Another Wine Experience: A Romp thru Northern Italy’s Lake Country
By Erleichda (about the author)
We touched down very early in Milan on what, for all eight of us, would mark the beginning of our hiking week in the Lake Country of northern Italy, a destination we had chosen after last year’s successful Lot Valley (France) hiking experience. Sweetpea had to crash as she is circadian rhythm-challenged (easily jet lagged) while the rest of us got our leg muscles warmed up by walking to the Duomo and then climbing up to its roof for a great view of the city. By the time we walked to La Scala and a few other destinations, our pedometer had logged 6 miles and we were ready for our first glass of vino. It was a Dolcetto d’Alba from Castello de Neive, their “Messoirano” ($12 in Italy, not available in US that I could find). I don’t remember the particulars about this one, so it was probably neither great nor unacceptable.
The wines we came upon during the 10 days spent in Italy that were considered worthy of note were often recorded by taking a picture of their bottle label and when and where tasted. Formal tasting notes were typically lacking, unless I saved the napkin, and the most I’ll be able to relate about a “wine of note” is that it was enjoyed by most gathered around the bottle.
In a few hours we were to meet a friend of mine, “Grazia,” who lives outside of Milan, and several of her family members, at a nearby restaurant known to be one of the Slow Food Movement’s first Milan members. While Grazia and I have known each other for many years through our playing bridge on the internet, I trusted her (and her daughter’s) judgment as to good restaurants with fine wine lists. We were not to be disappointed.
While I was immediately disposed toward trying a barbaresco, the local contingent sharing our two tables recommended a Nebbiolo d’Alba. Both are made from the nebbiolo grape (as are barolos), but Nebbiolo d’Alba , if one may generalize, are ready-to-drink wines, without the level of tannins usually associated with cellar worthy big Barbaresco or Barolo. They are often made from younger vines and if they see wood barriques at all, it isn’t for the length of time used (required) of the big wines.
During our time in northern Italy, Nebbiolo d’Alba wines were to be the source of many a “best wine of the meal” award, and this night at the Milan restaurant was the first. The Nebbiolo d’Alba we had that night was a P. Manzone “Mirine” 2005 (~$20, but none found in the US). This wine was preferred by us compared to the 2003 Barbera d’Asti “Laudana” from Vinchio-Vaglio ($17 in Italy, not located in the US), pleasant but not memorable, or the Chianti Classico Riserva “Il Grigio” from San Felice (Yr ?), same commentary.
Our first night post-Milan was spent alongside lake Orta, the smallest of the several Italian lakes in the vicinity. Dinner at our hotel that night was accompanied by house wines, a Dolcetto d’Alba and a white from D. Rivetti (available in Italy), neither of which was deserving of particular mention.
For lunch the next day however, after several hours of hiking, my zuppe clams and mussels, prepared in a white wine and garlic broth, and accompanied by a small loaf of good bread, went particularly well with a Roero Areneis 2006 “Prunotto” (in Europe $11-17, but this particular Areneis might not be available in the States). Nothing extraordinary, just a white wine that matched well with great food on a balmy fall day along an Italian lakeshore, with friends nearby, all juxtaposed in an attempt to simulate heaven.
Dinner that same evening was at a restaurant tucked away up a side street. Appetizers of assorted varieties were accompanied by an unremarkable Cantalupo “Carolus” Bianco ($9-13 in Europe, but not found elsewhere), and a pleasant Travaglini 2004 “Coste Della Sesia” Nebbiolo ($11-13 in Italy). But the best wine that day was had at a wine tasting establishment, an Albino Rocca 2006 Barbaresco. There are many versions of this type of wine and the picture of the label does not help me to discern which we tasted. It was an exceptional wine but the pricing ranges from $30 to $60 in the US, depending upon the version of the wine selected.
On the way to Lake Maggiore we stopped for a few hours in Switzerland in Lugano, alongside the lake of the same name. It wasn’t the greatest weather and I already had a watch, so instead of shopping I found a wine bar that also served lunch. Was this place ever a nice find. Others hikers of like mind joined Sweetpea and me so we quickly located two wines to open and have with some different cheeses and cured meats. The first, available for about $17 only in Switizerland, as best my searching has discovered, was a Merlot from Vinattieiri Ticinesi dubbed “Roncaia” Ticino (Yr?). We compared this one to another Merlot from the Ticino area, “Tre Terre 2005”, but could find no listing for it, not even in Switzerland. Like so many wines this trip, both were nice to have with cheese, but not particularly exceptional or noteworthy. The best wine we had at this stop was a very nice Sicilian 2005 Feudo Principi di Butera Nero d’Avola ($13, available stateside). Regrettably, I haven’t retained any tasting notes, just a recollection of our overall impressions.
After that wonderful lunch in Lugano, we were off to Stressa along lake Maggiore. In the drizzling rain we transferred to a ferry for a brief transport to the Isola Pescatore on which stood our hotel for the next two nights. With the lights from shore twinkling in the rain we sat down to dinner. The Gattinara, a 2001 Travaglini, went quite well with both the risotto with meat sauce and truffles, as well as the cavatelli pasta with zucchini and smoked bacon. It was tannic and flavorful with soft edges. Others mentioned tasting raspberries, but I did not. This was a nice wine but nothing fantastic.
We were exploring the town of Stressa when the lunch bell sounded in my head. While the group was waiting for a variety of personal pizzas and other delights to emerge from the kitchen, I ordered a 2004 M. Chiarlo Barbaresco “Reyna” ($32). It was a substantial wine, if memory serves, but not what I had been hoping to discover. Chiarlo also makes a barbera, actually several, and my favorite is a 2001 “La court” Barbera d’Asti (~$35) that friends and we had one wonderful summer night last year while dining under the stars at my favorite local restaurant. I suppose I was hoping the “Reyna” barbaresco would provide a similar level of enjoyment. Although it was a nice wine, this barbaresco, the preferred wine at the table was a 2003 Sicilian Nero d’Avola “Regaleali” from Tasca D’Almerita ($13). I’m not proclaiming this to be a great wine, just preferred (perhaps it went better with the pizzas), although at this price point I’ll buy another bottle should I come upon it.
A simple lunch in the lakeshore town of Verbano the next day had us trying some F. Erbaluce di Caluso 2006 ($16) which failed to have its tasting notes survive. And for dinner, whose particulars I forgot, we were provided with a Valpolicella, a 2006 Cantina di Negrar ($9), which also was not memorable.
In Bellagio, on lake Como, we had lunch with a particularly enjoyable “sassella”, a wine from a district within the Valtellina superiore. The 2004 N. Negri “Sassella” ($27 in the UK).was appreciated during the noon day meal. The last night’s feast began with a local white wine, a 2004 Schickenburg ($?), which had a strong essence of apple emanating from the glass. It was an ok accompaniment to octopus carpaccio with crayfish and corn salad, but I didn’t think it paired as well with either the filet of pork in a pineapple and balsamic vinaigrette, or the Buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes and peppers. But a most interesting dolcetto was served next, a 2006 Miliasso Dolcetto d’Alba ($?). I thought it was a simple, soft, nice but unsophisticated wine – exactly what I’ve come to expect of dolcettos. But its nose had a most unusual character, and it was best described by one of our hikers as “popcorn buttery”. This description was seconded by several at the table. And with what did we have this dolcetto? Crepes and asparagus tips with a toma cheese from nearby Mottarone mountain, pasta with eggplant and tomatoes and slices of cuttlefish, and a ravioli stuffed with some kind of fish and served with tomatoes. Nothing too complicated and so perfect for a dolcetto, even one with a buttery popcorn nose.
Finally, separate from this Lake Country expedition, but involving Italian wines, I wish to relate some good wines had while dining with colleagues recently in San Francisco. Of the seven or eight wines tried, the standouts included: a Sicilian Nero d’Avola from Cusumano 2004 “Sagana” ($22), a wine from Puglia using the negroamaro grape, Tormaresca Castel del Monte 2002 “Masseria Maime” ($24); and a 2001 Moroder “Dorico” Rosso Conero Riserva ($32) from Le Marches region (our destination for the 2008 Fall hike). We finished the meal with a raisinated wine along the lines of an Amarone, but this was an Abbruzzo region (Montepulciano) 1998 Illuminati Passito “Nico”. I have located a 2001 version of this wine retailing for $48. The dining situation prevented tasting notes but I would recommend each of these wines.