By Jonathan Cristaldi
Every fall, all eyes turn toward the picturesque hilltop town of Alba, Italy, which is almost equidistant from Nice, Genoa, and Milan in the northwest of Italy’s Piedmont region.
Those eyes are assuredly larger than most of the accompanying stomachs, which marvel over Michelin-dining opportunities galore, the thought of agnolotti by the forkfuls, hazelnuts, chocolate, loads of Nutella, and of course—black truffles and the storied tartufo bianco d’Alba (white truffles). It all awaits in Piedmont every fall from the end of September through the Christmas holiday and tapers off after New Year’s Eve.
“The interest in food grows especially intense in the fall, harvest season for the Alba white truffle,” explains Eric Pfanner, in his article “In Piedmont, Seasons of Truffles and Barolo” published in the New York Times. “For a few weeks in October and November, these pungent-smelling tubers, unearthed from the forests around Alba by wizened hunters with specially trained dogs, are sold in a market in the old city center. There, the truffles are prodded, sniffed and haggled over before changing hands at breathtaking prices.”
The “region plays host to gastrotourists from around the world who flock to the UNESCO World Heritage site for the fleeting aroma—and flavor—of underground magic,” says Kat Odell in her Vogue article titled “A Guide to Alba, Italy, the White Truffle Capital of the World.”
Both Odell and Pfanner point out that the Slow Food movement even found its footing in Piedmont. And as both point out, the real draw for most foodies and winos is for that most-prized, rare of rare tubers—those sacred white truffles of Alba. But going on a truffle hunt with a master truffle hunter has its ups and downs because of increased demand and the Disneyfication of truffle expeditions—it’s even been rumored that some “hunters” merely stage the hunt, planting truffles ahead of time. Boo. Careful vetting should yield the best opportunities.
For those who visit the region during the International Alba White Truffle Fair, when tourism is at its peak, some experts warn that while the truffles are good in early October, nothing compares to the rich textures and lavish aromas of truffles harvested later in November, and even December, after frosts. So plan accordingly!
Still, is there anything better than enjoying freshly shaved white truffles over agnolotti or Cacio e Pepe at a restaurant in Piedmont, in the midst of truffle season? Yes—when it’s accompanied by generous pours of sweet-tannin, berry-bright Barbaresco, or stately structured, elegantly floral, profoundly earthy, black tea-tinged Barolo.
Vineyards in Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) appear at around 490 feet and climb to over 1,150 feet in elevation, according to “The Oxford Companion to Wine” (Fourth Edition). South-facing sites, which are considered prime plots of land for their sun-exposure, are typically dedicated to Nebbiolo, which can be as fickle as Pinot Noir for growers. Dolcetto and Barbera grapes are widely planted on cooler exposures and produce brighter, easier-drinking wines, which are heavily consumed in the region, while Nebbiolo grapes go the long haul in Italian cellars, transforming into either Barbaresco (if those grapes came from around the village of Barbaresco) or the powerful Barolo wines from the village of the same name, just south of the village of Alba.
Two distinct soil types draw a line in the sand with two opposing styles of Barolo. Grapes grown in Tortonian calcareous marls tend to produce compact, fresh, and fruitier Barolo wines, while vines rooted in Helvetian soils, which contains more sandstone, tends to yield more structured, intense wines that require longer time in the bottle before they are as approachable.
Between some of the more well-known communes of Barolo—La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba—do you know where these different soils begin and end? What about the aging requirements for Barolo?
If you’re going to spend big on bottles from some of the better-known producers, while spending large on decadent slivers of Alba white truffles atop your Cacio e Pepe, you can do it in real style by becoming an expert of the region. But don’t just stop there—Italy is a big, wonderful place, with a vast array of wines and styles.
Perhaps it’s time you Discover Italian Wine.