I’m currently in Italy, sitting in a little bar tucked on a side street in the Navigli neighbourhood of Milan, Lombardy, mere steps from the touristy stretch of buzzy restaurants and shops along the Naviglio Grande canal. The early-afternoon vibe here is quite similar to what I’ve experienced during my past three weeks in Italy, most of it spent in the neighbouring territory of Piedmont.
The hot July sun is beaming across the half-dozen tables outside while 20-odd daytime revellers sit inside, where the music is loud and the air conditioning hums along; most are on couches at coffee tables, or chairs at tables, with a handful of others at the bar next to me. People come in and out at a good clip for a quick pull of espresso, while the bartender is kept busy putting out Apérol spritzes and Campari sodas, along with local white and red wines for those opting to hang out. About a third of the patrons are smoking, something that still prompts a double take from this West Coast Canadian guy.
Oh, and there’s two dogs in here; I love that.
There is loud discussion, much laughter, and a fair bit of smooching in one corner. I probably don’t have to mention that, yup, many are tucking into plates of pizza and pasta. I am clearly the foreigner here, made obvious not only by my horrific attempts at speaking Italian but also because I’m probably quite the buzzkill as the only one with an open laptop, working away.
Today’s work is sharing what resonated with me at the beginning of my trip in late June, as I spent a few days in Montferrat, the area spanning the provinces of Alessandria and Asti. Although the area is often in the shadow of neighbouring wine regions Barolo and Barbaresco, the wines here matter and offer a distinct sense of place.
And what a place. The soils of the rolling hills (per DOC and/or DOCG appellation law in Piedmont, any recognized growing region must have its vineyards planted on a hill) are mainly composed of calcareous marl, sandstone, and clay, each bringing minerality and structure to the grapes grown in the sun-bathed vineyards. Hazelnut and peach groves occupy much of the nonvineyard landscape, and I ate plenty of each on this trip, but there was one local delicacy that struck my fancy more than any other.
Agnolotti del plin are flattened pieces of pasta filled with meat (veal, pork, beef, et cetera) and vegetables (spinach, chard, and others), then folded and pinched at the edges to contain the filling. (Plin translates to “pinch”.) They’re most often served with a brown-butter sauce and fresh sage. Seconds are commonly offered, and I accepted them at every opportunity. I must have had this dish a dozen times in the past couple of weeks. Each time was a fresh experience, as it was always served with a different regional wine, all of them pitch-perfect and further evidence of why the dish works so well in the area. I highly recommend giving it a whirl, or two, or three, at home—whether through Googling a recipe and diving in or picking up various styles of the pasta from local shops.
Once it’s plated, do play around with a local varietal wine or two and be instantly transported to this lovely corner of the world.
Tenute del Vallarino Barbera d’Asti Superiore La Ladra DOC 2013
($20 to $25, Marquis Wine Cellars and other private liquor stores) is aged at least six months in oak, per the DOC regulation for Superiore wines. That gentle oak frames Barbera’s plummy, cherry-laden, high-acid nature, giving the fruit a nice bit of oomph.
Castello Banfi La Lus Albarossa Monferrato DOC 2015
($30 to $35, Everything Wine and other private liquor stores) offers the best of both worlds exhibited by Barbera and Nebbiolo, the two varieties that were initially thought to have been crossed to make the Albarossa variety. Turns out it wasn’t Nebbiolo in the initial crossing but Chatus—a lesser-known indigenous variety that offers a similar expression. It’s delicious nonetheless! Think soft tannins, red and purple berry fruit, a touch of earthiness, and a nice chew of black licorice on the finish.
Gatto Pierfrancesco Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOC 2016
($29.99, B.C. Liquor Stores) is a great example of the recently revived Ruché variety, bringing textbook aromas of rose petals and red fruit, then purple fruit and fresh-ground pepper on the palate. The elegance of a Pinot Noir with a little more body and length.
Michele Chiarlo La Vespa Monferrato Rosso 2014
($17.99, LTO $16.49 until July 28, B.C. Liquor Stores) is a crushable blend of Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, loaded with Coronation grapes, Kalamata olives, oregano, and thyme. Put a bit of a chill on it and pour liberally.