Story and Photos by Deborah Grossman.
When friends ask me to choose my favorite region of Italy, I never hesitate. It is always Piedmont. This usually provokes two responses. What about Tuscany? Or, what’s to see in Piedmont? Friends who like Italian wine respond differently. “Ah, the land of Barbera and Nebbiolo wines. I’ve always wanted to go there.” I love all of Italy from the northern reaches of Alto Adige where German is spoken to the wide expanses of Puglia on the Adriatic Sea. But Piedmont holds my heart. In addition to presenting outstanding wines, the region extends warm hospitality and beautiful landscapes. After a trip four months before the pandemic began, I bonded even more strongly with Piedmont. In the Monferrato area, we visited historic cities, tasted delicious food, stopped by wineries and explored areas designated as UNESCO heritage sites. Bottom line: I fell in love with Piedmont all over again.
The north-central region of Piedmont, Monferrato earned fame as a center for the wine trade and for its preservation of historic sites. I explored the city of Asti for the first time. Before the trip, I only knew Asti from Asti Spumante—the only sparkling wine at my parent’s table. The provinces of Asti and Allesandro were new treasures to explore.
The Romans touted the wines of the Asti region. These days, Asti attracts visitors not only for its wines but for annual events such as the Palio horse race. The city also fosters a strong artistic culture and highlights its association with native son Vittorio Alfieri, the famous 18th-century poet and dramatist. During my too-short visit to the center of town, I discovered the art gallery at Palazzo Mazzetti, one of the city’s six magnificent museums designed by Vittorio’s architect uncle, Benedetto Alfieri. A noble home for centuries, the Palazzo Mazzeti was transferred to the city and restored in 2009. I found myself engulfed in Baroque elegance and extravagance on the ground floor. Along with Italian painters, the museum hosts a beautiful collection of oriental paintings and ivory-sculpted miniatures.
Lunch yielded more fortuitous surprises—a supremely Piemontese lunch at Michelin-starred Il Casinale Nuovo Michelin restaurant. Located in the small town of Ioli d’Asti, Chef-owner Walter Ferreto presents Italian food and hospitality in equal amounts. The thin Italian bread sticks called grissini perched in the table’s breadbasket were memorable for their freshness and flavor, especially when compared to the tasteless, space-taker twigs found at home. We began the meal with the seasonal “Autonno in Piemonte” antipasti. This dish brimmed with crunchy autumn vegetables in an anchovy sauce. Fereto then served a tower of tajarin dressed in a swath of local butter, my favorite Piemontese pasta made from only eggs and flour.
I spent the afternoon exploring the historic Marchese Alfieri winery named for the noble family of San Martino Alfieri. Known for the aforementioned poet Vittorio, architect Benedetto, and also statesmen Cesare, the Alfieri family first began growing grapes here in 1696. In 1982, ownership transferred to a family comprised of three sisters. A model of agritourism, the winery offers an 11-room guest house along with tours and tastings of the old cellar by reservation. Located halfway between Asti and the city of Alba to the south, the grounds boast a well-preserved orange and lemon tree botanical garden. Marchesi Alfieri offers an array of wines. We began with a refreshing sparkling wine made from the local grape grignoligno. We then moved on to bright and fruity LaTota Barbera d’Asti DOCG (highest quality from the specific geographic area) with vanilla notes.
Continuing to explore the region’s viniculture. I traveled on to two small, wine-themed villages in the northern part of Monferrato. Designated as part of the UNESCO Wine Landscape of Piedmont since 2014, these areas follow the mission of the UNESCO World Heritage sites: Preserve and transmit the unique cultural and natural heritage of the region to future generations. Rosignano Monferrato is a small town set in the heart of wine country surrounded by vineyards of barbera, a grape producing well-rounded red wines. Still remaining is the beautifully decorated, small church, Madonna delle Grazie. Normally a church is la chiesa; this one is labeled as la chiesetta to denote its miniature size.
This area is known for its unique geology of pietra da cantoni sandstone. Residents realized centuries ago that they could dig tunnels and shelves into the sandstone to store wine. Though most cellars are dug and then fitted with wooden wine racks or shelves, these unique cellars are called infernot. Many local artisans decorated the infernot and even built tables into the stones. Sheltered from light and ventilation, the infernot preserve wine at the perfect temperature year-round. More than 60 homes and other buildings in the town have these cellars—including the Madonna delle Grazie.
In the nearby hamlet of Cella Monte, I squeezed my way down into infernot at the excellent museum, the Ecomuseo della Pietra da Cantoni. Yes, the infernot are a bit dusty, but they yield fascinating vignettes on the unique wine landscape of the area. I’ve spent time in many a wine cellar, and these are among the most fascinating.
While in Cella Monte, we visited a small, family-run winery with a rich historical background. Here five siblings manage the eponymously named Cinque Quinti winery. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, as well as fluent in English, two of the siblings showed us great hospitality with local foods—think pasta—during the tasting. The current owners’ wine growing roots go back to the 18th century, but until 2015 when the five siblings began production, the grapes were sold to a communal consortium. The winery is set in a picture-perfect castle with tastings held in the former family living room. Call ahead to taste their rich Carisa barbera grown in a south-facing vineyard. They also make a chardonnay and both red and white blends.
Before leaving the area, I visited a most special place, the Sacro Monte di Crea park, one of the nine sacred mounts of Northern Italy. To create special places for meditation and reflection during the 16th and 17th centuries, religious orders built chapels and other architectural edifices on the local hillsides. This particular mount hosts an abundance of 23 chapels Designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the sites brim with unusual botany and fertile forests. I felt deep relaxation in the awe-inspiring natural setting of the Sacro Monte di Crea.
Il Ristorante di Crea serves up Piemontese gourmet specialties at the entrance to the park. A signature dish is bagna calda, a hot cheese fondue dotted with anchovies. The restaurant features local wines served in a special nook dedicated to my favorite Monferrato white, grignoligno. After a hike to visit the chapels, the restaurant is worth a visit for fresh, well-prepared food and wine.
Located on the Po River, Casale Monferrato is a town of 30,000 inhabitants bordered by barbera wine country. After a brief tour of the central piazza, my guide pointed out the well-known Sinagoga e Musei Ebraici, Synagogue and Museum located in the former Jewish ghetto of the town. After World War II, with most Jews lost to the war or emigrating to Israel, the Jewish population has dwindled to only seven people. Services are held only on special occasions when other Jews arrived in town. The day of my visit service was being held at the well-preserved Baroque building. The Synagogue prayer room with its ornate Baroque décor and magnificent Torah ark; The Jewish Art and history Museum; and unique Hanukkah lamp collection. The museum has an excellent virtual tour online.
I wandered around the piazza and window shopped at several stylish clothing stores and eclectic stationery shops before visiting the Krumiri Rossi bakery, a delicious way to savor Casale Monferrato. Founded in 1870, the third family to own the business has maintained the same ingredients and techniques while managing to continue this highly regarded Casale Monferrato gastronomic specialty. I loved the buttery freshness of the mustache-shaped cookies. Tradition says the shape honors the curled facial hair of Vittorio Emanuele II, the “Father of Italy.”
Casale Monferrato is the rare town that boasts a castle open to the public—which houses a regional enoteca.
Yes, that’s right. The enoteca in the Castello del Monferrato offers tastings of local wines and well-crafted cocktails including some with my favorite local wine, grignolino, as an ingredient.
Before we ventured to the Langhe region of our Piedmont tour, I reflected on the unique Monferrato sites. The cities of Asti and Casale Monferrato, with the surrounding towns and villages, held an allure and natural beauty rare to find in larger, bustling Italian regions. I want to return to discover more of the deep cultural heritage of the region.
This article is the first of a two-part series.
IF YOU GO: Note that before traveling to the area during the Covid-19 pandemic, check websites for opening and accessibility.