The tour buses have disappeared from the Langhe’s narrow, twisting roads, replaced by trucks bringing home the last loads of purple Nebbiolo grapes. Our Panda, Italy’s ubiquitous Fiat putt-putt rental car, strains up the hills to finally drop us down in the tiny medieval village of Barolo. Surrounded by steep vineyards aflame with red and yellow leaves in the heart of Northwest Italy’s famed Piedmont region, Barolo welcomes us with a stash of late-fall treasures.
White truffles are in season, fresh hazelnuts are everywhere, and the town’s 750 souls are happy. The 2016 vintage is shaping up to be one for the ages. The wine flows freely for a United Nations of wine lovers here to drink Barolo.
The harvest season
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Stacked high with hand crates of grapes, a tractor driver threads his trailer down Via Roma, Barolo’s narrow main street. While Marchesi di Barolo is a large winery by local standards, easy to spot from the main road leading into town, a dozen smaller operations, such as the family-owned Bric Cenciurio, are tucked along its steep, cobblestone streets. With little more than 2 feet of clearance, the driver opens unmarked wooden garage doors and unloads his haul. The funky smell of fermenting grapes singes the afternoon air.
A bold grape
This is the last of the Nebbiolo harvest. The slowest-maturing grape in the world, it is the first to flower and the last to ripen. Finicky and prone to mold, the thick-skinned grape rarely flourishes outside its native Langhe, which extends north from Barolo to Barbaresco.
But here, Nebbiolo reigns supreme. The Langhe’s roughly 1,000 feet of altitude and soils with varying layers of limestone, clay and sandstone produce vibrantly aromatic wines with bold tannic structure that age slowly. Tar and rose petals are Barolo’s signatures. At 10 years of age, these wines are often just opening up.
A wine-driven scene
The village of Barolo is all about wine, with winery-owned “enotecas,” or wine shops, dominating the first-floor storefronts of the ancient two- and three-story buildings. Gracious, smart staffers pour samples of new and old vintages throughout the day and into the evening. Everyone is relaxed; conversation flows easily.
At the Damilano tasting room, we sipped the 2008 Barolo DOCG Cannubi, the winery’s flagship wine from Barolo’s most celebrated vineyard, or “cru.” It was part of a flight that included Barberas and Dolcettos, the region’s other red wines, from both the Asti and the Alba regions, along with other Barolo crus. While a 10-euro tasting fee is the norm, toward the end of the day, fees are often waived for already opened bottles.
A lively food-and-drink scene
Within the shadow of Barolo’s imposing 1,000-year-old Castello Falletti, four charming restaurants and the same number of informal cafes sit among the enotecas. At all of them, top Barolos and Barbarescos are served by the glass at irresistible prices.
Without a reservation, we found a room at the idyllic La Giolitta, one of a handful of boutique hotels and B&Bs in the village. Staying in the village made it easy to drift from meal to wine tasting and then out into the vineyards, where a hike to the crest offered views of the snow-covered Alps. A short walk home at night after dinner instead of driving the shoulder-less roads allows you to savor a last glass of wine at the end of your meal.
Barolo pairs well with meat, which explains the local cuisine. The Piedmontese love beef, often raw, and from their local Fassone breed of cattle. They call it carne cruda antipasti, and we had it served with a dollop of eggy béchamel sauce. Fassone veal is served poached with a salty tuna, anchovies, capers and a mayonnaise sauce they call vitello tonnato. To control a growing feral pig population, braised wild boar with a Barolo sauce was on several menus.
A bumper crop for white truffles
The local pasta is tajarin — a thin, long, flat noodle narrower than tagliatelle with a rich egg flavor and color. In the fall, it is served with a bountiful pillow of fresh shaved white truffles, a dish so aromatic it is reason enough, all on its own, to make this trip. The taste of just-harvested truffles from nearby Alba, considered the region’s best — well, there are no words. And this year’s rains produced a bumper crop, reducing prices an average of 30 percent. Our bowl of pasta with white truffles was $38 per, which is a $100 dish at our neighborhood trattoria in Los Angeles. You can buy them on the streets of Alba from local truffle hunters who will ship them home to you.
Back in our toy Panda to drive the two hours north to Milan with a handful of grissini, the region’s skinny breadsticks, and a bag of the famous local candied chestnuts for the flight home. Next trip, we’ll stay longer so we can take more adventurous hikes, but always in the fall, when white truffles are in season.