Wine enthusiasts and Italianophiles got a real treat last month with an Italian feast that transported diners straight to the heart of Italy’s Piedmont district, home to ‘King’ Barolo and ‘Queen’ Barbaresco wines. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull happily played court and reports.
Sitting in the North West of Italy, the region of Piedmont borders France and Switzerland, and nestles at the foot of the Alps. Its unique location thus lends itself to some of the most exciting Alpine cuisine along with some of Italy’s, if not the world’s, finest wines.
Blackbeards recently hosted Stefano Chiarlo, winemaker at Piedmont winery Michele Chiarlo, at a dinner created lovingly for the occasion by Chef Ercole Musso at the cosy Dolce Vita restaurant located at the West Shore Centre on the West Bay Road.
The restaurant was picked specifically for the event as Ercole and Stefano are boyhood friends, growing up together in the same part of Piedmont before Ercole traveled further afield to bless the Cayman Islands with his culinary talents.
The history of Michele Chiarlo wines
Located at the foot of the Alps, the Michele Chiarlo vineyards are blessed with excellent natural irrigation from the melting snow during the warmer months, a boon to grape growing under Italy’s strict Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) regulations which ban irrigation.
“My father, Michele, looked at the terroir of the region back in 1956 and saw the potential for making some excellent wines,” Stefano Chiarlo explains. “He could see that the soil was similar to that of Burgundy in France and it was therefore his dream to produce the most important wine of the region.”
Stefano says that it was always his father’s philosophy to preserve the natural personality of the terroir and not to impose the winemaker’s style to any great degree.
“Wines from the region include the white wine, Gavi, but the region is really well-known for its reds, including barbera and those created from the mighty nebbiolo grape: Barbaresco and Barolo, named after the specific areas in Piedmont where the nebbiolo grape is grown. My father recognised the importance of the barbera grape back in the Sixties when they only really drank it as table wine. He was able to elevate the grape to the star status it deserves today,” Stefano confirms.
Stefano says his father achieved his dream of creating world class wines by limiting growth on the vines.
“Natural production of Barbera for example was around 12 to 14 bunches per plant. My father cut this down to just eight bunches and at the time people thought he was making a grave mistake. However the smaller yield produced some classic full bodied wines which were then the envy of all around!” Stefano says.
Stefano adds that this new method of grape growing caused something of a revolution among Piedmontese wine makers.
Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo
Barbera is believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piemonte, Italy where it has been known from the thirteenth century and it is also widely grown in Asti.
“Our wines made from the barbera grape show real character and are a complete pleasure to drink,” Stefano confirms. “They are beautiful, crisp and elegant and are the result of real inspiration by my father.”
Barbaresco is produced in the Piedmont region in an area of the Langhe immediately to the east of Alba.
“The nebbiolo grape is one of the most noble of all,” says Stefano. “Barbaresco is a feminine wine because it is elegant, less austere, more approachable with gentler tannins than the Barolo wines. It is a young expression of the grape,” Stefano furthers. “We call it the Queen in Piedmont.”
Of course to every queen there is a king, notably Barolo, produced in the Cuneo province, south-west of Alba, within the region of Piedmont.
“This is a far more masculine wine, with strong tannins and a complexity and structure to rival any great wine of the world,” Stefano confirms.
Stefano says that if you drink Michel Chiarlo wines you will understand the terroir of the region because their style never changes.
The art of winemaking
Michele Chiarlo wines are produced from three vineyards in the Piedmont district: Gavi, Monferrato and Langhe where the family owned and run winery own 110 hectares.
The Barbera estate is well-known in the region for its annual art and wine celebration that takes place directly in the vineyard.
Stefano explains: “We like to combine art and wine and encourage visitors to make an annual trip to the winery for our celebration of both.”
A tradition that dates back more than 250 years has seen the Barbera winery constantly filled with stone sculptures of heads “guard” the area for protection and thus Stefano and his family thought it would be exciting to encourage local artists to create their own sculptures of heads made from natural materials but with a contemporary theme. These sculptures then fill the winery with their exotic and colourful artistry. The event also includes theatre incorporating the four elements of fire, water, earth and wind in a unique display of chenography involving top theatrical producers from the region.
It’s an event that no visitor to the region will want to miss and it usually takes place the second weekend in July.
The dinner: a labour of love
Transporting diners back to his old Piedmont haunts, Chef Ercole Musso created a soul-inspiring display of dishes clearly close to his heart. The appetiser Piedmont-style beef tartar was served in a sizable mound and melted in flavour and texture alongside the Michele Chiarlo Gavi Le Marne from 2007.
“This Gavi is the type of wine which speaks to the drinker that one glass simply is not enough!” Stefano says. “It’s crisp, elegant and filled with white flowers on the nose, perfect with delicate food such as fish and carpaccio.”
A tartlet of pear, Rochefort, ricotta and aged balsamic drew a hushed intake of breath from diners at my table at least, so delicious were the intermingled flavours and gentle creamy texture; yet when eaten alongside the Barbera De L’Orme 2006 the dish took on a heightened level of excellence.
“This is a classic Barbera,” Stefano explains. “It’s full of ripe fruit like cherries and strawberries and is highly approachable. The 2006 vintage was a great year and now is a great time to drink it.”
A traditional Piedmont pasta dish then graced diners settings – a herbed duck breast cannelloni. Sensibly not overplating, Chef Ercole gave just one cannelloni per plate which had diners just looking for a little extra, as should always be the case. The Barbaresco ‘Reyna’ from 2004 was a gentle yet complex pairing that delivered beautiful complexity on the nose and the palate.
Stefano says: “This is a classic vintage that is now showing tremendous elegance and complexity while at the same time exuding softness.”
A beef tenderloin was then served rather unusually but incredibly deliciously with a Fonduta cheese dressing, now clearly the only way to eat steak. For the wine accompaniment of course it had to be the mighty Barolo Cerequio from 2003, a highly pleasing example of this most mighty of wines.
“Note the accents of eucalyptus, mint and balsamic in this wine which displays a unique character all of its own,” Stefano states.
A nougat parfait made from sweet, nutty nougat from the region caused another hushed moment of reverence for the chef, a truly splendid finale, topped off in no small part to the excellent Moscato Nivole, a sweet sensation of white peaches and apricots and a slight fizz that was in no way cloying but instead left the palate refreshed and sated.