This article gives you tips for getting the most out of visiting wineries in Piedmont's wine Barolo wine country, shares four tales of visits with hospitable winery owners and gives you a brief background on the lay of the land and range of wines.

There you are standing in awe in a vineyard on a hillside in Piedmont's Barolo wine country in northwest Italy. Series of gentle green hills, covered in vineyards, hazelnut trees, forests and fields, some topped with little towns and medieval castles, fall at all angles as far as you can see. A magnificent, poetic landscape!

THE LAND

This fertile land with rich, clay soil gives us some of Italy's top red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as aromatic white truffles, delectable mushrooms, luscious cherries, peaches and peppers and hazelnuts.

The Barolo wine country with nine towns and the Barbaresco wine country with three towns are about 20-30 minutes apart by car, so it's easy to drive to the wine towns. The hub town of Alba, famous for its white truffle fair and Ferrero chocolate factory, sits between the two regions.

THE WINES

Unlike Tuscany, this region has a good range of red wines and grapes. At the top end at the same level as Tuscany's Brunello, you find Barolo and Barbaresco made of Nebbiolo grapes. In the middle range, you'll enjoy Barbera, Nebbiolo, Grignolino and Brachetto, of grapes of the same names. If you ask wine makers what wine they drink every day, they'll say Dolcetto, a younger, fruitier wine of Dolcetto grapes.

White wines include Favorita, Cortese, Chardonnay and Arneis from the nearby Roero region. Sweet Moscato d'Asti and Asti Spumante go well with desserts like hazelnut and chocolate cake topped with zabaglione sauce with Moscato in it. Barolo Chinato, Barolo wine with herbs added, and grappa make interesting "digestive" drinks after dinner.

WARM WINERY PEOPLE: FOUR TALES

What I've always loved most about this Italian wine region is the people. Some may strike you as reserved at first, but under this thin veneer you'll often find warm, funny, hospitable hosts, especially at the wineries.

1. Massimo at Renato Ratti Winery: Humour

My favourite Barolo winery visit is with Massimo Martinelli, one of the family owners of the Renato Ratti winery near La Morra. Looking at Massimo, a down to earth guy with a delightful sense of humour, you'd never know he's one of the Barolo wine country personalities and an author.

One day we were tasting some of his Barolo wine. Someone asked him, "How long should we age this wine?" His face lit up with a big smile, "Ha! When in doubt, just drink it!" We all had to laugh!

Before our tasting with Massimo, he takes us through the Ratti family's private wine museum, housed in an abbey where monks began making wine in 1162. Downstairs, we're surrounded by old chestnut tree wine barrels, wine presses, simple, hand made snow shoes and other items from long ago. There Massimo shows us the different soils in the Barolo valleys and grape varieties, vineyard workers' lunch barrels and more. In other rooms we see and discuss corks, bottles and labels over the years.

Upstairs in the old abbey kitchen we see portraits of three important people from the 1840s, the Marchesa of Barolo whose wine maker from her native Burgundy improved the Barolo wines, her husband, the Marchese and their friend, King Carlo Alberto. The Marchesa promoted the wines all over the courts of Europe. Ladies in the 1840s didn't do that kind of thing!

2. Elio Altare Winery: Inspiration

Near La Morra, we also visit the Elio Altare winery with one of his daughters, Elena or Silvia. After our tour around the cellars, we sit around a table near big picture windows with views over the vineyards. Our conversation starts with the wines and progresses to our stories about life. Elena tells us an inspiring story about her father, Elio.

Elio's father believed wine was best aged in large barrels but Elio thought smaller barrique barrels worked better. His dad was adamant on large barrels, so in secret Elio put wine in smaller barrels. When his dad found out, he was so enraged he cut Elio out of his will. No family vineyards for Elio! Years later Elio bought back those same vineyards, and became a mentor and leader among Barolo wine makers.

3. Roberto Voerzio Winery: Red Carpet Hospitality

If you're passionate and knowledgeable about Barolo wines, let the wineries know. They'll roll out the red carpet for you. They love visitors who truly appreciate their wines.

For example, we took a group of men from a wine club in Atlanta on a custom wine tour. They'd been drinking Piedmont wines for years, knew the wines inside out and asked to visit their favourite wineries. They were only mildly interested in the usual cellar tours. They'd come all that way to meet their heroes, their favourite Barolo wine makers!

Their Hero Number One is Roberto Voerzio at his winery of the same name in La Morra. After a short tour of Roberto's winery cellars with a knowledgeable staff member, Roberto appeared to say hello.

I told him, "These men meet at their wine club in Atlanta every Saturday and were drinking your wines long before you became famous. You're their Hero Number One." He dropped everything, brought out great wines he seldom gives to visitors, talked with them for two hours and gave them two magnums of good Barolo as a gift. Talk about hospitality and good public relations!

4. Ca Nova Winery in Barbaresco: Down Home Hospitality

Hospitality isn't confined just to the wine affecionados or famous wineries. In the Barbaresco wine country, we take our cooking and wine tour groups to visit a small, down to earth, family run winery, Ca Nova. The owner, Pietro is a quiet, reserved man who makes good Barbaresco wines but is too modest to say he's sold his wines to the Vatican.

After our short visit in the cellars where men were cleaning up after the grape harvest, we all sat around a long wooden table in a cozy room with a fireplace to taste his wines. We tasted a Dolcetto and two Barbaresco wines with Pietro telling us interesting details about each one.

At the end, the tour group decided to buy three bottles. When I told him they'd been friends for 20 years and were going to drink his wines in a picnic, he smiled, "Oh, long time friends sharing my wines in a picnic. Consider them a gift from me."

HOW TO GO: THREE TIPS

If you're travelling on your own, renting a car is essential. Most Barolo and Barbaresco wineries are in small towns or in the countryside.

The tourist office in Alba has a brochure with a good list of wineries who accept visitors. The langheroero.it web site also has a good list of wineries.

Wineries, big or small, have few staff members, so reservations are a must. Some larger ones like Fontanafredda charge 5 or 10 Euros per person, depending on how many wines you taste. Others charge you only if you don't buy a bottle there. Others don't charge you in any case, but if you like their wines, it would be a nice gesture to buy a bottle from them.

WHEN TO GO

Winery staffs have more time to spend with you in the spring when it's quieter. In September and October harvest time, they welcome you warmly but may have less time to sit back and talk with you. Summer months of June and July work well if you don't mind temperatures in the 30s C or 90s F. In August most Italians escape to the mountains or beaches for their annual holiday, so you may find fewer people in the towns and wineries.

Enjoy the fine wines and warm hospitality at the wineries in Piedmont's magnificent Barolo and Barbaresco wine regions in Italy!

Author's Bio: 

Margaret Cowan has been travelling in Piedmont, Italy since 1993 and to Italy since 1972. She owns a cooking and wine tour company, Mama Margaret & Friends Cooking Adventures, which ran its first tour in Piedmont in 1995. She and her Italian tour partners now offer cooking, wine & walking tours throughout Italy. Web site is www.italycookingschools.com