Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Italy's annoying practices won't spoil my vacation

I think it's amazing anything actually gets accomplished in Italy, considering their general attitude towards work seems to be lackadaisical or inconsistent at best. One of the most frustrating things we had to deal with was restaurant opening hours. Restaurants are closed one day during the week in the Piemonte region, generally Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, but their posted hours aren't a guarantee that they will be in fact open. The couple that runs the hotel we stayed at was quick to point out that if the restaurant had a busy lunch, they're quite likely going to close for dinner, just because lunch was busy. I'm not sure what they define as busy, since we were only one of two couples in the restaurant on multiple occasions.

So that's how we ended up in a predicament on our second last day in the Italian countryside. Our itinerary for the day was to explore the wine region, driving from small town to small town, armed with a list of restaurant recommendations along with opening hours from our hotel hosts. We first explored Barbaresco, the tiny town that produces wines of the same name.

It's obvious that this particular "commune" has more money than the average village in the area since they could erect a number of quite modern statues that look like this:

Yup, they're exactly what you think they are. What a lower torso and a monkey head has to do with wine-making is beyond me.

There was a well-regarded restaurant in the heart of town that was open, but we weren't hungry and just thought we'd drive on to the next village and eat lunch there. After driving through the larger town of Alba, we stopped at La Morra, a charmingly quaint village that was almost totally deserted since we arrived after 12:30, when the daily closing for lunch occurs. Restaurants are generally open, but the one we had targeted seemed to be unexpectedly closed, to our chagrin, and the only restaurants open seemed to be full of tourists on a Segway tour (yes, it was a very odd sight to see Segways tooling along cobblestone roads).

So the husband, tour guide extraordinaire, suggested we drive the 10km in a different direction than our planned itinerary to try an amazing restaurant in the next town over. By this time it's 1:30, I'm hungry, so I said ok, why not since there was nothing in this ghost town that appealed. We thought it'd be a quick drive over, but I got us lost twice (stupid road signs), but we finally got into the town of Pollenzo and found that the restaurant was....closed. Since we were on a school campus with a hotel and a bar (more on that another time), we settled for a ham and cheese panini, a chocolate tarte, and some espressos before we returned to our original plan - a visit to a vineyard for a wine tasting and then on to town of Barolo itself.

This region is famous for the Barolo and Barbaresca wines made of the Nebbiolo grape, but for everyday drinking the locals like to recommend the Barbera wines, which tend to get overshadowed by their more expensive peers. The husband arranged for us to visit the Fratelli Revello winery whcih practices biodynamic grape growing - not fully organic per se, but with as little pesticides as possible. This is the view we had from the wine tasting room:
View from our wine tasting at Fratelli Revello
Despite the fact the host spoke only Italian, I seemed to have learned far more this time around than when we were in Tuscany. For example, I didn't know that the vineyards for one winery doesn't necessarily reside in one area - turns out many winemakers have large plots within the same vineyard, and one winemaker could have plots all over the region. Our host also explained that even though the grapes are all grown within the same region, a certain vineyard can experience a micro-climate, giving the grapes a different character.

This was probably the largest wine tasting that I'd been to, since we had around 8 wines to try. It was the first time we'd had a selection of the same wine but different vintages to taste the difference from year to year. It was also the first time we'd tried wine made from grapes in a single vineyard - usually the grapes are collected from the various vineyard plots, thereby creating a subtle blend of flavours. As good as they were, we limited ourselves to two bottles from Fratelli Revello and one bottle of Barbera d'Alba that we had at our hotel. Between the bottles of Barolo and the Brunellos from our last trip, we're developing a little collection - maybe it's time to think of putting a wine cellar in the basement after all...


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