Tuesday 26 October 2010. 4:30pm – DRIVING with Elena and Domenico to Dogliani, in the heart of the wine-grape district known as the Langhe, just south-west of Bra, to visit the high vineyard of Alessandro Barosi and Amalia Battaglia. As the car climbs beyond the village on an avenue bordered by oak, hazel and birch, we pass a farmer and his dog walking through the trees. He smiles and waves and we wave back. Farther on, a large, high, rendered wall appears on our left and we sweep on to a wet gravelled apron. It has rained during the morning and there are puddles in the hard clay. The front of the house, arched and gently buttressed, with exposed brick supporting ivy showing in part of the old wall, seems of this earth, this place, inanimate of course, yet breathing of the countryside. Alessandro – tall, smiling, with graying curls – greets us warmly. About his neck hang ochre-red spectacles split at the bridge. Welcome to Cascina Corte. I am very pleased you have come. We turn to look out at the vineyard that falls away below the house and its modern red-brick winery. You catch your breath. The beauty of it in the fading, melting, afternoon light is sumptuous, like a rich brocade drawn with such gentle care over the sleeping landscape. Rows of russet-coloured, emerald green and yellow-orange vines rank away like embroidered stitches in the fabric, set against a field of deeper green. It is cold. A light frost seems to be settling in the field beyond: a hint of silver lies as a sheen on the short grass.
Cascina Corte covers 14 hectares with a little more than five hectares under vine. The vine courses deeply in Alessandro’s family. His grandmother and mother both owned vineyards. He recalls that when he was very young, perhaps five years old, he was wanting always to ride and play on his bike. But he was encouraged, even at that early age, to learn what his mother called ‘grape work’. Alessandro tells us that he bought the property seven or eight years ago for its 300 or 350-year-old derelict house – no-one is quite sure of its exact age – and an old iron bread oven that appears alone in the decaying brick and stone wall of a roofless, detached room at the back. He and Amalia have renovated the house as an agriturismo – a farm-stay bed and breakfast. The house, he says, is their most significant investment. The next is the vineyard – land under vine in Dolgiani is worth about 25,000 euros, or $35,000, for each hectare. Across the hills, in the region’s famed Barolo district, vineyards can be worth 20 times as much.
Cascina Corte is an azienda agricola biologica – an organic farm – and its wine, yet young when compared with the much older vineyards that surround it – commands a premium. Already Alessandro’s and Amalia’s dolcetto, barbero and nebbiolo – ‘the grape that grows in the fog’ – have taken their place on the most select winelists of local osterie. Their winemaking, says Alessandro, makes up the smallest investment in their way of life. The eight or nine serried stainless steel tanks in the winery, for example, each cost about 5000 euros. The dolcetto and barbero have a drinking life of three to 10 years, and nebbiolo, the grape that yields the wine for which the district is renowned, will drink for 20 to 30 years. It is some of this that Domenico wants to buy.
Peter and I return outside to capture the view again. A middle-sized, mushroom-coloured, curly-coated dog runs to us from the corner of the house, followed by a man wearing a blue tractor cap and an old shooting jacket. It is the man and the dog to whom we waved on the road when we drove to the winery. He walks up to us, calling off the dog which is nuzzling the shins of our jeans. We introduce ourselves in broken Italian. He shakes our hands. His name is Piero. The dog’s name is Blas. In the crook of his right arm Piero carries a short-handled tool like an ice-pick. He opens his left hand: in it are three tartufo bianca d’alba – the famed white alba truffles. Blas has just sniffed them out of the earth in the oak and hazel copse by the edge of Alessandro’s drive. It is seemingly immaterial that Piero holds what is worth about 125 euros. This is food with which to garnish pasta, or eggs. At this season, you can buy alba truffles in local osterie at a price of 2.50 euros per gram. Certainly, there are those who hunt truffles to sell, while others hunt truffles to eat. And it is here, first, that the pleasure of eating – and that of wine – seems to us to be at the very heart of Dogliani life.