02 July 2016

A tale of two 'agriturismi' in Italy

One of my goals for our trip to Italy in May was to deepen my knowledge of Italian wine. I had three strategies for achieving that goal:

1. Drink wine with meals during our trip;
2. Visit tasting rooms at different wineries;
3. Stay at an agriturismo where they make wine. 

We stayed at two 'agriturismi' during our trip, one in Piedmont and one on the border between Lazio and Umbria. Both were very enjoyable experiences. There were many similarities between the two places; also many differences. 

Our first agriturismo was Casa Svizzera in the town of Barolo in the Piedmont. It's owned by the Angelo Germano family and features their wines. The guest rooms are located above the winery tasting room in the heart of town. At the time of our stay, they had three rooms (though we were told by the owners that they are in the process of renovating additional rooms in the building for the future.) The rooms are clean, large, modern, and comfortably decorated. Our room had a narrow balcony overlooking the town square. We enjoyed sitting on the balcony before dinner, sipping wine and watching the activity in the square. 

When we arrived at Casa Svizzera, no one was there to greet us. That wasn't totally unexpected. We had been advised to provide an estimate of when we would arrive, and we were a half hour early. Since it is a family-operated business, family members often have multiple duties, so it's not always feasible to have someone at the reception desk when you arrive. However, after only a short wait, Angelo Germano arrived and checked us in, giving us a choice of any of the rooms we wanted. 

I suppose you could just stay in town and sample Angelo's wine in the tasting room. But the authentic agriturismo experience requires a trip to the winery's production and aging facility a few kilometers outside of town. There you can get a tour of the winery and arrange for either a lunch or dinner with wine pairings. 

With Viviana at Angelo Germano's winery in Barolo
My wife and I opted for a dinner with pairings on our second night in Barolo. At about 6:30, Angelo drove us up to the winery where we met his daughter, Viviana. (I say he drove us 'up' because the winery is located high on a hill overlooking the town and the vineyards below.) Most of our communication prior to arriving at Casa Svizzera was with Viviana. Her English is very proficient, having lived in San Francisco for a while earlier in her life. She was the tour guide for the winery and the chef for our tasting menu. 

Viviana takes great pride in the food she serves. Especially during the summer, many of the vegetables are grown in her garden at the winery. The food we tasted was excellent and nicely paired with the wine. There are a couple of meal variations available to guests. My wife wanted an option that included one sample of white wine. I preferred to have all red wine from the Nebbiolo grape. Viviana graciously accommodated that slight difference. 

Linda's first course was marinated vegetables with a garlic sauce and potato cream. The wine pairing was a chardonnay that Viviana told us was made in the style of an ice wine. It was good with the vegetables, but not a wine that either of us probably would drink very often. My first course was a carrot flan seasoned with cinnamon and topped with a white cream sauce. It was served with Langhe Nebbiolo Visette; this was one of the wines that we both liked so much that we bought some to drink there and to bring home. 
Pasta course served with Langhe Nebbiolo

The rest of our courses were the same.  Our second course was a 'plin' ravioli, plin meaning 'pinch' the technique of pinching off the dough to form the ravioli. They were served with Barolo Bussia. It was an excellent wine, but we preferred one of Angelo's other Barolos that we had tasted in town. The dessert was a shortbread tartlet with chocolate cream and apples cooked in Nebbiolo. The pairing with dessert was described as being a recipe like vermouth made with Nebbiolo grapes, but with many different spices.  I thought it tasted more similar to Campari. It was a fun experience and a beautiful setting above the valley, where we watched the shadows fall as the sun set and the lights came on.   

Our second agriturismo experience was later in the week after we left Piedmont. The guest house was La Tana dell'Istrice; it's a manor house that used to be the family home of the owner, Sergio Mottura. located in the town of Civitella D'Agliano. The town is located in Lazio but close to the border of Umbria. I mentioned the agriturismo in my post about our stay in Lazio-Umbria-Tuscany (click here). 

Like our experience at Casa Svizzera, when we arrived at La Tana it was locked and no one was at the reception desk. But we just walked around the town (which didn't take long because the town is so small) and pretty soon Sergio's wife arrived to let us in. The guest house has 8 rooms and two suites. When we checked in, we were offered an upgrade to a suite, which was very nice indeed! The room was very clean, comfortable and spacious. 

The guest house includes a wine cellar, a tasting room, and dining rooms. But like Casa Svizzera, the production facilities are located outside of town. Guests are welcome to visit the vineyard, and they have a swimming pool there for guests to use in the summer. This time we did not go out to the vineyard. 

We did, however, have a tasting meal featuring Sergio Mottura's wine. When we descended to the wine cellar for the reception, we discovered that we were the last of the group to arrive. We had a pleasant time sampling white wines and noshing on cheese and bruschetta and focaccia and chopped liver. After we arrived, the other guests, all Italians, wanted to talk about American diets and eating habits. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it was unexpected. 
Elegant menu at La Tana

After a tour of the cellar where the wines are aged, we were lead to a dining room for dinner. Dinner was elegant. It started with a tomato, bread, garlic, and basil 'soup' which really was more of a purée than a soup. Next was a delicious risotto with asparagus and served with Parmesan cheese, which we were advised to put on lots. I asked about the rice variety and was told it was baldo. I've heard of it, but I've never cooked with it. That was followed by saltimbucco. So far, all of the food was accompanied by white wines. But the saltimbucco was served with a Syrah. 

We had a lot of pleasant conversation over dinner. But remarkably, very little of the conversation was about wine. Sergio asked about my job, and when I explained that I was retired from a farmer co-op, he got very excited to tell me that he was a farmer. He talked about the same difficulties of trying to make a profit as a crop farmer. He said he raised corn and wheat and farro and canola and alfalfa, but no livestock, and ultimately, the only thing that was profitable was grapes. It was the kind of conversation I would expect to hear from any American farmer at his or her dinner table.

Dessert was strawberries with cream and a digestive wine. Then we adjourned to the living room for coffee and more conversation. It was an extraordinary and enjoyable evening.

So what did I learn from our two agriturismi experiences in Italy? First, it was a pretty good strategy for learning more about Italian wine, especially if you do a tasting meal. (We did buy some of Angelo Germano's wine, but not Sergio Mottura's.) Second, an agriturismo seems to offer pretty economical lodging. Casa Svizzera was the least expensive hotel of our whole trip, and while La Tana was somewhat more expensive, it was still quite reasonable. Third, staying at an agriturismo is a great way to meet and mingle with real, every-day Italians. And finally, for me at least, it was interesting to observe that indeed, farmers are pretty much the same everywhere. 
Sergio Mottura & family members

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