To say that I am jealous of my wine friend Alena is an understatement. She studies, works and lives in the greatest wine region in Italy, maybe the world! Where is that you ask? Tuscany? One might think so, but no. She calls Mussotto home and is busy with research for her PhD thesis in the vineyards of La Morra, 10 kilometers south east of Alba in the hills of Bricco Rocca. This story introduces Alba, the International White Truffle Festival of Alba, a couple of fine restaurants and E. Molino wines made by one of Italy’s top enologists, Sergio Molino. If you are planning to visit Italy, make sure you have Alba on your list of stops. You’ll need a week and still not be ready to leave.
After saying goodbye to my travel companion in Milan, I boarded the regional train - destination Alba. Regional trains in Italy are clean, and friendly. Despite the frequent stops at local towns that could inspire one to jump off at towns like Asti and Bra, I restrained myself and concentrated on what lay ahead. The 93rd Annual Alba White Truffle festival would start in a few days and as a foodie and wine lover, this world famous event filled my head with dreams of exotic, flavourful smells and tastes and played a part in my motivation to visit this historic Piedmontese town of wine, fungi and chocolate - home to Ferrero Rocher and it’s famous chocolate spread - Nutella. I also made plans to visit a wine gal pal who was now doing her PhD at the University of Milan and completing her research in the vineyards of La Morra. Deeply immersed in the cultural aspects of Italy, she spends her time between Alba, La Morra and a tiny vineyard in Bricco Rocca.
Where to Stay
Lucky for me I booked an Airbnb near the pedestrian zone of Alba, only a block from the main square. My host was a local gal, born and raised and now working as a professional here in Alba. Roots like these seem a rarity, especially for me, considering I attended 7 schools in 12 years of school, not to mention going to university in the east and getting married in Germany. I digress. Not only was Francesca welcoming but when I presented my card and discovered my passion for wine and writing, she immediately suggested I book a truffle hunt with her boyfriend. If you haven’t read my truffle hunt adventure with Save the Truffle, read it now. Her offer was so natural that I couldn’t resist and we made arrangements for a hunt in the following days.
After unpacking my bags, I made an espresso and sat on the east facing veranda overlooking the rolling hills and hilltop villages. The October afternoon sun had lifted the fog and the view reminded me of the text book images that we had referred to when studying for the WSET Diploma. It was a moment of awe. Was that a tear? I had arrived in one of the most revered and historic Italian wine and food capitals and felt the excitement vibrating through me. With no real idea what to do next, I committed to walk the town and enjoy the moments of absolute freedom. No deadlines, no memorization, no schedule, just a pure uninterrupted stroll along Vittorio Emanuele gazing in store windows. Why are there bottles of wine in every window display? I love this wine country vibe.
The Alba White Truffle Festival
Blue and gold banners are stretched across the narrow main pedestrian filled zone announcing the truffle festival is about to begin. Welcoming the world and for only 15 euros, attendees have access to food, wine and truffles from 11 in the morning til 8 at night on weekends from October to December. I discovered that there is as much wine as there is truffle and the experience should be on everyone’s bucket list. I don’t need to buy truffles or wine, I just need to show up and be ready to engage with producers and attendees alike. It is a Festa as they say in Italian. My Italian got better with each sip as did my French and German.
On that first day, walking through old-town Alba, I found bakeries selling slices of tomato covered flat bread, wine shops with tastings in the street. A few days later the Saturday market rolled into the piazza at the north end of alba near the Tanero river filled with the best of the recent harvest of root vegetables, tomatoes, squash and mushrooms along with cheesemongers and butchers with their salami and legs of prosciutto. Arrangements of Fresh cut flowers, colorful street wear on movable racks and trailers with pop up displays selling candies, nougat, and chocolate fill the fringe with activity.
Everything stops for lunch. After the Saturday market, I made my way to Osteria del Sognatori, a recommendation from Serigo Molino who makes wines and runs a lab in La Morra. The line was deep and I had no reservation. It seemed a little hopeless, especially as my Italian is terrible. After 20 minutes of lurking at the entrance I was seated at the last possible spot for a solo diner. The host who spoke little English, inquired about the basics. Antipasti? Yes. Wine? Red. Within minutes food and wine start arriving. A basket of bread, a selection of antipasto - salami, cheese, olives. A Langhe Nebbiolo was served in water glass shaped goblets at room temperature. There is no pretense here. Just good rustic Piedmontese dishes of tuna on beef, ragu of wild boar on tagliatelle. It has a lovely vibe and was busy the entire time. Restaurant hours are civilized, opening from 12 till 3 pm for lunch and then again from 7 to 11 pm for dinner.
E. Molino - Barolo Producer
As luck would have it, my friend Alena made time to take me to the vineyards in La Morra. In a short 10 kilometer drive, we are deep in the Bricco Rocca vineyards. We hike along the vine rows up to the famous fig tree at micro producer E. (Ernesto) Molino’s vineyard and I’m out of breath. Slopes are steep facing south, south east in an amphitheater shape. The dry, white, clay-like soils crumble in my hand. The drought continues, she says. The vines are manicured with adequate canopy producing large, dark red, jewel-like bunches hanging about 18 inches above the ground. Harvest will start soon. No irrigation is permitted here. Vine roots go deep so as to find moisture and survive. This vineyard has been passed down from father to son and now run by Sergio Molino, a widely respected enologist and Barolo specialist in Italy. Sergio likes the grapes to express themselves in the wine and blends tradition and style into each bottle of wine he makes. In addition to the vineyard, Sergio operates a laboratory for sample testing that is very popular, given the steady number of vehicles coming and going from this simple setting, some from as far away as Gattinara.
Lunch in La Morra
Lunch on the hilltop village of La Morra at the most famous Osteria Pizzeria per Bacco that overlooks the valley to the west and the town to the east is at 2 pm. Sergio introduces me to Nas-cetta, an old white grape variety grown in the Barolo region first recorded in 1879 and hailed as one of the great white grape varieties at the time. With delicate aromas and flavours it has plenty of acidity and reminds me of top quality dry Pinot Gris. It is served chilled on this hot sunny afternoon offering a refreshing start to our meal. First course was Vitello Tonnato (tuna on thinly sliced beef) along with Battuta di Fassone with black truffles (a special version of tartar or crudo as they say in Italian). Next up - a pizza loaded with fresh sliced mushrooms, fresh sausage, flor di latte, and more truffles. The generous slices require large hands and some folding. Forget about the knife and fork. Heck I’m finally in Italy so I’ll sup, slurp, and savor the flavours as I devour this moment. I never want to leave this place.
In the Winery
There is a casual generosity here in the heart of La Morra that fills my cup. The October sun is warm and the hilly horizon, clear. We review the tasks that remain to be done in the winery that hides amongst the old village walls. Punching down the grape must in neutral oak barrels of a variety of sizes as well as some stainless steel tanks helps to wear off the calories from lunch. It is a physically demanding job that also requires coordination, as I stand on the palette and then the ladder, moving nimbly. The fermenting juice rises up with each punch down. The clear ruby color of this Barbera makes me start thinking about what we might be having for dinner.
More to come
I admit I am spoiled. My wine friends include me in their daily activities that they call work and I call fun. As a tourist this brings both pleasure and pain for to leave is to rip my heart out. I promise to return with my laptop to taste, interview and zoom with my new friend Sergio Molino and his network of amazing producers that fill these famous hills. My aim is to learn more about the history, food and wine that thrives here. Perhaps most of all, I'd like to continue soaking up the beauty and generosity of Alba, La Morra and Bricco Rocca in the name of wine love. Stay tuned.
I'm Good Wine Gal.
I blog about "good wine" and how to find it!
Join me on my adventures of finding beautiful wine loving places, people and those special bottles we all get excited about.