My other half is now a sommelier through the AIS (Associazione Italiana Sommelier) and that means that wine has now, more than ever, been a big part of our culinary experience. Since we only got a car 3 years ago, it’s been a great excuse to get out and discover the countryside where few buses and trains will go.Tasting Barolo in Barolo, Italy.
This Easter weekend we went back to Piemonte. We spent Easter there three years ago (you can read about the delicious Easter lunch we had) but this time we went to a different part of the region and focused solely on wine and countryside. I did drive by the Ferrero factory (makers of Nutella) but they don’t allow visits, so you can leave that off your itinerary for Piemonte.
The whole driving through the countryside to find wineries to stop in at and taste is not as popular as it is elsewhere, and I’m not sure if it ever will be. Places like agriturismi (bringing tourists to farms, ranches & wineries) cater to tourists, and some wine producers don’t want you showing up at their place of business without an invitation, so it’s best to do your research before setting out. If it’s a nice day, you might still get a great drive out of it, but if you’re looking to taste wine, it’s best you have a plan.
My biggest tip is to look for the local “Enoteca Regionale” – the regional wine “repository” or shop – which features local wines; many which are not found elsewhere! Another name to look out for is the “Cantina Comunale” – the city cantina- this will be much smaller in focus and may feature only uber-local wines and whatever else the people running the shop decide is worth their shelf space.
In my experience at the several ones I’ve been to, here’s what you can expect from an Enoteca Regionale or a Cantina Comunale:
- Taste the wine. They will have around 4-6 bottles of wine you can have a taste or glass of directly there.
- Local experts. They will know their wine, very, very well. They probably know the producers personally, too.
- There will be wine there you won’t find elsewhere. Not every wine producer in Italy is in the bigger supermarkets or even the bars. It’s a great way to discover brands and vintages which you might not find anywhere else!
- Tourist information: maybe. They may or may not have information about visiting local wineries or itineraries, or this may fall to the local Tourist information office. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
- No frills & no food. They definitely want to sell some wine, but this isn’t an “experience” where you can park it there all day and have them entertain you. Most will offer the standard grissini, breadsticks, to help you cleanse your palate and put something in your stomach, but most do not have kitchens nor a menu for you to sit and drink. Buy a few bottles, stop by aforno or macellaio (baker or butcher) to pick up some eats, and head to the nearest park for your own tasting session.
If you’re set on planning a wine tasting & touring trip, here are my suggestions:
- Map it out. Roughly map out your trip and take a look at which areas you’d like to focus on. Pick 2-3 towns or spots per day you’d like to stop at, and leave room for that 2-3 hour lunch you *know* is going to happen. Don’t try to rush it all, and especially if there’s sun out, you’re going to want to sit somewhere and enjoy the scenery instead of being in the car all day.
- Call ahead for updated info. Sure, it takes some of the spontaneity out of it, but finding out if someone will actually be there when a guide book (or even their own website!) says they will is a good thing to verify.
- Reserve. Make reservations at a tasting room or lunch spot. During high season, you’ll want to make sure you’re not left eating panini and drinking Cokes on a sidewalk somewhere.
- Go early. If you’re flying by the seat of your pants, go early. That means no later than 12:30 for lunch, or 19:00 or 19:30 to catch the restaurant right when it opens so you can grab that last 2-top table that’s open. And, if you’re early and they still don’t have room, that leaves more time for you to find an alternative.