Italy is a relatively small and traveler-friendly country, unlike other European countries with a wider geographical girth; it is a long, boot-shaped country with cities located strategically across the peninsula. Infrastructurally equipped with an extensive – and less expensive than most European railroad and motorway system, it is convenient and time-efficient for short-term travelers who need to make their ways across most large and small cities across the peninsula. Our Piedmont to Venice to Rome route in and of itself brought us through many compelling cities: Verona, Milan, Parma and Rome to name a few.
La Morra, Piedmont was our first intended stop in Italy; it took us 4 hours to reach the destination. This time including our getting totally lost for an hour in the nearby city of Turin, but I consider this unplanned deviation from the map a blessing in disguise. It allowed us to see so much more of this beautiful country, and not solely major tourist hot spots. Turin is home to the famous football teams Juventus F.C and Torino F.C; it is also the headquarters of automobile manufacturers FIAT and Alfa Romeo, all of which we unknowingly passed by. In our defense, though, we right-hand drivers were struggling to stay on the left side of the road and were frantically looking for exit-signs back to the autostrada.
What awaited us ahead was rather “magical” – literally, when we finally got back to the motorway and drove through a tunnel that eventually got us back on track to La Morra, the beautiful landscape of a vine-clad, panoramic hilly scenery unfolded right before our tired eyes. This exceptional sight was another great reminder of the natural beauty that exists in the country; it was a sight of peace and serenity, where the smells, colours and sounds of the Mediterranean hillside relaxed us all, despite having slept badly in-flight before driving four long hours from Malpensa in Milan.
For many travelers who have been to the northwest region of Piedmonte, falling in love with the humility and modesty of the land and people is a surety. Tourism is not a big business there, yet the prices for eating out in trattorias, as well as accommodation in an agritourismo (an Italian term for a farm holiday or agricultural tourism) could not be more affordable. This is also the case for La Morra, a small town located atop of a group hills overlooking vineyards below. The first impression you get upon arriving in this small town is that you have somehow stepped into a medieval village that seems to be locked in time. This lost-in-time feel nonetheless has an advantage to it, because it allows us to experience the authentic traditions which have been preserved and passed down from generation to generation, particularly with regards to food and wine.
After another hour of driving through vineyards and rolling hills, we were met by the owner of our farmhouse, Frank and Marissa, who incidentally also own small-scale vineyards. We were served with some great wines and delicious anti-pasto made with local cheeses at Frank’s agritourismi, basking in the welcome, and in the sunny Friday-noon sun. These welcome snacks and home-matured wines were simple, unpretentious, but extremely delectable.
Set against the imposing background of the Alps, the hills are surmounted by crenalated castles and scattered villages that give it a fairy-tale air. While I was standing at Piazza Castello, the center of La Morra which offers a picturesque experience in viewing the landscape of vibrant vineyards at their lushest, I wondered if I could succumb myself to its enticement and reward my determination and efforts with a good bottle of something produced locally in Piedmont. That question though, was what.
From La Morra, we set off early in the morning to the nearby town of Barolo, the place that gives its name to a powerhouse Barolo wine, a red Denominazione di Origine Controllate e Garantita (DOCG) that is produced only in the North-Italian region of Piedmont. Our host, Frank, tells us that it is made from the Nebbiolo grape and is often described as one of Italy’s greatest wines, rivalled only by Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino.
Yet this town has more than wine to impress its visitors; there is also an enormous castle that has been transformed into the majestic Enoteca Regionale del Barolo – literally, the “wine repository of Barolo”. This Enoteca is primarily aimed at providing visitors or tourists with the opportunity to taste as many premium local wines as possible at a reasonable fee of €2, and to possibly purchase them afterwards. Obviously, this Enoteca is a collaborative effort with growers in the region, and is also intended as a center for first-hand information about wine growers.
I tasted my way through some great wines that afternoon; there had been a particularly gorgeous Barolo; a slightly sweet but moderate Cortese white wine; an intriguing and fragrant Arneis white, as well as some impressive reds like Gattinara and Gheme. Before I knew it, it was noon, and I thought, a good bottle of bubbly like Prosecco would do us good in livening our moods further. However, this Italian sparkling was not to be found in Piedmont, as the Prosecco grapes are only grown and produced in the Veneto region close to Venice.
Far be it from me to defy the full power of a Barolo – a wine so strong and bold, I think, should only be paired with food of similar weight such as red meat, aged cheese and rich, fungi-based risotto. But what I was really looking for wasn’t something serious at all. So, I had to keep my options open until I came across something of interest while driving back to La Morra: densely-formed grape vines tangling over twenty feet of brick stone walls close to the farmhouse in which we stayed.
Upon encountering this creeping vine of grapes, I did not instantly recognize them for what they were. Clusters and clusters of grapes were hanging on the tendrils; some were already vine-dried. These grapes were no more than half of the size of the normal table concord grapes. Though the resemblance was undeniable; the leaves were somewhat smaller than those grown in Frank’s vineyards, but beyond that, they were almost identical in the form to those cultivated, save for one distinctive characteristic – the aroma! These grapes were then easily distinguished by their sweet and musky smell. Its name implies its characteristics further – they are called muscato grapes.
These loose-hanging clusters of globes flabbergasted me! How could anyone walk by, and not be tempted to try one? Though small-berried with relatively thick skin, they were packed with flavor and scent of great complexity: spicy orange blossom with subtle, rich jasmine overtones. We don’t get these grapes at all in Malaysia; and so the next few days in La Morra saw the occasional pull over at the grapes’ growing site. Rather shamelessly, we pull juicy clusters off their vines for snacks in between breakfast, lunch and dinner. We feared liberally on these grapes until our tongue grew sore from the acidity, and then we ate some more.