Why Piedmont Can Be Your Next Tuscany
World-renowned vintages, a bounty of historic cities, towns and hilltops villages, and the vineyard-and-castle-threaded countryside of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato are just some of the reasons to visit Piedmont in Northern Italy. Well-priced vacation homes and lodging are other reasons to lure you here as well.
By Catherine Sabino
In searching for the “next Tuscany,” travelers obviously want a good deal of what Italy’s most famous region has to offer—a magical combination of painterly landscapes, rich cultural attractions, fine wines and memorable local cooking. Minus some of the crowds.
Next-door neighbors Umbria and Le Marche have long been regarded as fetching Tuscan alternatives, and indeed they are, but the Alp-rimmed region of Piedmont with its world-renowned vintages, bounty of historic cities, towns and hilltops villages, and the vineyard-and-castle-threaded countryside of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, may well be the contender that takes the lead. It’s an area no Italophile should overlook: to know the country you should know Piedmont, which played an important role in the development of modern Italy.
Piemonte, as it is called in Italian (and means “the foot of the mountains”), is hardly an obscure destination, but there haven’t been any blockbuster memoirs, like Under the Tuscan Sun or A Year in Provence, to prompt millions of reader fantasies about owning a vacation home in the region. But if you do want to buy an Italian country retreat, it’s a good place to start your search. Richard Edwards of Langhe Property, based outside of Alba, says he gets many clients who first looked in Tuscany, “but realize there’s a lot more for your money here. A rough guess would be around 30-50% better value.” As the pandemic wanes Edwards says there’s been a great surge of interest in the area. “Inquiries and sales are on a level not seen before. Everything is selling and every agent I talk to is experiencing the same thing.” He even sold homes during the pandemic to “people who bought before visiting and are only now getting here to see what they’ve bought.” According to Edwards it’s still possible to purchase in the highly coveted Barolo towns; his firm represents properties in these areas ranging from €300,000 to €1,8000,000.
Joyce Falcone, owner of The Italian Concierge, who has been on Travel + Leisure’s A-List of the World’s Top Travel Advisers since 2009, says that among the reasons the Langhe [area] has become a hot real-estate market is that in addition to being well known to Barolo enthusiasts, who can savor the wine in history-drenched towns and villages (there are eleven in the Barolo DOCG), parts of Piedmont are so well located that “in two hours you have easy access to the Mediterranean and to world-class skiing. During my April stay, I met Americans who have moved to the Langhe. You can understand what makes this area so appealing.”
A large region (only Sicily claims more territory ), Piedmont even includes a major lake (parts of Lago Maggiore), top ski resorts like Sestriere, which was host to Alpine events during the 2006 Winter Olympics, and a range of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Among them are a bounty of royal palaces; swaths of landmarked countryside that make up the vineyard landscapes of Langhe, Roero and Monferrato where those coveted Barolos and Barbarescos are produced; and the transcendentally beautiful Sacri Monti, like the Serralunga di Crea sanctuary set in a wooded park with a network of frescoed chapels and hermitages overlooking the countryside, which in early morning comes wrapped in a swirl of ethereal mist. The wines are stellar and well-priced, and the cuisine, which in recent years has been given a distinctive modern twist by top area chefs, provides a steady lure for sophisticated, food-centric travelers.
I returned to visit parts of Piedmont in the November before the pandemic, a time when truffle season was in full swing (white truffles are available September to January; black truffles have winter and summer availabilities). Despite a cold snap and early snow, Italians were heading for the hills—the designer-clad Milanese castle-trekking or stopping by the Alba truffle fair, and Piedmontese families heading out for a good Sunday lunch, certainly easy to come by in a region that gave birth to the Slow Food Movement and Eataly and is home to nearly four dozen Michelin-starred restaurants. Young chefs who can work anywhere, like Pasquale Làera, who opened the Borgo Sant’Anna in Monforte d Alba (recently awarded its first Michelin star), come here, turning to the bounty of area produce, including those white truffles, DOP cheeses, hazelnuts and artisanal chocolates to devise lighter, healthier and zero-kilometer takes on heritage dishes. Lighter fare also means more room for desserts, which are irresistible in Piedmont, never cloyingly sweet, with subtle blendings of natural flavors like the hazelnut cake served with pear and zabaione ice cream at Borgo Sant’Anna (another item on their sweets menu is cheesecake made with blue cheese, chocolate and celery sorbet), and the region’s ubiquitous bonet, a chocolate-custard style pudding.
With the new Piedmont cooking style comes an emphasis not only on original taste sensations, but also on beautiful plating. At chef Walter Ferretto’s Cascinale Nuovo, a Michelin-starred restaurant located outside the town of Asti, you’ ll find, in addition to traditional dishes like agnolotti dal plin, a stuffed pasta and regional mainstay, such imaginative seasonal offerings as (in spring and summer) burrata ravioli with shrimp and lemon; Gambero Rosso prawns with pistachios, peas and raspberries; and spring onions with Granny Smith apples, the local Roccaverano robiola cheese and mackerel carpaccio, all prepared with an eye for exquisite composition.
Many of Piedmont’s cities and towns aren’t as well-known as Tuscany’s, but there’s much to recommend them. Turin, the region’s capital, moves to its own authentic rhythms; streets aren’t clogged with tourist buses, and museums are easy to navigate. Here you’ll find splendid royal palaces (Palazzo Reale, Palazzo Madama, the nearby Venaria Reale), the exceptional Egyptian Museum and Museum of the Risorgimento, chronicling the events leading to the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. Asti and Alba are smaller cities that can be explored at a leisurely pace between languorous lunches and dinners. When you are in Asti, make sure to visit Palazzo Mazzetti, a spacious Baroque-style house-museum once owned by local aristocrats and now the site of the Museo Civico, which has hosted important Monet and Chagall exhibits in recent years.
In Alba, the big happening is the International Alba White Truffle Fair (October 9—December 5 in 2021), but this elegant city is worth visiting any time of the year. Try to snag a seat at the three-Michelin-star restaurant, Piazza Duomo, helmed by Enrico Crippa, one of Italy’s most influential and innovative chefs. Stop by Enoclub, a restaurant renowned for its robust wine list; here you can sample the region’s stellar offerings at a variety of price points while indulging in the superb cooking of chef Marco Serra, a master of fresh takes on Langhe specialties; his risotto with white truffles in season is not to be missed.
Even when castle hopping in Piedmont, you’re never far from a great glass of wine. In the village of Barolo stop by the ancient Castello Falletti, the site of the WiMu or Wine Museum, and an enoteca that offers a selection of the town’s famous wine. In the 14th-century castle in Casale Monferrato, a pretty and walkable town with Roman origins and centuries-spanning palazzi, churches, and a Baroque synagogue, there’s an innovative enoteca where bartenders were whipping up cocktails made with area wines like dolcetto and grignolino the night I visited.
No oenophile should miss a visit to Pollenzo, where a sprawling former royal estate houses the Wine Bank, an initiative developed with Slow Food that provides an archive of Italian wine and preserves more than 100,000 bottles from top producers. Visitors can sample a selection of wines from different parts of Italy each day. For a trip to a remarkable winery with its own majestic castle, book an appointment for a tasting at Marchesi Alfieri in San Martino Alfieri, about a 20-minute drive from Asti. The winery produces Barbera d’Asti and other local wines.
Tuscany’s hill towns have long been potent travel magnets, and Piedmont has its fair share of these evocative settlements, like Monforte d’ Alba and Serralunga d’Alba, where unchanged streets and skyscapes make the Middle Ages seem not that long ago, and you half expect to see a friar straight from the pages of The Name of the Rose, the best-selling mystery novel by the late Umberto Eco who hailed from Piedmont, ambling across the cobblestones. If you visit Serralunga, climb to the top of its well-preserved castle for wide-ranging views of Barolo wine country. Head to Cella Monte, which like Monforte d’Alba, ranks among the most beautiful villages in Italy (I Borghi più belli d’Italia), and stop by the EcoMuseum Pietra da Cantoni to experience one of the area’s infernots, the unique vernacular cellars dug into the local stone centuries ago to create storage spaces for wine. (These sites, part of the area’s UNESCO World Heritage designation, are found in other spots in Monferrato, like the charming village of Rosignano Monferrato.) When in Cella Monte, visit the Cinque Quinti winery where five siblings from the Arditi family, longtime vintners in the area, bring their millennial savvy to producing new labels (the first one was introduced in 2017), and carry on the tradition of winemaking that began in the area with the ancient Greeks.
Where to stay: You can often find good hotel prices in Piedmont, whether you’re in Turin or the countryside. If you want to be close to the winery action, there’s the seven-room albergo diffuso on the gorgeous Marchesi Alfieri estate. In Solonghetto, the Locanda dell’Arte is a spacious, yet intimate hotel with views of Monferrato wine country, an indoor pool and spa, and superb restaurant. In Turin, the Grand Hotel Sitea has an enviable location, close to all the city’s attractions and offers rooms with a refined, classic style.
For a luxury stay, the sumptuous Castello di Guarene, a Relais & Châteaux hotel built as a palace during the 18th-century, provides a glimpse of Piedmont’s aristocratic past in a beautiful setting overlooking the Langhe and Roero countryside with finely decorated rooms and exquisite gardens.
Buying a home: In addition to value, Richard Edwards of Langhe Property says there are other factors, like good airport links and easy access to the Alps and the rest of Europe, that make Piedmont attractive to home buyers. Among the most sought-after areas in the region are the Langhe (around the towns of Alba, Monforte and Dogliani), which Edwards lists as “number one, followed closely by many parts of the Monferrato that covers a larger area.There’s also the Roero, which I live in and love.” As to who is buying in Piedmont, Edwards says there is broad international interest. “We have clients mostly from the U.S., U.K., Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.”
When to go: “Fall is a supreme time to visit any of Piedmont’s wine regions,” says Joyce Falcone of The Italian Concierge. “Those who travel in spring and don’t mind the occasional rain can avoid high-season tourism, which increases on weekends during the truffle fair in October and November.” Falcone says she likes to suggest Piedmont to those who don’t know the region as a link between travel in Liguria and the [Italian] lakes. “When clients returned from vacations, they were pleased with the quality of food, the diversity of [wine], and the variety of experiences that Piedmont offers.”
Catherine Sabino has worked for magazines in Italy and the US, and was editor-in-chief of Forbes Special Interest Publications, Gotham Magazine and Four Seasons Magazine, a travel and lifestyle publication. In addition to living and going to school in Italy, she has written two books on Italian design, published by Crown/Clarkson Potter, and has produced features from many regions in Italy and countries in Europe. Her focus is on travel in Italy and Western Europe.