Fine wine editor Janet Wynne Evans joins buyer Sebastian Payne MW on a trip to Piedmont where she falls for the Langhe and discovers that's there's so much more to Italy's north-west than Barolo, Barbaresco and Gavi
If your palate is fogged up with nebbiolo or cauterised by cortese, never fear: you don’t have to go far in Piedmont to change the record.
Just step outside Barolo, Barbaresco and Gavi and into the greater Langhe and you’re spoiled for choice: impressive rieslings like Colla’s; the creamy, classy blend of chardonnay, sauvignon, riesling and local nas-cetta Society members know as Dragon; barbera, dolcetto and even pinot nero (a bit of a work in progress).
But the Langhe is not merely another outpost for international varieties: there’s Piedmont’s own delightful strawberry-scented freisa and violet-scented grignolino, both delightful summer drinking. There’s pelaverga and arneis. And if nippier evenings lead you back to the trusty nebbiolo, there’s certainly plenty of that, often delightfully leavened with the fruitier dolcetto. A prime example of that is our best-selling Bricco Suagnà, frustratingly between vintages as I write but back on tap very shortly.
Defined by the river Tanaro to the north and west, and protected by a continuous network of hills, Langhe is a region of many microclimates and soil profiles so it’s not surprising that so many varieties thrive here.
Clearly, some kind of structure was needed and DOC Langhe saw the light in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t exactly your typical denomiazione and some see it as a hopelessly chaotic licence for laissez-faire and all that implies: fewer rules, an enormous quality range, an excuse to ‘big up’ mediocre vini da tavola, and, worst of all, the temptation to capitalise on the prices of those posh Bs up the road.
Both Barolo and Barbaresco lie within the borders of Langhe, but anyone who thinks that a DOC Langhe Nebbiolo promises a declassified version of either at an unfeasibly good price is doing themselves, and the Lange, a disservice.
The best wines are their own men, not pretending to be Barolo-lite or Barbaresco-bambino, but instead, offering value and welcome accessibility. At the risk of repeating a well-worn Society mantra, it all starts with the grower, often a leading light in Barolo production and using a good route to market for some of his younger vines or parcels falling outside the magic enclaves.
And there ARE rules. One of the more straightforward is that a grape named on the label must account for 85% of the wine, and in some cases such as riesling, 100%. What could be clearer than that?
Members may already be aware that this glorious corner of Italy is designated a UNESCO world heritage site, its rolling, vine-clad hills reflecting that harmony between man and terroir that defines the expression ‘cultural landscape’. Its vinous history dates, it’s thought from the fifth century BC and the Ligurian Celts who got planting, with a little help from the Phoenicians and Greeks. In their wake, and forgive me if I press on, there’s a lot to get through, came Etruscans and Romans, Byzantines, Lombards, Angevins, Savoyards.
By the 15th century, stealing a nebbiolo vine was a documented criminal offence, finable by five coins, according to the town statutes of La Morra at the time, and anyone who dared to harvest his dolcetto before the Feast of St Matthew would be fined the sum total of his harvest. I am indebted to professor of viticulture Carlo Arnulfo’s excellent volume Langhe E Roero, Dal Suolo Al Bicchiere (‘from soil to glass’)for these, and many more vignettes.
Langhe is certainly gorgeous to look at, and to be in, and is perhaps at its stunning best in late autumn, when persimmon trees, leafless but laden with bright orange fruit dot the landscape like displays of Chinese lanterns and the peerless Alba truffle makes its appearance. Drinking well is a given. Food is unpretentious and good, and of the cool Alpine variety, a far cry from the hot south.
I read somewhere that that there are some 17,000 cows, 75,000 ewes and 39,000 nanny-goats in Piedmont: certainly butter, not oil, rules here. There are serious local cheeses too like Raschera and Castelmagno, but let’s not forget that this part of Italy is also the home of more familiar formaggi such as Gran Padano and Gorgonzola. Stir any of these generously into polenta or risotto with impossible amounts of butter, swaddle with a creamy blanket of porcini mushrooms and ask yourself why you waited so long to become a vegetarian.
The local pasta may be small but well-stuffed (agnolotti al plin, or simply ‘plin’) or whisker-thin and called tajarin (the j is always pronounced ee in the Piemontese dialect). Both may be served outside or under a luscious and similarly meaty ragù. But it’s very rude to turn down a plate of it topped, in an insouciant €5000–a-kilo flick of the wrist, with slivers of white truffle. This happened to me at Boccondivino in Brà, the very restaurant where Carlo Petrini founded the now-global Slow Food movement. Feeling I should exercise some restraint while all around me were shamelessly truffle-worshipping, I ordered my pasta with sage butter. Back from the kitchen came the shock announcement that they were out of sage and would the signora accept, with their apologies, a garnish of truffles instead?!
The recipe below teams the nearest thing I can find to tajarin with a Piemontese slow-cooked classic, stracotto or brasato. Members may recall that we recently published a recipe for this rich beef stew courtesy of one our producers, Araldica. If so, they may have noted too that it needs a good while to chunter to tender perfection.
Not so mine. All you have to do is to save some leftovers from a well-flavoured recent roast. With a little help from the store cupboard and the fridge, it’s nothing short of a shameless cheat.
I wonder how much the good burghers of La Morra might have fined me for that!
'Tajarin' With Ragu, Alla Piemontese
For the sauce
A knob of butter, for frying
A small onion, chopped
A clove of garlic, crushed
A tiny pinch – the tip of a teaspoon - of ground cloves (the secret ingredient of a good stracotto or brasato, but not too much)
About 250g leftover beef or lamb, chopped into small pieces, or use a processor
A small glass of Piedmontese red wine
A 440g tin of plum tomatoes
2 tbsp concentrated or sun-dried tomato purée
A few sage leaves, washed, dried, rolled up and finely sliced
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
400g dried spaghettini, tagliolini or similarly long, thin pasta
Gran Padano or Parmesan cheese to serve
Set the oven at 190°C/Gas 5. Melt the butter in an ovenproof dish and add the onions. Let them soften and become translucent. Now sprinkle in the ground cloves and the crushed garlic and let them meld with the onions for a minute or so.
Add the meat and when the pan is sizzling, add the wine. Let it bubble and almost evaporate.
Next, add the tomatoes and the puree. Stir well before adding the sage. Season well.
Bring back to the boil, cover tightly, transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Check that it's bubbling, if not, give it a little longer. Move it to the hob and if the consistency is not as thick as you would like it to be, let it reduce a little more.
Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions, testing a couple of minutes before the due time. When it's perfectly al dente, drain, reserving a little of the cooking water.
Turn into a large warmed serving dish and spoon in the meat sauce. Loosen up the mixture with a little of the cooking water if necessary and keep turning the pasta and sauce until it's well integrated.
Serve from one large bowl and hand round the grated cheese.
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