barolo as a present for Mark. At the airport on my way back, I happened to pick up an attractive-looking card for Ca’San Ponzio, a self-catering apartment in Barolo. That year, Mark and I spent our holiday there.
Intent on enjoying the World Heritage scenery, the wonderful food and bringing back wine – lots of wine – we drove there. Wineries welcomed us like long-lost family and provided endless samples of their wares in a variety of elegant, chic and opulently wood-panelled tasting rooms. We returned home with a great deal more knowledge of viticulture, vintages and vineyards – and a three hundred bottle challenge to the suspension of a Golf GTI.
That was in the early noughties. On this trip, with the meticulous research already in the bag, we retraced our steps to a few of our favourites. The first, Rocche dei Manzoni in Monforte d’Alba, is home to a couple of very delicious wines. Barolo Big ‘d Big, which does what it says on the bottle, and its more austere cellar mate, Vigna d’la Roule.
The welcome was as warm as we remembered – The Fab Four could join us in the winery – but no tasting was available. Our hostess, Luisa, shared our enthusiasm for the Langhe, “I love the landscape and tranquility.”
Luisa asked if The Fab Four were truffle hounds. Alba white truffles are another world-renowned speciality of the region. We thought that she was joking at first, although we found out later that Poodles are sometimes used to find ‘edible gold’.
“My dog’s a Lagotto Romanoglo truffle hound. My dad wants him to work, but he’s really fluffy. I just want him to play!”
Luisa showed us a picture of her dog and then the price list. We blanched a little to find that the prices had more than doubled since our last visit. The 2014 Big ‘d Big was nearly €60 per bottle. With an expected storage lifetime of thirty years, we kicked ourselves for drinking every bottle that we had bought from what had been ‘exceptional’ years at the turn of the century.
It would have been a great investment, but when you have a cellar (garage!) full, who can resist a rejuvenating bottle of Barolo after a crap Tuesday at work? And, as we told ourselves at the time, we didn’t want it all to go off because it was not cellared at the correct temperature…
We swallowed hard and treated ourselves to a couple of bottles of the lesser Barolo and another local wine, Barbera d’Alba. Barbera is also delicious – and a little more benevolent to the budget.
On our way to the town of Barolo itself, we considered putting The Pawsome Foursome to work. In 2018, two pounds of Alba white truffles sold for $85,000 – more than a Maserati Ghibli. A season or two of that might enable us to afford fine wine!
Numerous past visits to the Marchesi di Barolo had put us on first name terms with hostess, Maria Pia. On our second visit, Maria Pia said to me, “I remember you. I recognise your eyes!”
Maria Pia had plied us with her best wines, fed us local delicacies and introduced us to the village butcher and priest. Both were real characters – and regulars of the winery’s hospitality. Maria Pia showed us a magazine article which featured the butcher and once he left, she performed a wonderful impression of the priest. Rolling her eyes at us to indicate “Lui – him”, she performed an exaggerated sign of the cross. “Cannubi, Sarmassa, Ruvei, Paiagal!” Substituting the names of the Marchesi’s best wines for “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” It told us a lot about the priest!
Sadly, Maria Pia was no longer there, although the girls in the cantina did remember her. No tastings were on offer and we were left alone to browse, however our Barolo habit was not going to be revived here either. A bottle of Barolo Cannubi or Sarmassa 2014 cost €54 each.
We lowered our sights to a couple of bottles of Barbera Paiagal and Ruvei. €16 wine is still definitely in the realms of ‘massive treat’ for us on our budget, although it was a compromise that granted us a bit of nostalgia without breaking the bank. A Barolo Chinato slipped into our bag; essential in case we meet The Ambassador.
Chinato is a digestif made from Barolo wine, spiced with herbs and aromatics. It goes beautifully with chocolate. In the home of Ferrero Rocher, if we do run into The Ambassador, we can spoil him!
On the way back, it started to rain. Mark and I compared thoughts on what we had considered one of our spiritual homes.
“It’s so slick and commercial here now. Twenty years ago, you just rocked up and got a free tasting. Now you have to book in advance and pay for it!”
The girls at the Marchesi di Barolo did explain that it was high season. The latest vintage had just come to market and the truffle fair was in full swing in Alba. Maybe that explained the high cost of the campsite, although Mark said that Campsite Sole Langhe had only one price – and it was always high season!
We concluded that, like most things, it had been much more fun when it was all a bit rough around the edges.
Back at the caravan, I opened my email to receive some extremely upsetting news from Australia. My school friend, Alex, had finally lost her battle against cancer. “Please raise a good glass of red in her memory,” the message implored.
I still can’t believe that the world has lost this treasure. This funny, witty, clever, athletic, caring and acerbic treasure. Since we were in Barolo, it seemed only right to raise a glass of the finest of reds to my lovely friend.
Although we have been parted by time and many miles, Alex, I miss you terribly.
Speaking of Ambassadors, I received news from Romania that a copy of my book, Dogs ‘n’ Dracula – A Road Trip Through Romania is now in the hands of the British Ambassador to Romania. Click this link to see a picture!