31 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: vinoteca centro storico, serralunga

Our afternoon in Serralunga d'Alba amounted, finally, to a spiral out to nowheresville, since 90% of the town was shut in August, including, contrary to what the guidebooks said, the 14th-century feudal castle built by the Faletti family in the French donjon style, which had been the only reason J's wife C had wanted to visit the town in the first place. 

That week's heat wave continued unabated. The whole town was like a kiln. I begged off further examination of the castle's circumference and sat in the shade with a guilty-looking cat, surrounded by feathers, until J and C descended with news that the castle was slated to open in an hour's time. We decided to wait it out over a terrace lunch at the only place open that was not a leery-looking hotel: Vinoteca Centro Storico. Which wine bar, we were cheered to discover, is known to international visitors as a regional wine destination, and to regional wine drinkers as a destination for Champagne. 

It was not quite noon, however, and none of us was feeling too splashy, and additionally it makes no sense whatsoever to come to Italy to drink French wine. So we didn't take advantage of the massive selection. Later I was to learn via McDuffWine that Vinoteca Centro Storica owner Alessio Cighetti is a tremendous Champagne geek who moves over 1500btls / year in a town of 300 residents. This only becomes comprehensible when viewed as part of a wider Champagnophilic trend in Piedmont. Everywhere we went, it seemed, Champagne was fairly well represented, alone among wines from outside the immediate region. 

While Champagne is, for better or for worse, the world's most successfully branded wine region, guaranteeing it placement on wine lists from Moscow to Johannesberg, I suspect there are nevertheless more subtle societal reasons for why Barolo should be home to so many hardcore Champagne fans. Barolo has historically been cited right after Burgundy and Bordeaux in discussion of the world's greatest wine production zones, but unlike these regions, Barolo produces no great white wines. (This applies to Piedmont as whole, in fact.) I'd speculate - with zero justification, mind - that it is this lack, when put in context of the region's relative wealth and a certain national bravado, that accounts for such ardent Champagne devotion.

Anyway, C and J and I instead drank glasses of Timorasso, a pokey native Piemontese white grape from the hills near Tortona that was nearly extinct until vigneron Walter Massa rescuscitated it.

His "Derthona" remains the only example that ever seems reach the lips of wine writers, who cover it mostly because it's unheard of.* For much the same reason, I used to pour it by the glass at restaurant where I wine directed in LA, although at the time I told myself the Timorasso was compensating for a lack of heavy or even medium-bodied whites on the glass list.**

Tasting the 2009 this year I consider the it maybe lightweight-plus, a sort of cardigan-wearing chubby Boy Scout of a white wine. What weight there is comes from a year's lees aging in steel, here resulting in much the same effect I find in certain bottles of overrated Muscadet: richness without much complexity.

I still like the wine well enough. It's made with evident care, displays pleasant orgeat notes and low-toned minerality, and holds up well in open bottles, in my experience. It also tastes about the same in the states as it does near its source in Piedmont, a trait which sort of cuts both ways, if one is on the lookout for local revelations.

The cuisine at Vinoteca Centro Storico was more memorable. Piemontese staples prepared and served by Cighetti's mother-in-law, who is evidently a maestra of vitello tonato. (Possessive of a certain piquante clarity, hers was the best I had on this trip, a high honor, considering the dish featured in almost every meal we ate.)

Agnolotti were similarly fantastic, and J was so taken with his somewhat fecal-looking dessert of roast peach and chocolate that he facetiously warded us off sharing with him, claiming it was no good even as he wolfed it down with gusto.

Towards the end of the meal we got to chatting with a silver-haired solo diner on the next table, who it turned out was a British private importer. He had nothing nice to say about the concept of natural wine, and for my part I kept schtum on what I suspect are the deleterious effects of private importers like him on the overall British wine scene***. But we got along alright, and he passed along some good local info., the most important tidbit of which, just then, was that the Serralunga castle key is kept by an unreliable old lady who only opens the castle to the public on Saturdays, and even then only when she feels like it.

So, like a couple of Kafka characters, we failed to enter the castle. We had a nice meal, at least.

Pic nicked from Weimax.com.

* When wine writers have nothing to say about a white wine, they will resort to calling it "straw-colored." There is such a thing as the color of straw, but encountering it in a white wine is about as notable as encountering it on a barn floor.

** Well-made weighty white wines are available from Italy (c.f. basically every competent modern producer), but they invariably come in at a strenuously high price point, and in my experience almost never merit it.

*** For instance, this guy has a lock on the UK distribution of several major Barolo producers, and he sells only to private clients, never to restaurants. He says the latter don't pay on time. It would seem to me that a market structured that way would make the experience of many fine wines essentially inaccessible to all but the über-rich. You would then have a market in which the mass discourse about wine is fundamentally stunted; i.e. Britain.

Via Roma, 6
Serralunga d'Alba (CN)
Tel: +39 0173 613203


  1. Wait...you believed a guide book regarding rigid opening and closing times for something in Italy? This is a whole new ultra-gullible side of you with whom I was previously unacquainted. ;-)

    That is one awesome-looking vitello tonnato. Despite it being a dish I could really do without in the vast majority of cases.

    As for Piedmontese whites, I think there could be hope for nascetta -- we drank what may have been the very last bottle of the first post-resurrection vintage of it last year (I've never participated in the extinction of a wine before) -- and at maturity it was delicious and unique enough on which to hang quality hats, but I seriously doubt anyone will leave it sufficiently alone to let it get there. Certainly the producer of this particular wine had not resisted the urge to meddle and polish in subsequent vintages. Maybe if we could give some to Brovia. In any case, there's somewhere between zero and anecdotal interest in the grape in the region, so I don't expect to be writing any "nascetta revolution" trend pieces in my lifetime.

    ...which leaves riesling, though I suspect that the best sites are already planted to significantly more lucrative grapes.

  2. dear Aaron, Our visit to Centro Storico in early July, was our best meal, as not only the cooking, as we ordered just pastas, and dessert, so we didn't suffer course overload, and the only good bread until we moved on to France. As with Italians, Alessio was a very good host. We noticed a large party waiting to gain entry into the castle, perhaps it's never open. Bill Schmitt

  3. thor: you don't like vitello tonato? what's not to like? there's something so clean and breakfasty about the dish, i feel like i'm waking up again whenever i eat it.

    with regards to nascetta, i have to go on record as thinking you're completely bonkers. i've usually found it to be a total shrinking wallflower of a white. the first examples i'm calling to mind are cogno's, and i think vietti's. i had one or two unmemorable other ones in piemonte on this trip. in my experience the closest i have come to a quality nascetta has been drinking abbona's langhe bianco, which i was first told was viognier, and which tastes like viognier, except that that abbona himself later in the evening asserted that nascetta WAS viognier. but either one of us may have been drunk, or there may have been language issues.

    bill: glad to hear it! i definitely hope to return one day for a more substantive experience. (of the restaurant, not the castle.)