This article tells you how to enjoy traveling in one of Italy's top red wine regions, Piedmont: fun, inspiring wineries to visit, how to visit and when to go for the best experiences.

In Piedmont's breathtaking Barolo wine country in northwest Italy, series of gentle green hills, covered in vineyards, forests and fields, some topped with medieval castles, fall at all angles as far as you can see.

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

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

The Wines

Top level Barolo and Barbaresco rate as high as Tuscany’s Brunello. In the middle level Barbera and Nebbiolo are excellent. Wine makers say they drink young, fruity Dolcetto every day.

White wines Favorita, Cortese and Arneis come from the nearby Roero region. Moscato d'Asti and Asti Spumante complement desserts like hazelnut and chocolate cake topped with zabaglione sauce.

Warm Winery People: Three Tales

The people make me love this region. Some may seem reserved at first, but under this thin veneer you'll often find warm, funny, hospitable hosts, especially at wineries.

1. Renato Ratti Winery

My favourite Barolo winery visit is with Massimo Martinelli, a family owner 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 a Barolo wine celebrity and author. We were tasting his Barolo wine when someone asked him, "How long should we age this wine?" Smiling, he exclaimed, "When in doubt, just drink it!"

First we go through the Ratti family's private wine museum in an abbey where monks began making wine in 1162. Surrounded by old chestnut tree wine barrels, wine presses and simple, hand made snow shoes, Massimo shows us the different soils in the Barolo valleys and grape varieties, vineyard workers' lunch barrels and more.

In the old abbey kitchen hang portraits of three important people from the 1840s, the Marchesa of Barolo whose wine maker from her native Burgundy improved Barolo wines, her husband, the Marchese and King Carlo Alberto. The Marchesa promoted Barolo to the European courts---unheard of for ladies in those days!

2. Elio Altare Winery

Near La Morra, we visit the Elio Altare winery with his daughter, Elena. After our cellar tour, we sat around a table with views over the vineyards. Our conversation starts with the wines and progresses to our stories about life. She tells us an inspiring story about her father, Elio.

Elio's father believed wine was best aged in large barrels. 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 disinherited Elio. Years later Elio bought back the family vineyards, and became a mentor and leader among Barolo wine makers.

3. Ca Nova Winery

In the Barbaresco wine country, we visit a small, down to earth, family run winery, Ca Nova. Quiet owner Pietro makes good Barbaresco wines but is too modest to say he's sold his wines to the Vatican.

After our short cellar visit, we sit around a long wooden table in a cozy room with a fireplace for a tasting of Dolcetto and two Barbaresco wines as Pietro tells us interesting details about each. At the end, our group decides to buy three bottles. When I tell him they'd been friends for 20 years and were going to drink his wines in a picnic, he smiles, "Oh, long time friends sharing my wines. Consider them a gift from me."

How To Go

If you're travelling independently, 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 listing wineries accepting visitors. The langheroero.it site also has a good winery list.

Wineries, big or small, have small staffs, so reservations are a must. Some larger ones like Fontanafredda charge five 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, why not buy a bottle.

When To Go

Winery staffs have more time to spend with you in the spring when it's quieter. June and July work well but temperatures may be in the 30s C or 90s F. In August most Italians take their annual holiday, so you may find fewer people in towns and wineries. In September and October harvest time, they welcome you warmly but may have less time to talk with you.

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

Author's Bio: 

Margaret Cowan of Vancouver, BC owns Mama Margaret & Friends Cooking Adventures in Italy tour company at italycookingschools.com. She has loved Piedmont's Barolo wine country since 1993 and has run cooking and wine tours there since 1995.