Tucked away in northwest Italy, about 120 miles from the Swiss border as the crow flies, the region of Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) is home to one of the boot’s most prolific wine producing areas, the Langhe. Like its sister region to the south, Tuscany, it produces some of the most coveted Italian wines and is revered for its beautiful scenery and regional cuisine. However, while world-famous Tuscany receives about 40 million tourists per year, Piedmont only gets a quarter of that, which means crowds are few and you get a lot more value for your money.
Where to Stay
Piedmont covers about 9,000 square miles, but most of its main attractions are clustered within about an hour of the largest city, Turin. If you’re looking to explore a bit of the city or you’re traveling without a car, the centrally located Turin Palace Hotel (rates from $170 per night, depending on the season) makes a great home base. If you want to be in the heart of wine country but still have access to the amenities of a medium-sized city, opt for Alba or Asti.
If you’d prefer to be surrounded by vines, rolling hills, and charming small towns at every turn (and you don’t mind renting a car), consider a stay in wine-country towns like Barolo, Neive, La Morra, Barbaresco, Novello, and Monforte d’Alba.These picture-perfect hilltop towns are complete with an abundance of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and agriturismos (independently owned farms) with prices as low as $70 per night, depending on the property and the season.
For a luxe stay, check out the chic, ten-room Arborina Relais hotel. Located just outside the town of La Morra, it offers stylish, modern rooms with hillside views, plus an onsite Michelin-starred restaurant, a spa, free breakfast, and a stunning pool among the vines. Rates start at around $234 per night (depending on the season).
What to Eat and Drink
Pack your stretchy pants and a hearty appetite, because the food in Piedmont is hearty, rich, and full of flavor. Eating is taken seriously here — so seriously, in fact, that in Turin, bars like Caffè Torino serve anything from a plate of assorted focaccia to a full buffet with your drink as part of the “aperitivo” tradition.
Signature regional dishes include veal tonnato (thinly sliced veal topped with a tuna sauce); agnolotti al plin (a kind of pinched ravioli typically filled with meat in a butter and sage sauce); tajarin (a ribbon-like pasta colored yellow from the use of 40 egg yolks, and usually topped with meat ragu or mushrooms); and beef in Barolo (beef braised in the local red wine). In the fall, just about everything is served with truffles. The pungent, mushroom-like tuber grows in abundance here, and truffle seasons takes place from October to November — Piedmont's high season.
One of the most popular places to sample these dishes are the hilltop Ristorante Bovio. The restaurant is located right outside of La Morra and serves a variety of pastas, small plates, and entrees with a million-dollar view. Other restaurants that have earned rave reviews include La Cantinetta in Barolo and Massimo Camia. At just about any restaurant, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an entree that costs more than 30 euro (about $35), and though the price of wine can, of course, climb much higher, you’ll have no problem finding a quality bottle on the wine list for around 20 euro (about $23).
Piedmont is also the region that gave the world Nutella, and the hazelnuts here are renowned for their delicate flavor. You’ll find them in torta di nocciola (hazelnut cake) and in the signature chocolates that come from Turin, one of the chocolate capitals of the world. You can try some of the best at Guido Gobino, where you can shop from the mouth-watering creations on display, or sit down for a chocolate sampler and a glass of bicerin (a traditional hot drink made of espresso drinking chocolate, and whole milk).
When it comes to wine, Piedmont is home to the greats: barolo and barbaresco (both made from the Nebbiolo grape) are known as the king and queen of Italian wines. Barolo, the king, tends to be bigger and bolder, with more tannins that require aging; babrareso, the queen, is softer and more elegant. You'll quickly learn after just a few samples, some kings are elegant, and some queens are bold. For something more approachable, (and typically less expensive), look for barbera or non-designated nebbiolo; quality bottles can be had for less than 10 euro (about $12).
If wine isn’t your thing, consider another grape-based option: vermouth, a fortified wine flavored with botanicals. The popular beverage dates back to Piedmont and is best known as the mixer used in drinks like Manhattans, but it’s also delicious mixed with tonic and served on ice.
What to See and Do
Not surprisingly, many of Piedmont’s activities include the celebration of food and wine. If you can split the price with a small group, a full-day wine tour with Anna Savino of ItaliAnna is well worth the cost of about 100 euros per person (about $117).
Alternatively, head to any of the wine villages in the Barolo or Barbaresco areas. Pretty much every town has its own “cantina comunale” — in the town of Barbaresco, it’s housed in an old church — where locally produced wines are on display and available to taste for about 3 euros. Alternatively, walk into any enoteca (wine shop) ready to buy, and staff will be happy to offer up free tastings until you find what you like.
If vermouth strikes your fancy, head to Casa Martini (located about halfway between Turin and Asti) for a self-guided tour of their exhibits on the history of wine and its enjoyment, and a tasting of their various vermouths.
For more food fun, consider a cooking class. Travel Langhe offers customizable classes that include a veritable feast — typically an antipasto, pasta, main, multiple sides, and dessert — plus wine for 125 euro per person (about $146 USD). Afterwards, burn off the rich cuisine and rent an electric bike for just 30 euro (about $35) per day or 18 euro (about $21) per half-day (about four hours). Pick up the bikes near the town of Novello and choose one of their recommended routes or strike out on your own to explore the small towns of this charming and affordable region.