Mixing Pleasure and Pedagogy: A Winery Visit

Bra — the home of the Slow Food movement and my current city of residence – is located in the Piedmont region of Italy, a region renowned for its wines. Some of the most celebrated Italian wines, like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Moscato d’Asti, hail from Piedmont; in fact, these wines are designated as “DOC,” or Denominazione di origine controllata (“Controlled designation of origin,”) which means that they can only be produced in Piedmont.

On my first weekend in Italy, I naturally ended up at a nearby winery: G.D. Vajra, in Vergne, a “frazione,” or hamlet, of Barolo. Vajra winery is fairly young by Piedmont standards — it was founded in the 1970s by Aldo Vaira, who inherited some vineyards from his father and has gradually expanded to 40 hectares, or almost 100 acres, of vineyard land over the past forty years. They produce about half a million bottles of wine per year, some of which are noted in the Slow Food book of Italian wines. Their cantina is surrounded on both sides by the hills of the Langhe, on which different varieties of Vajra grapes grow.

During our visit, we toured the production facility, where they cask, age, bottle, and label their wines. Having never visited a winery before(!) this was a great learning experience for me, one that I hope will help during my Sensory Analysis course in wine this Spring.

Casks of Barolo at different stages of aging

Wine-making is a very fickle business — there are many factors from the growing of grapes to the timing of the aging to control, and thus many things that could go wrong. Not surprisingly, wine-making is also a superstitious business: in Barolo wine-makers do not bottle their wines or plant new grapevines during the new moon, because it is considered bad luck. They also do not plant grapevines in chalky soil, as they consider this to be the cause of hangover headaches! Such anxieties are not entirely unfounded, as one false move on the part of man or nature can cost a winery an entire batch. For example, this year, the grape-growing season was going perfectly in Barolo, until a freak summer hail-storm wiped out 80% of their harvest.

After a tour of the production facility, we were treated to a free tasting of some Vajra wines, along with a miniature lesson in the characteristics of different varieties. We started out with their Langhe Riesling, which was not at all sweet, as German Rieslings usually are. Vajra plants its Riesling grapes in mineral ground, which lends the final product a nice mineral flavor that mellows out the longer it sits in the glass. Vajra was the first winery in the Piedmont region to produce Rieslings, and when Aldo introduced his Riesling years ago, it shocked the local producers.

We moved on to red wines, starting with a young (2011) Dolcetto, which smells like strawberries in the glass but tastes quite vinegary and acidic. As we were tasting the Dolcetto, I learned that there is a dichotomy between acidic and tannic wines: a wine cannot be both acidic and tannic. Wines with lots of tannins complement rich meals, while acidic wines are generally better paired with lighter foods.

Next up was a Nebbiolo, which is so-called because it is harvested during the foggy, or nebbioso, season in Piemonte, i.e., now. Nebbiolo wines are produced with the same grapes (nebbiolo grapes) as Barolo wines, but they are aged in steel, not oak. The Nebbiolo was earthy and dry, had lots of sediment from the grape, and was balanced on the tannic-acidic scale. The two different Barolos we tasted — one from the western slopes of the Langhe, and one from the eastern — were fuller-bodied and more tannic than the Nebbiolo, and were by far my favorites.

We also tried a Barolo Chinato, which is a sort of herbal digestif wine, infused with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, and other spices. As a lover of bitter liquors like Campari, I really enjoyed it and plan to look out for bottles of it in the future.

We wrapped up with Vajra’s Moscato d’Asti 2012, a peachy, light sparkling wine. Moscato is Piedmont’s answer to Champagne or Prosecco, and the Piedmontese are just now starting to break out their Moscatos for the Christmas season, so I have another month of sweet bubbles to savor!

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