Behind the Scenes: Wine cellar scrapbook: Dreaming of happy days spent in Piemonte
August 12, 2012
When most people look in their wine cellars, they usually see wines chosen because of ratings or perhaps experiences at restaurants. But when I walk into our humble wine room, the bins come alive like pages in a scrapbook. Nearly every wine is connected to a memory of Piemonte, Italy; Switzerland or France that grew from 20 years of life in central Europe.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming about Piemonte and wonderful memories stored in our cellar. So I wanted to share with you some of the more memorable ones. Many of you reading this will smile as you were with me on many of these journeys to the northwest Italian “feet of Alps.”
No Anglophone Piemontephile passes through Barbaresco without meeting the tall, infinitely knowledgeable and hospitable Kiwi, Jeffrey Chilcott, maitre de chais (cellar master) at Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy. The aristocratic Gresy family’s vineyard holdings date to the 17th century. The current Marchesi, Alberto di Gresy, began bottling their own wines in 1973. But for me, and many others, an important decade in the winery’s timeline is the ’90s, when Jeffrey Chilcott and Alberto di Gresy first met.
Fast forward to a cold, typical foggy November in 2000. On a previous trip that spring, we discovered a lovely Barbaresco at the slow food restaurant Osteria d’Arco in Alba. The beautiful thing about enjoying wines in wine-region restaurants is “you like it, go and find it.” So we did.
The Enoteco Regionale in the village of Barbaresco is housed in a decommissioned church. Quite fitting that these heavenly wines can be purchased there. But on this particularly cold and foggy day, there was no Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga 1995. We were given sketchy directions on how to find the winery not far from town along with a strong recommendation to “ask for Jeffrey.” So we got back in our Explorer (affectionately known as “the wine Panzer”) and set off on an adventure that morphed into 12 years of memorable oenological experiences in the Langhe and Roero regions.
If you haven’t experienced driving in Piemonte in late autumn, imagine driving blindfolded through winding, narrow, hilly roads. And daytime experiences are only slightly better than night. The Wine Panzer was aptly named. It was like driving a tank on vineyard roads only slightly wider than the car. And like little flies that can harass a horse on a summer day, the local residents in their tiny cars appeared out of the fog (nebbia) with no fear of the oversized American car they were about to run into. How we survived those years is still a mystery to me. I’m certain now that God is a wine connoisseur and watches out for fools in search of great wine. Up, then down, then up again, turn around, back down, back up and down. I think we must have driven on every road and into every driveway in the Rio Sordo valley before we threw in the bar mop. But as we drove back to where we hoped we came from, miraculously the fog slightly lifted. Like an apparition, the sign appeared: “Martinenga.” We had arrived.
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I often think back on that “road less traveled” moment and wonder what life would have been like if we hadn’t found the winery and, more importantly, Jeffrey that day. Surely it wouldn’t have been as rich and memorable as it has been.
We drove up the fog-shrouded road into the parking lot. It was there a tall figure with red hands, wearing Wellingtons and dressed in shorts, appeared at the winery door. It was Jeffrey. We had found the winery on a rare quiet day when Chilcott was able to spend time with us. After a tour of the winery, we set off for the rustic, brick-lined tasting room I later found had spectacular views of the vineyards.
At Marchesi di Gresy, there is no such thing as a two or three glass wine tasting. This isn’t Napa. You take a trip through the portfolio, beginning with more humble but equally impressive whites and reds to build up to the crescendo: two single cru Barbaresci, Camp Gros and Gaiun.
It was now 11 a.m. and we had a firm appointment at 1 p.m. in La Morra, 30 minutes away on a clear day. This was no clear day. But Chilcott had us under his spell. We were powerless to turn down the wines. In later visits to Piemonte, I developed a habit of tracking all the wines we drank with Chilcott. The most was 63 wines in 48 hours during a visit two months after 9/11. But that day, I could only count the number of wines we drank, not the number of vintages of each. With Chilcott, you don’t just taste the latest vintage of a particular wine. Instead, he trots out other vintages, including much older ones if he thinks you’ll appreciate them, so you can experience the subtle, but sometimes stark, contrasts between vintages.
Still under his spell, we arrived at the pinnacle, Gaiun and Camp Gros crus. Since Chilcott had primed our palates with Barbaresco Martinenga, we were prepared to enjoy the characteristic strong tannins of the two crus. As he poured the wine, I looked about at the long table. The four of us plus Chilcott had gone through a good deal of wine drunk in Reidel glasses that now covered the table. Glasses of two vintages of Martinenga remained for us to compare to the crus. Comparison shopping at its finest. Beautiful wines worth the wait and the trip through the preceding nine wines.
Chilcott decided we had to taste Gaiun 1987, a memorable vintage before weaker ones of the early ’90s. But that pesky appointment was looming, along with the foggy drive. Chilcott said, “No problem; come back tomorrow.”
Our last day of the trip dawned much as others before it – cold and foggy. But this time, we knew our way to the winery. No doubt if we got there by 10 a.m., we could be out by 11 and on our way back to Zurich by noon. But, it would be such an insult to the wine if we didn’t first warm up our palates with some whites and reds. By 12:30 p.m., after another trip through the portfolio, we arrived at the 1987 Gaiun. It was beautiful in all respects. Rusty color, that barnyard smell so indicative of nebbiolo and, of course, tannins that more than 10 years of aging had tamed. Worth the return.
Our departure for Zurich had to wait. It was lunchtime, and Chilcott wanted to grab a few plates at Antica Torre in Barbaresco. Another lesson. There is no such thing as a “few plates” with Chilcott. Nor just a few wines. With two of the wines we had drunk in hand, we set off to the restaurant. Etiquette dictated that for the two bottles Chilcott brought to try with food, he would buy two others at the restaurant. After four bottles and more than a few fabulous plates of traditional Piemontese cuisine, it was 4 p.m., time to drive north through the fog and into the snow. I remember arriving home, heading straight for bed where I remained, dreaming, for three days.
That was late 2000. Since then, Marchesi di Gresy wines have grown in global popularity, thanks in no small part to Chilcott’s knowledge, passion for wine and his magnetic personality that consumers love. The once small facilities have doubled in size to meet growing demand. The road we traveled that cold, foggy day has now become the Yellow Brick Road so many wine lovers travel in search of the Wizard of Wine in the Emerald City.