3 family-run wineries you’ll love to visit in Italy
When we first decided that Piedmont was a must visit, we had my milestone birthday in sight, as well as visions of unlimited truffles to accompany the rich red wines we had planned to drink. “We” being me and three of my close friends and fellow wine travelers. Together, we had already made trips to the wine regions of the Loire and Alsace. It was to be our third.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has intervened. When it was clear that we wouldn’t take off in time for my birthday in the spring of 2020 – or soon – we decided to have a birthday toast over Zoom, each buying a bottle of the same wine so that we “share” this. This sparked a 2 year series of regular happy hours where we tasted wines from France, Spain and Piedmont. Finally, in April, with the easing of pandemic restrictions and a lull in new variants, we saw a window to venture out.
I had been introduced to Italian wines during Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School course, and again while studying for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s Advanced Wine Certificate in London and taking his diploma course . But aside from a star here and there, my first reaction to Barolo’s great reds had been indifference bordering on annoyance. I just couldn’t be thrilled with their bitter tannic weight and invigorating acidity. In recent years however, I had become more and more curious about Barolo. Nebbiolo, a great Piedmont grape variety, finds its finest expression here.
We decided between my wine expertise and my friend Ronni’s passion for finding food and restaurants – the late, great and sorely missed Chowhound had nothing on her – we could handle our own planning. Armed with plenty of enthusiasm, adventurous palates and, in my case, a recently renewed passport, we were ready to explore.
Pro Tip: Don’t wait until the last minute to renew an expired or about to expire passport. While the months-long backlog has definitely been reduced considerably, if you want to have your new passport in your hands without nervous tap-dancing and phone calls to the (extraordinarily useless) State Department helpline, allow 6 weeks and spring for additional expedited processing and overnight shipping charges.
The Barolo appellation of Piedmont (a demarcated wine region designated by Italy’s wine regulator) includes 11 communes that produce some of the greatest and longest-lasting red wines in the world. Barolo is the star player, but it’s not the only game in town – not even close. The other red varieties of Piedmont are Barbera, Dolcetto and Friesa (in small quantities). Whites include Arneis, Cortese, Moscat Bianco (as in Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante), Chardonnay and, to my surprise and delight, Riesling, the most important in Germany.
Vineyards owned by women
We decided to spend our first night in Turin, Italy’s fourth largest city and gateway to the Piedmont wine region. From there we would make the 50 minute journey to Alba, where we had planned to stay for three nights before spending our last night in Asti. We had visited two wineries a day, chosen based on my experience tasting the wines, the range of offerings from each producer (we wanted to taste Barbaresco and Barolo, and white wines as well as red wines), and in ensuring we hit some of the most important municipalities, namely Alba, Asti, Barolo, La Morra and Serralunga d’Alba. To our delight, half of the vineyards we chose had a little something extra; they were owned, run by, or had winemakers.
Pro Tip: You need a reservation to visit the vineyards. Most accept online reservations through their websites or by emailing the winery directly. It was really easy to schedule appointments, choose our tasting experience and communicate with the wineries. You may be asked to provide proof of COVID vaccination.
Serralunga d’Alba, Italy
Our first visit was to this family winery. The roots of the Massolino family in Serralunga run deep. The family has been working hard there since 1896, growing and selling agricultural products, including hazelnuts (Nutella anyone?), one of Piedmont’s most famous and exported agricultural products. Now in its third generation of family ownership, the winery has seven family members on its 20-person team.
Like nearly every winery we visited, Massolino produces both red and white wines, including an entry-level Langhe Nebbiolo, Barolo Classico, single-vineyard Barolos, Moscato d’Asti, and a dry Riesling from vines planted at high altitude in 2009. after brothers Franco and Roberto Massolino “fell in love” with the variety.
What to try in Massolino
The 2020 Langhe Riesling was aged for 12 months in terracotta amphoras. Tasting it revealed flavors of fresh citrus, zesty green apple and stone fruit, a crisp saline note and a chalky minerality that easily fades on a gorgeous day. As Barolos must age at least 3 years before being marketed, we haven’t tasted any since 2020. But we were told that 2020 was “a great vintage” in Piedmont.
2. GD Vajra
“You can choose quantity or quality – you can’t have both.”
Everything – from harvesting to sorting to removing the stems before vinification – is done by hand at GD Vajra. The grapes are sorted three times to separate those that are unripe or problematic from those deemed good enough for winemaking. Our guide Valentina explained that’s because the family’s winemaking philosophy is “you can choose quantity or quality.” You can’t have both.
Vajra wines offer quality in spades. All the wines we tasted hit the mark, especially the 2018s. The highlight of our visit was meeting the family matriarch, Milena, who stopped by the tasting room to chat with us at the end of our visit.
What to try at GD Vajra
Try all the Dolcettos. These were varied, with expressive flavors of red fruit and spice. Dolcetto is an excellent, easy-drinking and delicious red.
3. Ca’ Del Baio
Ca del Baio is famous for its Barbarescos (including an exceptional 2019 from the Vallegrande vineyard). The fifth generation of the Grasso family now runs the winery. The range includes Langhe reds (all made from the Nebbiolo grape), Dolcetto d’Alba, an elegant and mineral Riesling from altitude vineyards, and of course Moscato d’Asti.
What to try in Ca’ Del Baio
Valentine Langhe Chardonnay is clearly the passion project of winemaker Valentina Grasso. With its smoky and nutty aromas, creamy texture and layered, silky mouthfeel, it could easily be mistaken for a white Burgundy. 2019 was the first vintage released.
Bonus: Dinner with stars (Michelin)
I mentioned that Piedmont is a foodie’s paradise, right? Truffles, both black and white, are abundant here. White in particular is highly prized and priced to match. Here was born Eataly (the first store to open in Turin), gourmet chocolate, Bicerin (its own version of coffee), hazelnuts, regional pasta (agnolotti, plin and tajarin), and cheese… Mamma mia!
We decided to allow ourselves a big meal, a dinner in Piazza Duomo. The three-star Michelin restaurant is a collaboration between restaurateur Davide Franco, chef Enrico Crippa and the Ceretto family, owners of the Ceretto winery (which we also visited on our trip). The price of the menu was €270, excluding the optional food and wine pairing. We were also offered a vegetable dish at an extra €40, from the restaurant’s organic and biodynamic garden. I didn’t think twice before skipping it, the products couldn’t be worth the extra, could they? I wasn’t just wrong; I was very wrong. These were some of the freshest, ripest and tastiest vegetables we have ever had. Luckily for us, asparagus and fava beans (which were in season), lettuce leaves, peas and spinach were all included in our tasting.
Pro Tip: If you’re keen on checking out a certain restaurant but can’t get a reservation, see if the chef has other restaurants in the area. In our case, we originally booked at the laid-back sister restaurant in Piazza Duomo, La Piola, but were eventually able to sit in the main restaurant.
Visiting Piedmont was a fantastic experience. First of all, seeing friends I hadn’t spent time with in person since 2019 was amazing. Second, the locals are used to seeing visitors and are happy to share their knowledge of where to eat, which wineries to visit, which dishes to try (at one restaurant we received an impromptu and passionate lesson from the owner on the difference between white and black truffles), and where to find the nearest wine shop. In addition to these reasons, between the regional capital of Turin, with its history and its museums, the welcoming charm of Alba, the vineyards classified as World Heritage by UNESCO and the breathtaking panoramas at every turn, Piedmont offers something for everyone. We left full, happy and already looking forward to coming back.
One last tip
The last highlight for me was taking the train through the Alps to France. The 5.5 hour trip was absolutely beautiful and so much more comfortable than being stuck in a crowded single aisle plane!
You can save a lot of money and add to your experience by using the rails, which are comfortable, punctual and run at high speed. My train to Paris was leaving from Turin, while my friend was heading to Turin airport. To get there, we took a train from Asti. The 35 minute ride was comfortable, quiet and only cost €5 (!), compared to the €130 taxi one of us paid for an early morning flight.
For more travel inspiration, check out these other wine and food-focused destinations: