European vinotherapy provides a continuing hope for the future
August 19, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second column in a two-part series. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first column.
Last week, I introduced you the oracle of Barbaresco, Jeffrey Chilcott, “cantinieri cellarmaster” at Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy. Facing a busy autumn of “experiential research” projects beginning at Roundup River Ranch, I thought I’d share with you one more page in my wine-cellar scrapbook.
One thing about Piemonte I love so much is it lacks commercialism and elitism that, in my opinion, now plague Napa and Sonoma. Hopefully, that will never change. In Napa, unless you find one of the few remaining family-owned and run wineries such as Schweiger Vineyards, often you must be content with paying for a scant tasting poured by someone who has memorized – if you’re lucky – a script of winery facts, names of vineyards and, on rare occasions, can even tell you a vineyard’s exposure. That’s Napa. In Piemonte, with so many world-class, family-owned and run wineries, it’s rare that you won’t be able to meet a family member or even the winemaker.
Another aspect of Piemonte I’ve enjoyed is how gracious the winemakers are and how supportive one is of another. That’s not to say this doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s just that experiencing Piemonte with one of the region’s young guns means we’ve had plenty of opportunities to gather with Chilcott’s contemporaries, many of whom are movers and shakers in the modern Piemonte wine industry.
With the Wizard of Wine as our guide, the world of Langhe and Roero wineries was opened for us. Given the lack of commercialism and its relatively new position as a favored Italian wine region for tourists, Piemonte is still one of those places best visited under the guidance of someone who is knowledgeable and can open doors. Chilcott was just that person for us. He taught me well.
One foggy October, my husband, Dani, and I decided at the last minute to celebrate our wedding anniversary in Piemonte. It had been a long, painful autumn in the aftermath of 9/11, and we knew 72 hours disconnected from the Internet, TV and work would be good therapy.
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Similar to the experience we had first time we met Chilcott, our weekend began on a late afternoon sampling wines from the Marchesi di Gresy portfolio with Florian Fritz, chef and enoteca owner from Moedling, Austria, south of Vienna. Fritz, who is now a manager at Freigut Thallern, was on a buying trip. We were about to embark on a wine lover’s fantasy weekend with him. If you really want to experience the best Piemonte has to offer, do it with a chef who’s on a wine-buying trip.
Chilcott took us through the winery’s large portfolio. That time, as so many before and after, Chilcott poured at least two vintages of most of the wines to show off the nuances between vintages, thus enhancing our appreciation of how weather can influence a particular wine.
The prized Barbaresco crus, Camp Gros and Gaiun, showed differences in age that were most prominent. Just released Barbaresco, although at least three years old, is tight and its tannins can be tough for some. But the wine’s transformation over 10 years resting quietly yields a bold wine, much softer on the mouth and with the characteristic rusty color of an aged Barbaresco. That’s what we experienced that autumn afternoon with Chilcott.
Our next day dawned early in Alba’s mercato. Saturday markets in Italy can be an assault on the senses but truly a pleasant one. Vegetables of every type and color are piled high on displays under the high mercato roof. Lined up along the old city wall are the most amazing versions of RVs you’ll ever see – food shops on wheels! Butchers, fish mongers, cheese purveyors and the like all display their savory products better than many I’ve seen in permanent locations. Vendors hawking flowers, clothes, shoes, pots, pans, toys and trinkets abound. Just about everything you could want can be found on a Saturday morning in Alba.
From a “rolling” butcher, I bought a beautiful pork loin and filled my basket with vegetables and cheeses. I had the privilege of cooking that night for a group of winemakers and cellarmasters at Villa Giulia, the Gresy ancestral home on one of the highest points in Barbaresco. What a disaster. Needless to say, I have never cooked for a group in Italy again!
The villa’s old gas oven was charming but unreliable. I soon switched to Plan B – stovetop cooking – which really wasn’t optimal for preparing my recipe. But it wasn’t until after several oven flameouts and our fear of explosion did we abandon oven braising. Soon, with the landscape beyond the open window vanishing into rising fog, the oven problems vanished into a fog of beautiful wines and fascinating company.
It all seemed surreal that evening. We had escaped Zurich to forget briefly the horrors of 9/11. But here we sat, while Jeffrey served our first course of antipasti in the villa’s parlor, which Nazi occupiers once used during World War II. We sat on furniture and gazed at paintings of a period long before Nazis inhabited the villa during their occupation of Piemonte. Jeffrey told stories of Giulia, the family’s matriarch, who had a steel backbone in the face of German officers living under her roof while their soldiers were encamped on its grounds. More wine. More food. The evening continued to flow as I heard stories from the winemakers about their problems with the weather, the new currency and, as always, the wine critics. It all felt so safe.
The dinner ended at 4:30 a.m. on the observatory’s deck atop the villa’s roof. Again, I was in a fantasy world. Above us was a night sky in that moment after the moon has disappeared and before the sun begins to rise. Stars filled the sky, but just below us, fog shrouded the earth. It was as though we were suspended on a cloud. After a slice of torta di nocciole (hazelnut tart) and a glass of Giulio Morando’s Moscato d’Asti, we bade good night as we left to catch a few hours of sleep before meeting Chilcott and Fritz for a 10 a.m. tasting in Barolo. The tasting turned out to be the beginning of another day that ended just before dawn amid winemakers, great food and some of the best wines the region had to offer.
The pork turned out to be edible, though not my finest culinary hour. But the impromptu gathering of so many fascinating people who brought to the table their own oenological creations was one of the highlights of my years in Piemonte. After 72 hours of wine, food and friends, we returned to Zurich, having accomplished what we set out to do. Spending those treasured days divorced from a scary new world, we renewed our faith in one another and in mankind. Wine has endured many of man’s cruelties and for good reason. It brings us all together and gives us hope for the future.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.