Tasting Wine and Truffles in Alba, Italy
From Bologna, we traveled to the northwest of Italy, to Piedmont. On our last trip to Italy in 2018, our friends Pete and Kari joined us in Siena, then they traveled up to Piedmont to see the birthplace of Barbera wine. They have their own Barbera winery, Rancho Roble in the Sierra Foothills of California. They loved Piedmont so we decided we should go explore it on our own.
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Other than what Kari and Pete told us, we didn’t know much about Piedmont before our trip. I recognized Torino as a former winter Olympics site and I knew that Barolo wine came from there. Rick Steves’ guide doesn’t cover it so I had to get a new Lonely Planet book and do a lot of web research to figure out where to go.
Arriving in Alba
With a few days to spend there, we decided to stay in Alba, coincidentally also the home of the International Truffle festival. This area is well known for white truffles, or tartufo bianco and the season generally runs from October through December. While I am not a huge truffle fan here in the states, I do love a freshly shaved truffle over pasta in Italy. So we planned our trip to Alba to coincide with the festival and decided to stay in a B&B just outside of town.
We took the train from Bologna to Alba, first taking the high speed Frecciarossa to Torino then the much slower local from there to Alba. This was about the time we really started getting confused with the names of the cities. Torino is Turin in English, but since there are really not that many American tourists visiting Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian), no one knew what we were talking about when we asked about Turin. “When does the train to Turin leave” got us a blank stare. I have to admit that I didn’t even realize that Turin and Torino were the same place until we got on our train from Bologna.
For some reason, we translate the names of big cities into English – Rome, Florence, Turin, Naples, Milan – but for the medium and smaller cities we use the Italian names – Siena, Bologna, Alba. I would suggest we just dispense with that and just start calling all the cities by their name in the country’s language. Much less confusing and I think we can figure out how to pronounce “Roma” and “Milano.”
We wanted to avoid having a car in Alba but didn’t want to stay in the town that would be packed with the truffle festival. So we chose a nearby bed and breakfast, the Luna di Langa, about a five minute drive from town.
The drive from the station was straight up the hill so we were fortunate that our host, Alberto, picked us up. The bed and breakfast was immaculate, in an older home with an updated bathroom and a private entrance, and Alberto was an amazing host. Since we had no car, he drove us around a lot, taking us to nearby restaurants and back and forth from town. While just above the town, it felt like miles away since we were nestled in the countryside of the Langhe, just in between the famous wine villages of Barolo and Barbaresco.
That evening, we had one of our first incredible meals in Piemonte and sampled our first local wines. Osteria Italia Citabiunda was a short, steep drive from our B&B and quite a popular place. We had a young, enthusiastic waiter who recommended local wines by the glass and Mark had his first whole truffle, probably the biggest one of our trip. Since it was the season, white truffles were available by the gram, at market price, so it ranged between 30 and 50 euros depending on the place.
Visiting Piemonte Wineries
The next day, we explored some local wineries on a tour through Girls Gotta Drink. We were probably some of the only oddballs who wanted to go to a Barbera winery rather than straight to Barolo, so we started our tour at Gianni Doglia, a small family-owned Barbera winery. Our guide, Elena, picked us up at the B&B and drove us through the winding roads through Monferrato. We got there early, so we had the place all to ourselves and tasted a lot of unique wines. We really loved their Nizza Barbera and we brought home several bottles, but the biggest surprise for us was the Canelli Casa di Bianca, Moscato D’Asti.
We don’t typically drink whites and we would probably have never tried the Moscato D’Asti if we hadn’t visited a winery. My impression was Moscato was a too sweet dessert wine, not my style. But this was something totally different. It is slightly carbonated, even though it’s in a regular wine bottle, and while it is a little sweet, it’s not cloying. So unique and delicious.
After our tasting Elena took us to the tiny town of Neive for lunch at Umano. Since it was part of the tour, we had a multi-course lunch and got to taste a lot of the local specialties, including our first taste of Vitello Tonnato, a classic starter in the Piedmont region. I’ve seen this on Italian menus in the past, but I don’t think I would have ever ordered it based on the name or the description. It’s thinly sliced veal that is served chilled with a creamy sauce made from tuna, anchovies, mayonnaise, capers and lemon juice. When it showed up, it looked beautiful, but I never expected to finish it let alone love it so much. From this point on, every time we saw it on a menu in a restaurant we ordered it, even when we were in France.
After lunch we visited Burzi Alberto, a relatively young Barolo producer outside of the small town of La Morra. Barolo wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape and has been produced for centuries in the Piedmont region. The brother and sister team at Burzi opened their winery in 2012, taking ownership of the vineyard first established by their grandparents.
Barolo (as well as Barbaresco) are made from the Nebbiolo grape, and are designated in Italy by the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status, the highest quality authentic wines in the country. In order to achieve that status, a winemaker has to follow minimum requirements and standards, including aging the wine for a minimum of 38 months from harvest for Barolo, and 62 months for Barolo Riserva. So it can take many years for a winemaker to get established and start earning a reputation for Barolo and Burzi is well on their way with some early hits.
We got the chance to taste (and buy!) Burzi’s latest Barolo and Barolo Riserva as well as their Barbera. We know Barolo ages well so we plan to hang onto it in our fridge for several years and see how it compares to our favorite Brunellos.
When we booked our trip to Piemonte, we made sure to align it with the International Alba White Truffle Fair, which takes place annually each fall. Every weekend during the festival, the city of Alba hosts a food and wine market, plus cooking classes, workshops and, of course, the main attraction, vendors selling their truffles.
Mark loves truffles and everything truffle, including truffle fries and truffle oil on pizza. I, on the other hand, am not a big fan, at least of the truffle smell. It reminds me of feet, and I stay far away from the touristy truffle stores that pump out that smell onto the street.
While truffle flavor is not my thing, I do make an exception for freshly-shaved truffles. We’ve gone to many great restaurants in Italy where they bring over the truffles in a special box and shave them over fresh pasta, and I overlook the smell to enjoy it. But until we visited Piedmont, we had mostly eaten black truffle, and not the prized white truffle that this region is known for.
The festival was mostly outdoors and felt like an upscale version of a typical farmers market or regional festival in the US. There was a tent in the center with a wooden floor where all the small truffle vendors were set up, and wine and specialty food providers were set up along the perimeter. There was an official food vendor selling local specialties.
The place was packed with mostly local families enjoying a nice weekend out. The weather was unusually warm for this time in October and we didn’t need jackets. We saw very few Americans, it seemed like most of the tourists were from other European countries or from the rest of Italy.
When I had originally investigated the festival online, it was before they were selling tickets for the cooking classes and other activities, and when I went back to see if we could book anything, everything was sold out. But once we got there we wandered into the waiting area for the cooking demonstration to see if there were any open seats. There were two American ladies in front of us and the guy working was explaining to them that the session was indeed sold out, but if they wanted to wait a few minutes, if there were any people who did not show up they could still get in.
The ladies asked a lot of questions, who is the chef, what would she be cooking, what was included – they chatted about it a bit and I guess they decided to move on. As soon as they walked away I asked the guy if there were open seats, and he said, yes, they had two seats that had been reserved but people hadn’t arrived yet, and if we were willing to wait just a couple more minutes we could buy them. We didn’t ask any more questions.
Pretty soon he seated us right up front for the cooking demonstration. Our tables were set with goodie bags and when we got settled, someone brought us glasses of sparkling wine. The chef, Cristina Bowerman, was just getting set up so we didn’t miss anything. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Cristina did her presentation in both Italian and English. The Michelin-star chef grew up in Puglia, Italy but studied and ran a restaurant in Texas, so her food straddled both worlds. She created two different dishes for us that were designed to go with Truffles, and if you wanted some, you held up a paddle that said, “I want Truffle,” and someone came over and grated some over your plate. I especially loved her Stelline dish, tiny star-shaped pasta with an incredible broth.
After the demonstration, we wandered around the festival, sampling the food from the different vendors, tasting all kinds of different wines, and soaking in the atmosphere. Our favorite part was in the middle, where truffle vendors of all ages displayed their wares in little covered carts. We didn’t buy any truffles to take with us, which I am sure our B&B host appreciated, but we did get our own truffle shaver to use at home.
After the Truffle festival, we stayed in town for the Bacchanal, a Middle Ages themed festival that takes over the center of Alba. The festival is divided into different areas, with food and drink provided by volunteers from the different districts. Each district had their own flags and distinctive colors, and served different regional specialties.
There was also plenty of music, middle ages decor and actors walking through with hunchbacks and bulging eyes, harassing the kids and making everyone laugh. It was a great ending to our Piemonte adventure.
Goodbye to Italy, for now
Our final Italian adventure for 2022 was leaving Alba for France. We took the local train to Torino, then walked about half a mile through town to catch the Flix Bus. When we finally made it to the park where the buses were parked, there were at least a dozen stops with buses coming in and out to all kinds of destinations. It was a little confusing but we found ours and settled in for the four hour ride to Nice, and our planned week in Provence.
See all our the places we visited in Alba on Trip Advisor.