I’m now a guest blogger on Italian wine for Steivell, experts on property buying in Italy. My first post just went up, on the Italian sparkling wines Franciacorta and Prosecco. The site is in Swedish, but for those of you who are vikings, click here to read!
“Lean, elegant, with a solid built that seems effortless and natural. Shyly restrained at first, but little by little opens up and charms the socks off of me.” What I am referring to here?The description turned out to be equally correct for both the 2004 Barolo Reserva from Alessandro et Gian Natal Fantino, and for the winemaker himself. At the restaurant of the Albergo de’ll Agenzia Slow Food I was served this beautiful Barolo with veal cutlets (see tasting note), and felt I just had to meet the person who made the wine. Which is how I got the pleasure of meeting Alessandro, and noticing that he is just like his wine.
I drove to Monforte d’Alba, cursing my GPS, “oohing” and “aahing” over the beautiful Bussia hillsides, but finally found the cantina (cellar) where the hotel had helped me book a tasting. Meeting Alessandro (and later his sweet, smiling banker wife) was one of the highlights of the trip. The A&GN Fantino Barolo retained the understated power and elegance in the glass, never became pushy, but became more and more friendly, open, and layered over the span of an hour. Which, again, is exactly like its maker, Alessandro. In my “creative” Italian, we soon left the basic tasting protocol and discussed philosophy of winemaking, while his dog begged for tasting crackers. Alessandro had worked a few years at Latour and Chateau d’Yquem when younger.
When he was ready to start up on his own, he had the option to build a bigger brand, a bigger vineyard, elsewhere, but he decided to go back to Monforte d’Alba and go small for very specific reasons. “I have seen the large format, and I prefer this way” he said. “I can make the wine I want to make, not the wine I have to make simply in order to pay for my business,” he continued. With their current size he gets to both work in the vineyard and in the cellar, he has the flexibility of not having employees, and can adapt the wine making methods to the vintage. I loved our discussions on fermentation and wood use. “How do you know when is the right time to stop, or the right size barrel for the vintage?” I wondered, and he just smiled “You know.” Would like to see that strategy implemented at Turning Leaf… Either way, he seems to know. There is a brilliance, an elegance, in his wines that made me re-evaluate the entire region. Next time I come I’m hoping to meed the other brother, Gian Natal, too. I wonder what he is like, considering I “see” so much of Alessandro in the wine.
I walked away from the Cantina with more wines than I can rightly fit in my suitcase, but fewer than I would have liked to have aging in my cellar. I promised to bring smoked salmon in return next time. These precious bottles are going to be shared with friends who need to discover another style of Barolo. I’m hoping I can find someone to import them to Sweden (or Utah) – I’d like to have them a bit more easily accessible. So, if you are a really, really good, quality importer and would like to have dinner with me, call me and let’s share some of the most elegant, good value Barolo!
(Note: The 2004 should keep another 20-30 years. A&GN Fantino produce approx. 60 000 bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco per year. The very reasonable price is between 20-25€ for the Barolo and Barolo Reserva if bought directly from him – and only 5€ for the Barbera. The main markets are Switzerland and Germany; only 5% stay in Italy!)
Eating alone in a restaurant is almost an art form. Sometimes I can even prefer eating alone, because it gives me the chance to focus fully on the food and wine, and nobody gets offended if I ignore them to get into long discussions with the sommelier (hint to sissy). Other times it is torture.
They key for the restaurant is to make me as a single eater feel both part of the dining room, and at the same time sheltered. The no-nos are to place the single diner smack in the middle or at the door where I just feel like I am not part of the warm cozy restaurant feel. For me, perfect placement is with my back to a wall, somewhere decently central. I can watch the room, but don’t feel like I’m on a stage being observed.
Then there is the amusement. If I have a book, I never feel alone in a restaurant.
As for the wine, I love a nice by-the-glass wine list. Don’t want to polish of a bottle by my lonesome – not only would it look bad, I’d be drunk. Even better is a sommelier who will open almost any bottle on their list for me, like they did at the hotel restaurant at the Albergo dell’ Agenzia Slow Food yesterday. I had three different wines, of which one was a gorgeous 2004 Barolo from A&GN Frantino (see tasting note), and payed very very decent glass prices. That is service!
Lastly, the most important is that little touch of extra attention. If something is neglected, like the bread, or taking away my plate, I end up feeling somewhat forgotten, even I would never feel that way if I was dining in company. If instead I get an extra smile, and maybe a short chat with the waiter or sommelier, it makes me feel like a welcomed diner, and I leave happy. Of course, if instead, I end up with long conversations with the staff, who get animate about what I need to drink or taste, sharing suggested bottles with neighboring tables, that is a place I will always remember with joy. Those days (yes, they do happen to me now and then), I am reminded what a lubricant food and wine are for human interaction, and I am energized for days.
The 2004 had a great development in the bottle, more developed than the 2005 by far. The 2004 went from elegant floral, roses with tanned leather, to a more amarone-like dried plums and fruits, and ended up after an hour as an intense chocolate, raspberry caramel, still with the dried roses and mint on top. The elegant lightness stayed throughout. Sweet liquorish flavor came toward the end. I have always been fascinated with a wine that will develop so much in the glass, and surprise me at every sip. Most importantly, what made me want to meet this winemaker apart from the elegance of his wines, was that sniffing and drinking it did what very very few wines do. Instead of immediately dividing itself into scents, it gave me a feeling, an image. I somehow imagine that the wines that do this are the ones where the vine and the winemaker have managed to leave an impression of themselves, maybe a bit of soul, or of their feelings, in the wine for me to discover. It makes me fluttery or giddy or dreamy. Hard to describe in tasting notes, but it was a wine like that which made me decide to dive into a profession where I could spend my days with wine. I have been chasing it ever since. So of course, when it happens, I like to know more about the wine and the person behind it.
On the subject of the landscape – Piemonte is the second largest “state” in Italy, and is extremely varied. From the flatlands toward Milano, to the rolling hills around Alba, to the mountains all the way to the northern border, and then the rougher hills around Acqui Terme. I am starting to think that, as far as landscapes go, I am enjoying the more savage nature further southeast. Around Barolo it is definitely beautiful, but somehow too well kept, like the grass of the golf greens. Wine monocultures as far as the eye can see, and well kept houses and churches all around. This is a rich area, and has been for some time. None of the wear and tear you see in so many other wine regions – expensive ones like Champagne included. I miss it, I have always had a thing for a bit of signs of wear, a bit of personality. Nevertheless, if someone gave me a house in La Morra, I wouldn’t say no. It is gorgeous.
Piemonte looks like good property value to me. (I’m looking for a second home in a wine region, so I can cope with the long Swedish winters). Might even get better, if Italy’s economy continues in the negative spin it is in. Still am not convinced that Piemonte is the place for me to find a house, in spite of a couple of very positive factors. With the exception of the area around Barolo, the prices are quite reasonable. The food is good, albeit a bit simple like most Italian cuisine, and the wine choices are excellent. There is truffle, and raw veal sausages, and cured meats, and parmiggiano. People are absurdly friendly and kind, and the roads are excellent. I would love to learn better Italian. Still, same as with the wines, even though I truly do like everything here, my heart still has a small small yearning for France. For the wines, the food, the landscape, the surly (at times) French. The wine. Really, it’s the wine. And maybe the foie gras. God, the foie gras…
I started the day by putting on my flirtiest dress and going to the bakery to convince the baker at Da Ale Panetteria to make me the same delicious salty crackers that they serve with their wine tasting flights at the Banca de Vino. I was expecting an old fat man for some reason, and was pleasantly surprised to meet a cute young baker with the bluest eyes. Mission complete, he is baking them for me on Tuesday.
One of my favorite activities by far when traveling is going to local markets, and Saturday is market day in Alba. It always gets to me that I can’t buy all the veggies and fresh fish and tender meats and go home and spend the rest of the weekend in the kitchen. I mean, fresh quail at 8 € per kg? The most beautiful, aromatic Roma tomatoes at 1€ per kg? I would go nuts if I lived here. But alas, until then I will have to make do with buying the things I can transport. Which at this market turned out to be a kilo jar of local acacia honey and a kilo of freshly toasted piemontese hazelnuts (the region is famous for them – Nutella comes from here!).
I arrived at the nice four star hotel CANDIANI in Casale Monferrato quite late after some trouble picking up my rental car, but made it just in time for a late dinner at Cincinbalicin, which the receptionist at the hotel had suggested. One big, open room with wooden furniture and a nice little wine list. Could have been a hip laid-back restaurant in New York if not for the very local crowd. Cozy, and just what I needed after a day of travel. With my rusty Italian, I saw “vitello” (veal) and ordered it without bothering to figure out what cut it was. Well, I now know the word for liver (it’s “fegato”). Not being much of a liver lover, I was tentative, but this pan-fried veal liver went down surprisingly well with the sweet flavors of fried onion and sage, and with a little help from a delicious, velvety, spicy Nebbiolo di Lange DOC. Nebbiolo di Lange from a good producer can be a good value alternative to the much more expensive Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s the same grape (said Nebbiolo), the same general region, and same methods of production minus a year or so in the cellar. At a third of the price.