DAWN in Castiglione Falletto. Heat already rising off the vineyards. We’d slept with the balcony doors open and inviting blossom scents were tiptoeing in. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I was struck by the spectacular wall of shimmering white in the far distance. The Alps, 150 miles or more away. Amazing.
'Alba's true culinary reputation, though, rests on the coveted white truffle. Come October gastronomes descend on its weekend Truffle Market'
We’d been told that only on the very clearest days was such a panorama possible from our hotel and here it was right on cue. Our immediate surrounding hills in Italy’s Langhe wine region were gentler, testing only in climbs up to the hilltop villages, each capped by its own castle and, inevitably, tasting rooms.
This is the heartland of famous wines beginning with B – Barbera, Barbaresco and the mighty Barolo – and the locals don’t let you forget it. But, save in Barolo town, you won’t find any tourist honeypots. The lack of serious tourist footfall is a miracle considering how delightful is the landscape of vines and hazel trees, how delicious and ample the food on offer, how courteous the people.
That lack of spotlight, at least outside Italy and the global wine community, might be about to change. The day before we departed for our Headwater
unguided Gastronomic Piedmont walking tour, this region was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status.
What that means long term I’m not quite sure. Transport links could be improved. Certainly, the only drawback we had was in getting there from Manchester – a long drawn out affair involving a flight to Milan, a train journey to Turin (one connection missed didn’t help) and a longish car transfer. On the plus side the area Headwater reps, Marsha (from Didsbury) and Esme, settled nerves on the phone and in person... and, crucially, ensured we just made our Michelin-starred dinner at the Villa Amelia, our starting point hotel outside Benevello.
tI’m so used, as a (very) independent traveller to making all my own arrangements. It was lovely to be looked after for once. Best of all was the deal where our luggage was ferried on from hotel to hotel, leaving us toting light rucsacks for our maps and (essential) water bottles.
A pair of Californian women, whose paths we crossed, had created headaches all week for the Headwater team by getting endlessly lost. We were the model guests. only strayed from the path once early on and didn’t confess. Signposting was pretty good and civilisation was always close at hand.
As folk who virtually live on The Pennine Way, we were scornful of the daily distances to be covered, hovering around the 10 to 13km mark (and two hotel stays had optional rest days). Then we ran into the near vertical stagger up through vineyards to Castiglione. It helped that the weather was unremittingly glorious. In wet weather – more common here in Northern Italy – this and other stretches could churn into boot-wrenching mud. Whatever, it’s definitely terrain for boots not sandals or flipflops.
I’d recommend, too, not over-indulging in wine tasting mid-day. Until our final walk, when we went big on a seven course lunch (thnak you, Piera, left, at the homely Cantina Paese in Albaretto della Torre), we ignored lunch. We breakfasted amply, then forwent food until an equally ample dinner at each journey’s end. The trip lived up to its ‘Gastronomic’ moniker, offering a mixture of fine dining and more rustic fare typical of the region. We got four memorable Michelin-starred dinners, two at Amelia in Benevello at either end of the round trip and on twoconsecutive evenings at the Ristorante Il Castello in Grinzane Cavour, the first place we reached on foot during the trip.
The Castello restaurant is housed in a stone arched chambe in Grinzane’s spectacular 11th century castle, Chef Alessandro’s food is unfussy but superbly focussed, while knowledgeable sommelier Stefano has the advantage of access on the floor below to the Enoteca Regionale Cavour, a perfect showcase for the region’s wines.
There’s not much more to Grinzane than the castle on its panoramic plateau and a few houses clustered round, one of which was our hotel, the Casa Pavesi. It’s been restored in a solidly bourgeois way I found very distinctive, like its proprietor, Paula, whose breakfasts were the best we had on the trip.
The towers of AlbaIt’s 5km to Alba, capital of the region, which hosts an excellent Saturday market. Despite its red brick medieval towers and maze of cobbled streets, it’s a workaday kind of place – home of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella... and, not so far away, Cinzano. Its true culinary reputation, though, rests on the coveted white truffle. Come October gastronomes descend on its weekend Truffle Market. Hounds are trained to unearth these intensely scented, edible tubers from secret wooded locations. The hamlet of Roddi is home to the University of Truffle Hunting Dogs, so we stopped by to check out the 'campus'. Alas, two chained pooches howled at us from the yard and an old Italian woman shooed us away!
Roddi was hilltop with a castle, a formula repeated across our treks – gorgeous Serralunga with its swift-haunted bastion and a cafe where we chanced upon a lunchtime opera session; homely Castiglione Falletto and family hotel Le Torri with that Alpine view; and ridge-straddling Novello, once a very important centre, as evidenced by the quality of its public buildings.
Our final stop-off before completing the weeklong circuit back to Benevello and tackling anohter Michelin meal was ochre-coloured Monforte d’Alba. No obvious castle here, but a lively bohemian feel (they were setting up for its famous jazz festival as we departed). Our lodging, the Villa Beccaris, is a fabulously situated 18th century villa (on a hill naturally). It is very traditional but not stuffy and, on our “rest day” the temptation was to sit sipping Arneis in its lofty grounds.
This floral, mouth-filling white was the wine revelation of the trip. It helped that it’s affordable like the lighter red, Dolcetto, we favoured to accompany our meals. Through my wine trade contacts I chose to concentrate my tastings on a couple of top-end family estates, Aldo Conterno at Monforte d’Alba and GD Vajra, both of whose range of wines I heartily recommend. Thanks to Giacomo at the former (their HQ is my main picture) and Francesca and her mother Ilena, right, at the latter. Note: these producers are creating serious example of Barolo, which require years of ageing and such quality doesn’t come cheap.
The Gastronomic Piedmont Walk, similarly, is among the more expensive Headwater walking holidays but offers real value and insights into a fascinating wine region, where viticulture dates back to the Etruscans and Celts trading here in the 5th century. The World Heritage accolade is bound to lure more folk to explore. We were just glad to have its 10,000 hectares of rolling vineyards to ourselves and to copiously sample the resulting product.
And, if you are really into the entire wine experience (or simly need a breather) you can always dropi in on the Corkscrew Museum in Barolo!
Neil Sowerby and his wife flew from Manchester to Milan Malpensa with Flybe, then took the express train from Milan to Turin, where he was collected by Headwater couriers for the hour and a half drive to the Langhe.
Neil Sowerby chose to go on Headwater’s Gastronomic Piedmont Walk. It costs from 1,319 per person for an eight-night trip. Dates available every two days between May and October. Continental breakfast and dinners included plus maps and transportation between hotels
For a full range of Headwater’s Italian walking tours, guided and unguided, visit this link.
Northwich-based Headwater run activity holidays across the globe. www.headwater.com.
Neil Sowerby parked at Manchester Airport. For full details of parking there visit this link.
Want to mug up on the wines of the Langhe before you go? Essential reading is the newly published Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O’Keefe, Italian editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine. It’s comprehensive and enlightening.
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