HARVESTING GRAPES IN PIEDMONT ITALY

MONFORTE D'ALBA | ITALY

[PIEMONTE, ITALY] — Two hours off my overnight flight, I was still goating and my Terrier hair was going in every direction. My GPS had inexplicably sent me through a frantic detour through the Centro of the Turin on my way to the land of Barolo and I was running late. Pulling down the gravel road and into the parking, my friend and host Jon and his 8 year old son greeted me as he sprinted down the steps of his house, Casa Gialla.

“Oh man, glad you’re here. I was just heading to a wine tasting, want to come along?”  “Certo.”

We raced across the ridges of the steep hills, the sun bouncing off the crazy quilt patterns of vineyards filling every hilltop, valley, nook and even cranny. We pulled down a side road and up to a farmhouse on the side of the hill and rang on the doorbell. “Ciao!” Jon said to the elegant elderly woman who answered the door, the mother of who we were here to see. They hugged like long-lost family, then her husband approached. Same thing.

We walked down into the tasting room, the cold damp air chilled me out of my jet lag. The must smell matched my personal airplane must, so I fit right in. An unassuming man in a navy sweatshirt, curly hair and beard came bounding in. “Ciao, Jooon!” (Said in a strong Italian accent, sounding almost like “Joan”) he said as they hugged like brothers, simultaneously grabbing three bottles of Barolo in his strong, worn paws. Mud from the fields marking his pants.  I’d just met Simone Scaletta, one of the best winemakers in Barolo.

 

I’d just met Simone Scaletta, one of the best winemakers in Barolo.

 

While they chatted business in Italian, I glanced out the window. This is what I saw:

Simone Scaletta vineyards

Simone Scaletta has always been somewhat of an outsider, bucking the system. Without any family holdings in Barolo, he left the family printing business in Turin long ago to come up here to make wine — long before Barolo had become recognized as one of the best wines in the world. For eight years he lived out of a van, building this house and cellar with his own hands, taking under-cared vineyards and nurturing them back to life, now making the top wines in the region. Now he’s a legend.

 

Simone Scaletta vines through window

Talk about a room with a view. How cool would this be to call this your own?

 

I was here in Piedmont on business, to get immersed in the Nebbiolo harvest so that I could help bring that to life on a future project. I never knew much about Barolo — it was always out of my price range and taste buds. My wine tastes are simple and I’d long been over wine tours, but this visit was different.

I’d never been to this region, so flew in totally cold, knowledge-wise, ready to sponge all this up. Yet here I was, meeting one of the world’s top winemakers. Pinch me.

“Just look at the color of this Nebbiolo in the sun.” Jon said. “You see that little orange glow in the light?  That’s the pure trademark of a great Nebbiolo.”

 

Simone Scaletto nebbiolo glass

Isn’t there a country song about this??
🎶 “I like wine..
Wine is good.
Got me a Lift Kit
My life is fine…” 🎶

 

So here’s the rundown. The Langhe region is the part of Piemonte famous for its Barolos, Barbarescos and Barberas. “Langhe” is from the Piemontese word for “long, low-lying hill” and boy is that an accurate description. The holy region is rolling green hills, etched with vineyards.

It’s confusing, but all of those wines are made from the same grape, 100% of the famed Nebbiolo, under very strict DOCG guidelines on geographic source, storage and aging. But where it’s grown lends its name to the final product.

Overlooking Simone Scaletto vineyard

Waiting for Simone to arrive, we stood outside and drank in the view. Magical. Unreal. 

 

We were here in Monforte d’Alba, the beating heart of the region, to meet some winemakers and then participate in the harvest of Jon’s  single-vineyard, biodynamically-produced Nebbiolo grapes on land that he had bought, focused on making his own wine. After years of trial and error in learning the ropes — previous seasons suffering from bouts of disease, bugs, crop-killing hail and other hardships — this was going to be The Year all that hard work came to fruition.

His first certified Barolo harvest.

A Walk Through the Vineyards on the Famous Via Ginestra

I was lucky in that Casa Gialla was located on the famed Via Ginestra, a narrow surprisingly-under-traveled road that winds it way between the world’s top Barolo vineyards. I could walk out the front door and instantly be in the thick of it in the morning sun.

Meeting some knowing Swedes along the road, they told me there is a great five hour hike that goes from town to town and loops back ’round into Monforte. “You can stop for a nice cafe in one town, trek to the next for a nice lunch, then stop for an aperitivo in a third, then be back in time for a long siesta.”  Italy is all about the aperitivo.

Elio Grasso vineyards in sun

The Ginestra region of Barolo is famed for its dense soils and sunny slopes. We’re going to take a walk along the Via Ginestra which runs along the ridgeline that overlooks this broad valley. There are designated walking paths that you can take from town to town, stopping along the way for cafe, lunch or sips of delicious wine.

 

Each of these colors represent a different DOCG region of Barolo, each with its own characteristics of soil composition, hillsides, exposure to sun, etc. You can walk right out of the village of Monforte and even hike from village to village.


Via Ginestra street sign

 

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I just can’t believe how incredible Piemonte is. All these years and I’ve never been here. I feel like a caboose. Doh!
Totally blown away.

Just look at these hills. The treasured home of Barolo and the feisty Nebbiolo grape. Nearly every meter is vines. Hilltops, valleys and backyards. It’s like Tuscany on steroids.  Steeper hills and mountains, more castles and keeps overlooking the valleys.

And I couldn’t have lucked out more on being invited here for the perfect time of year. End of October, right when the leaves are changing, the vineyards are Technicolor™️ and the Nebbiolo harvest is just ending…. oh, and then you throw in the start of White Truffle Season on top. (Alba is considered the capital of white truffles, even though some Tuscans might sniff.) It’s a Triple Whammy. BOOM.

Via Ginestra autumn view

Every turn you make renders the most perfect snapshot of Heaven. The fall colors glistening in the morning sun. Definitely take this walk in the morning or sunset. The blue-cold light of midday just doesn’t do it justice.

 

All these people have invested their lives into their land… fighting rain, hail, cold, heat, pests, stinkbugs, good soil, bad soil, mold, scales, plague, tourists, crazy regulations (often the same)… and after all of that… it all comes down to these final few weeks to know what their future will bear.

 

And not now, but once they crush the grapes, feed their purple soup, sipping it from grape juice to this initial sour swallows after the first crush, house it for years in expensive oak or steel, then bottle it for another three, four or five years or more… only then they’ll know whether past actions paid off 🗣💨🎲🎲…  God, I thought my life was stressful…

Prepare thee for lots of vineyard photos. Mesmerizing from a distance. Totally intoxicating.

 

 

 

Vineyards along the Via Ginestra Barolo

Every few feet, a postcard view.

Harvesting Nebbiolo Grapes in the Heart of Barolo

It was early on a Sunday. Perhaps it was the excitement of participating in a harvest in Barolo, or the fact that the jetlag of the trip got me up early. Dogs barked in the distance, a stiff cool dew was on everything, I walked down to the vines we were about to harvest, the gold morning greeting me with a bearhug.

 

View from Casa Gialla

This was the view from my balcony from Casa Gialla. Ready for the exciting day ahead.

 

Vines and cloud Casa Gialla

The sun peeked out over the neighboring hills, illuminating the vines we were about to pick. I took this shot on a whim, only later noticing how the clouds mirrored the dewy vines below.

 

Nebbiolo grapes

Ready.

And then it started. A bus dropped off the grape pickers at 8am, they tromped down the lane to the vineyards, each carrying their personal backpacks. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me. They were here for the hard work, most from Macedonia and Albania. Like everywhere, here to do the hard work and send back money to their families.

They crisscross Italy, moving with the season, the harvest and the crops. Working in twos, they each picked a row.

 

 

 

You can see how cool this little patch of East-facing vines are. Note the difference in how they’ve really restored these vines and turned them into something special.

 

 

The perfect Nebbiolo bunch

This looks like a grape Africa.

 

Hauling grapes Monforte

 

 

 

Monforte, the heart of Barolo

Monforte valley view

Monforte is the perfect base to explore the whole Langhe valley. There are several great hotels, wonderful restaurants and amazing views.

 

 

Ceretto cellar

Ceretto is a big winery you can tour, with a huge tasting room overlooking the valleys below.

 

More Information on Piemonte and the Barolo Region

 

If you want a great apartment to rent in Monforte, you should stay here, at Casa Gialla. It’s a ten minute walk from the Centro of Monforte.  Here’s a great article on Monforte d’Alba from Italy magazine. And a great article from The Telegraph on a Weekend in Monforte. And here’s a website about the Langhe region, a good resource of everything.

Here’s an article on Barolo and Piemonte in Italy magazine. And a great article on Piemonte from Forbes. Things to do in Barolo from TripAdvisor.  Here’s a fantastic overview of all the towns in the Langhe region from Italian Notes website. And a great article on the wines and region of Barolo from VinCarta.

Here’s a great article from the Guardian on the Piemonte wine route.  A great article from Food & Wine. And an overview from Travel & Leisure. Another great article from The Guardian about how Piemonte is the opposite of Tuscany. And a fantastic article on The Ten Best Towns in Piedmont from The Culture Trip. A good overview of Piemonte from the Australian website Traveller.

 

— Last Visited October 2018 —

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