Today it’s time to head out to wine country. Luckily for us, Alba is not only home to amazing food, but also happens to be located in the Piedmont region, whose hilly area, the Langhe, is a major wine production province. Yesterday we dipped our toe in the water with Barolo, which left me slightly underwhelmed, and so I am pinning all of my hopes on today to be completely wowed by what Italy has to offer when it comes to wine.
I have booked us in to Ca’ del Baio, a family run winemakers, and so we take the 20 minute drive out towards the comune of Treiso, not far from Barbaresco, North and East of Alba. It’s already looking promising, as we pass lush greenery and vinyards as far as the eye can see; each vine sporting deep purple grapes, some of which are currently being picked by men in overalls, driving cart-fulls of crates.
Our journey winds us higher and higher into the hills, before a sharp turn sends us down a dusty dirt-road drive to a gorgeous ranch-style farmhouse. We park up and stretch our legs. It’s perfectly quiet here, and a Border Collie is snoozing away happily in the afternoon sun.
An older gentleman heads over to greet us, all smiles and handshakes. We say ‘ciao’ and explain that we have booked in for a tour. He says we will want his daughter then, who on cue, pops her head out from a side warehouse.
Federica greets us and explains that that the kindly old man was actually her father, and head of the family-run business here. She leads us inside to a cool, high- ceilinged dining room of sorts, with long tables and chairs to begin our tour with a wine tasting.
As Federica busies about to gather a selection of wines for us to try, she explains the history of her family winery.
First started by her great-grandfather Luigi in 1921, the Grasso family business now spans four generations, and aside from her father, Giulio, the rest of the family are all females, Federica’s mother, two sisters, and the newest members, her nieces, who too will one day help to keep this business going. A huge family portrait on the wall frames them all, a bevy of strong bright-eyed women, proving it really is girls who run the world.
We begin with a Reisling, a white not typical of the region at all, and the Rhine grapes were in fact first planted here by Federica’s father, as he was in love with the taste. Not always the biggest fan of white, but I happen to wholeheartedly agree on this occasion. I adore the crisp, refreshing, fruity smell the moment it hits my nose. The taste is fantastic too, a subdued aromatic sharpness, and Federica explains it is because the soil content here is not too strong in sulphites, which is what can sometimes give whites that more tart taste.
Off to a cracking start, we next move on to the local Langhe valley Nebbiolo grapes and a selection of reds.
Federica pours us glasses of the Langhe Nebbiolo and Bricdelbaio for comparison. She continues that Treiso is 450 metres above ground, sitting atop a hill, and so the grapes grown here by the Grasso family get a lot of sun, giving them a warm, fruity flavour. The subtle difference in taste all depends on where you plant vines, what side of the hill (known as a wine’s Cru) and where you pick the grapes from (top, middle or bottom of the vine).
Federica explains that in the middle, facing from west to south-west is the best place for growing Nebbiolo grapes. It is then the style and duration of ageing which denotes whether a wine remains a pure Nebbiolo or becomes a Barbaresco, which requires a minimum of two years ageing.
I am in awe of Federica’s knowledge. You can see this is not just an inherited task for her, but a real passion too, one that she works hard for, and it is an absolute pleasure to hear her speak with such gusto about her life’s work.
We finish this coupling, and there’s an all around favourite, with the Bricdelbaio getting three seals of approval, and a unanimous agreement to certainly be taking some back to England with us.
Our final three reds are the Vallegrande, Asili, and Pora. And what a finalé.
The most prestigious vines owned by the Grasso family are between 25 and 40 years old, and they go into making these three wines. We start with the Vallegrande, so named for the ‘Casa Vallegrande’, the original name of this land and farmhouse bought by Giuseppe Grasso (Luigi’s father) in 1870. It is the most traditional style of Barbaresco wine produced here, and is aged for 30 months in Slavonian oak caskets. A sort of garnet-red in colour, it goes down smoothly with a powerful fruity taste.
The Astili, matured first in the oak casket, then smaller french toasted barrels (barriques), has a more orange tinge to it, rich, but less fruity and more spicy. The Pora rounds it all off, aged for the longest duration in steel tanks, followed by barriques, and then again once bottled. This beauty packs a real punch, it’s heady taste almost fortified like a port, where complex berries dominate it’s extremely full-bodied flavour. It is the perfect accompaniment for meat and cheese, and can keep on ageing in the bottle for 15-30 years before drinking.
I adore the Nebbiolo grapes, and how they belong to their different crus. Different vines, different sides of the hill, different pathways and different destinies to persue. It feels very romantic, a real Romeo and Juliet affair, if our protagonists were grapes that is (this observation could also of course just be a sign that i’ve perhaps tried too many wines in the midday heat…).
We finish off our tasting with Moscato d’Asti, a sort of sparkling wine with heavy peach notes. A firm lover of Champagne and Prosecco, I would never have thought to extend my palate to a sweet sparkly number, but this is delicious, and comes served with toasted hazelnuts, another speciality of the area, and I make sure to take a bag home with me to make a hazelnut cake at Federica’s suggestion.
Full of wine, we next move on to see where the barrels are kept, a mixture of large Slavonian oak and smaller french barrels, the larger ones holding around 14000 bottles of wine. Federica tells us it is important not to let the wine in the barrels oxidise, so more must constantly be added if the levels dip too low, with the very top portion being disposed of each time this task is completed.
We next see where the bottling and labelling takes place, which is all done in-house. Federica explains that the machine they use is still the one her grandfather bought, the manufacturer of which has long since shut down. There is only one man in the area, a fellow now well into his 80’s, who still knows how to fix the machine should it ever break, and so we all keep our fingers crossed that this doesn’t happen.
We can see crates of wine, packed and ready for export, littering the warehouse floor, and about 80 percent of the business here comes from international trade, to the likes of Denmark, and Oregon in the USA. The packing tape adorning the boxes is stamped with the iconic black galloping horse logo of Ca’ del Baio and we are told that this was a more recent addition, a change from that first used by her great grandfather, which was an illustration of the farm house. The horse reflects the name of their winery, literally translating as ‘house of the bay’, as when the family first moved to Vallegrande, they only had one bay horse with which to farm the land. Years later, this little historical fact is now a symbol of the wonderful wines produced here, a fitting tribute to where it all began.
Our tour ends with a walk through a cellar vault, constructed from exposed stone brickwork. Her labour of love, Federica speaks with pride about how it was her and her sister who put this place together, in order to keep a collection of the various vintages over the years. It also houses the families own private wine collections, because, as she points out, they can’t only drink their own produce all the time.
Federica recounts how she can still remember her grandfather Ernesto, who passed away a few years back, stood in the cellar doorway once it was completed, looking at her and shaking his head, not understanding the desire to cling onto the bottles, in order to remember, and see the development of the wine as time passed by. I agree with Federica’s motivations however, and I think it’s a perfect homage, and a testimony to all they have achieved here.
Tour complete, and we bestow a thousand gratitudes on Federica for her time and wisdom, ambling off into the sunshine laden up with our wine purchases, our hearts as full as our bellies, our souls simply soaring. I’m overjoyed I found just what I was looking for here in Treiso, and as we drive away, I look back over my shoulder at the Casa Vallegrande, it’s entry-gate pillars topped with huge stone horses, and a big smile breaks out upon my face, so content am I with this perfect little beauty I have found here in the Langhe.