Soaking & Poking: Italian Wine Tourism Fieldnotes

Wine tourism is a big business and an interesting one, too, because there are so many variations. Sometimes it seems like the choice of wine touring experiences is almost as big as the choice of wines themselves. Here are fieldnotes from two wine tourist venues in Northern Italy that illustrate different approaches.

Soaking and Poking in the Asti Hills

When we visit wine country I like to stay with winemaking families when I can rather than in upscale commercial establishments. I find that I can learn so much more about the local wine industry talking informally with the people who farm the grapes and make the wine.

This approach corresponds to the social science research method of  “soaking and poking.” You immerse yourself in a topic (or wine region), soaking up as much detail you can,  and poke around, asking a lot of questions. Pretty soon the really important questions start to reveal themselves and that’s when the magic happens.

There are many vineyard agriturismo options in Piedmont and we decided to stay at Il Milin, a farm house agriturismo just seven minutes drive from Asti but a world away from the bustle of the city.

Il Milin sits on the Rovero family farm, which includes 20 hectares of vines, 5 hectares of orchards and vegetables, a winery, a distillery, a restaurant and even the little chapel shown here. Il Milin sits halfway up the hillside, looking across the valley and up to scenic San Marzanotto. There are comfortable double rooms and two small apartments, good food and of course the friendly people who always are the key to success. Michela Rovero was our genial and helpful hostess who looked after us when she wasn’t herding her lively three-year-old triplets; her husband Enrico is the winemaker for this multi-generational family business.

Rovero produces about 100,000 bottles of wine each year from estate-grown grapes. Italy is the principal market, but Germany and Switzerland are important, too. The quality of the wines is recognized in Italy — Rovero is typically awarded “two glasses” out of three in the Gamberro Rosso guide, which is a very good grade indeed. I don’t think they are distributed here in the United States. The distillery is very active, producing an extensive range of grappa and brandy.

One highlight of our stay was a meal at the family restaurant, which is generally open only on weekends. Enrico’s mother prepared a menu of regional dishes that Enrico paired with Rovero family wines. It was the perfect way to learn about the wines — tasting them with the local Monferrato cuisine while talking with the winemaker about wine, wine markets and his plans for the future.  So you want to know what we ate, of course. OK, here’s the menu.

  • Two types of typical Piemontese salami crudo
  • Small puffed pastries stuffed with local cheese
  • Fried zucchini flowers
  • Soft herbed cheese
  • Salad of shredded chicken and radicchio in balsamic dressing
  • Zucchini and basil flan in an intensely rich Parmesan cream
  • Torta di fagiolini (green beans)
  • Tagliolini (thin, flat pasta) with peas and zucchini
  • Veal and roasted potatoes in a Barbera sauce
  • Panna cotta, bonet (chocolate panna cotta), and hazelnut cake

And the wines that complemented the meal:

  • Rovero Baptista (Riesling Italico)
  • Rovero Villa Drago (Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Rovero “La Casalina” (Grignolino D’Asti)
  • Rovero Spanase’ (Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Nebbiaia (Nebbiolo Monferrato)
  • Rovero “Gustin” (Barbera D’Asti Superiore)
  • Rovero Rouve (Barbera D’Asti Superiore aged in French oak)
  • Rovero Brachetto (frizzante red dessert wine)
  • Rovero Calasaya (fortified Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Ampolo Reserva 1998 (grappa made from Barbera)
  • Rovero Brandy (aged in barrel for 10 years)

I enjoyed the fact that the Rovero wines are the wines that people make to drink in Piedmont and not just the wines they make to sell abroad. It was especially interesting to taste the five variations on the Barbera theme that you will find on this wine list. Barbera is an amazingly versatile canvas for a creative winemaker like Enrico Rovero to work with.

Il Milin was low key and intimate, the perfect wine tourism experience for the enthusiast who wants to become immersed in a local culture, with opportunity to digest the day’s wine activities and reflect upon how past and present connect. It represents my favorite model of wine tourism. But there are alternatives.

Valle Isarco Highlights

Room with a View

We only had one day for our visit to Valle Isarco in Alto Adige, so the Asti methodology of “soaking and poking” wasn’t really feasible. We went for “highlights,” which is a good strategy when time is limited. I guess we took this to an extreme this time, staying at Ansitz zum Steinbock, an historic hotel and restaurant perched high above the valley in the village of Villandro, a short but steep and winding drive from Chiusa, where we were visiting the local wine cooperative (another highlight).

Elisabeth was our hostess and guide (her family owns the inn). She told us that many guests return year after year, staying for a week enjoying the comfortable facilities, the beautiful Tyrolean scenery and the food and wine. It was easy to see why.

Because the hotel had just opened for the season, the restaurant’s selections were limited. The full menu wasn’t available, only a set meal for guests. As you can see below, we did not suffer. (Much gasping was heard as each course was presented and consumed; the high elevation had nothing to do with it).

  • A melon foam (spremuta) with culatello (local prosciutto)
  • Lasagnette with fresh vegetables and pesto
  • Roast lamb, green beans with speck, celeriac puree, and bok choy
  • Millefoglie with raspberries and blueberries, yogurt cream, and house-made apple sorbet
  • A selection of local cheeses with dark honey and very intense mustard jam

Elisabeth knew that I was especially interested in Kerner, the region’s “invisible wine,” so she brought out a fantastic bottle of Abbazia de Novacella Kerner Praepositus 2010, one of the best white wines in Italy according to the Gambero Rosso guide. Walking the village, talking with people and enjoying the food and wine turned out to be good preparation for our meeting the next day with Peter Baumgartner, the President of the Valle Isarco cooperative (who happens to live in Villandro).

I must say I enjoyed this experience quite a lot, but in a different way from our Asti immersion therapy. Not everyone has the luxury of time that we had with the Rovero family. Going for the highlights isn’t the same as soaking it all in, but it is a way of learning. Perhaps one reason wine tourism is so popular is that there are so many ways to approach it.

I’m going to keep working at this wine tourism thing until I figure out the perfect way to do it.  Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

For a more comprehensive comparison of wine tourism strategies, see George M. Taber’s 2009 book, In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism.

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Full disclosure: we were not “comped” our stays in Italy nor was I paid to write about these experiences.

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3 responses

  1. Thanks for capturing the warm spirit of getting down to the nitty gritty of terroir, individualism, family and food in wine region touring. Too often we rely on second-hand information or marketing muddle to form opinions about wine and the business of wine. It’s still about the land and the relationships with people with their hands in the dirt.

  2. Kermit was wrong,. It’s easy being green…with envy. You obviously seized the days. Just the thing to keep you warm when you’re home listening to the rain.

  3. How funny… Il Milin is actually one of our favorite agriturismo’s in the Piemonte. We’ve been going there for several years now and it’s always a pleasure. Aside from the abundant 8 course dinners (didn’t you have two rounds of pasta?) I also really like breakfast which has an excellent selection of locally produced fruit juices, cheeses and salami’s. And let’s not forget the home made pies.

    Last but not least, Il Milin is also extremely reasonably priced with the full dinner being EUR 30pp and a 2p room for EUR 65 per night. Highly recommend it to any one keen on visiting the Langhe region. We will be going again in October in any case.

    Cheers!

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