Just when you thought you’d seen enough movies about Italy’s charms, here comes the “The Truffle Hunters,” a documentary about a circle of elderly Piedmontese foragers and their pursuit of the highly valued white truffle for which the region is known.
It is hard to know what’s the most delicious part of the movie: the white tubers that are the object of desire, the pack of sweet truffle-hunting dogs or their owners, each charismatic in his own right. Or, it could be the entire backdrop of the movie, the Alba region—particularly known for its earthy gastronomy.
On one level, it’s easy to see the movie as another slice of life chock-full of enigmatic local personalities. But to anyone who has spent time in the Italian countryside, it’s a true enough picture of the ties that bind—not only the obvious ones between men and their dogs, but also men and the earth. Presented as both a commercial activity and a tradition, the rather mythical art of the truffle hunt is the heart of the story.
Team Piedmont consists of the elderly Aurelio, solely devoted to his dog Birba who he feeds by hand and whose future he frets over; Carlo whose bond with his wife is quietly expressed through simple tasks such as sorting tomatoes, but who will sneak out a night against her wishes for the sake of the hunt. They are counterbalanced by the equally charismatic younger Sergio (with his pups, Pepe and Fiona), and Angelo, now retired from truffle hunting but no less present with his poetic musings, philosophy bordering on politics, and love of local wine. They are the natural forces in constant friction with commerce—the truffle brokers who manage the auctions and the phones better than their greed and willingness to exploit the gentle hunters.
During these times of such hard-won joy, “The Truffle Hunters” is a soothing balm—the movie you didn’t know you needed to restore faith in humankind bundled with an appreciation of the good earth.
Alba, the commune in the Piedmont region that’s the other star in the movie, is heralded not only for truffles but wines made from Nebbiolo, the undisputed king of Italian red grapes (sorry, Sangiovese!)
The region produces two levels of quality wines under the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) and its higher garantita (DOCG) classifications. The former includes wines made from Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo grapes, and DOCG is reserved for those designated for Nebbiolo-based Barbaresco and Barolo (the white sparkling Moscat d’Asti is also a DOCG). Within each DOC and DOCG are numerous subregions variously known for quality, Langhe, Serralunga d’Alba, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba among some of the more well known.
Wines from Piedmont offer both prestige and approachability. While many Barolo wines need years in the cellar to evolve to their most sublime, other wines such as those made from the Dolcetto grape (Alba or Dogliani, for example) are meant for early drinking. Many lighter-bodied Nebbiolo-based Barbaresco wines are more immediate. Overall, the quality levels are very high, even with the entry-level wines.
In the heart of truffle country, is the Fontanafredda estate, founded by the first king of Italy 1858. Its 250-acre property in Serralunga d’Alba, a cru site of Barolo, is the single largest contiguous wine estate in the Langhe, and the largest certified organic winery in Piedmont. Its Ebbio Nebbiolo Langhe DOC 2018 is a very accessible wine made of 100% Nebbiolo, plush with red fruits: cherry, raspberry, red plum, easy smooth tannins, light earthy hints.
Piedmont’s wine godfathers are many, but the undisputed O.G. is Pio Cesare, established in 1881 and one of the oldest, continuous-running family wineries in the region (they are the only ones permitted to use the crest of the city of Alba says the fifth-generation Federica Boffa). Through they’ve branched into new branding—a line of “lifestyle” wines and more recently, single-vineyard—at the heart of the winery is their “timeless collection,” a house style that has varied little, presents “a great bond with our terroir” says Boffa, and remains the standard bearer for the region.
It’s not truffle season, but you can taste vicariously through the movie and toast Alba’s great traditions with these bottles:
Barolo DOCG 2016. Made of 100% Nebbiolo, Pio’s traditional blend of five villages is as classic as it gets, and a Barolo you can drink now (though, as with most Barolo, you can sit on this one for a few years). Pretty flower-petal and wild herb aromas elevated by mint, the palate features red plush fruits—cherries, strawberries and raspberries—some balsamic, good acid strike, and firm, fine tannins. In French oak for 30 months. $82
Barbaresco DOCG 2016. 100% Nebbiolo made from family-owned vineyards in Treiso and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio. More rose and lavender/mint/anise garrigue-kind of aromas—another classic but a fresh presentation with its bright red-berry fruit and medium body. Silky, refined tannins are well integrated with the spices from 30 months in French oak. Classic example that can cellar for a few more years. $82
Barbera d’Alba 2017. This falls under Pio’s “lifestyle wine” category, as much for its friendly price point as its modern style—full and fruity, savory and saturated. Structured, concentrated, broad shouldered; great for the BBQ (sticky ribs!) or a heavily loaded pizza with all the trimmings. Grapes sourced from prime Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards. $25
Single vineyards crus
Barolo Ornato DOCG 2016. Made from 100% Nebbiolo from parcels in Serralunga d’Alba, this is the first single-vineyard Barolo produced by the Pio family since 1985. It’s a promising beginning to a new small-production line that has historic references but a more flashy personality. Very lively with crunchy small red fruits (think fresh market berry baskets), elevated by hints of bright anise. Linear and focused. Aged in French oak for 12 months then in large oak “botti” for 30 months, and could easily age in your cellar for a few more years. $144
Barbaresco Il Bricco 2016. Made of 100% Nebbiolo grapes selected from three plots in the high-elevation Bricco vineyard. Lots of ripe late-summer red fruits and more obvious notes of smoky earth, tar and mineral; very understated in its elegance. There’s a good acid streak, thanks to that cooler climate site. Full-bodied but more immediate than the Barolo. but can also benefit from aging a couple of years. Very small production. $144.
Barolo Mosconi DOCG 2016. Made by fourth-generation family member Pio Boffa for his 60th birthday from the oldest Nebbiolo vines (1947) in their Monforte d’Alba vineyard, this is an earthily aromatic wine with smoky spices, dried herbs and roses that opens up to dark-red fruits, spice and earthy tobacco notes. Very compact and exotic for Barolo. $200