A vaulted cellar in Piedmont, oak barrels from France, a charismatic winemaker, a marchioness from Monaco and a hotelier from Switzerland with a mission. He knows the winemakers and their wines and tells his guests all about the fascinating world of wine.
MARIO — He comes out of his office in the castle and pulls on his leather jacket. It is cold in the wine cellar. We clamber down past steel tanks into his kingdom. There, in hundreds of barrels – nearly all made of French oak by many different manufacturers – lie about 90,000 litres of wine. Mario Olivero, the master oenologist, is an innovator and a perfectionist and a winemaker through and through. He studies the effect of different slopes on the grapes and of different barrels on the wine. He regards making wine as a challenge, almost like solving a mathematical equation. Asking this maestro one simple question often leads to a complex monologue. Unfortunately, neither my knowledge of wine nor my Italian are good enough to understand the finer ramifications and nuances of his speculations, theories and explanations. But then, in the Orangery, we taste them: the best-selling wine, Alfiera, the La Tota and also the very drinkable Blanc de Noir, a sparkling white wine made from red grapes. Even though I didn't understand every last detail of the how and why, the what impressed me right away: that's what's such fun about wine!
MARIO OLIVERO, OENOLOGIST AND WINEMAKER
The former castle of the Marquesses of Alfieri is virtually next door to the Sunstar Castello di Villa hotel. From the hotel terrace, you can see the castle on the horizon. It has the aura of a Phoenix risen from the ashes: the earliest evidence of wine-making at the castle dates from 1690, but about 300 years later, in 1960, wine production stopped completely.
For 20 years, the barrels and equipment and the whole wine cellar fell into disrepair. In 1983, the new owners, the three marchionesses Giovanna, Antonella and Emanuela San Martino di San Germano took the bold step of making a new start, initially with the help of the award-winning wine expert Giancarlo Scaglione, then from 1999 with the "rising star" Mario Olivero, who comes from Asti in Piedmont. Not only did he immediately recognise the huge potential of the vineyard but he also made the most of it, using his infallible nose, his enormous knowledge about wine and his undisguised propensity for perfectionism.
There is still no end in sight - except perhaps when it comes to the wine itself. Word has spread about the quality and unfortunately Alfieri wines are no longer an insider's secret.
Even though the vineyard now produces 130,000 bottles a year, some kinds, such as the best-selling "Alfiera", are only available in limited numbers. I manage to secure six bottles of the 2015 vintage for myself, as a reminder of my visit to the castle and as a treat in store for special occasions...
PETER — They have been looking forward to it all day. Now the hotel guests are standing expectantly around the large table in the wine cellar at the Sunstar hotel. Host Peter Müller has invited them to a tasting and has already lined up a few bottles. Of course, they include "the usual suspects", the two typical Piedmontese Nebbiolos, Barolo and Barbaresco, and the Barbera that is found everywhere around the Villa. But of course, the hotel director also surprises his guests with a few less everyday, not to say rather audacious, choices.
PETER MÜLLER, HOTEL DIRECTOR & HOST
Along with the wines, he serves up fascinating facts, amusing anecdotes and, of course, a few delicious morsels from the hotel kitchen. The dozen or so hotel guests include some pros, a wine retailer and his wife, as I find out later. Occasionally, their knowledge flashes through in the odd, discreet comment. Another guest, of an older vintage, is enhancing his wine expertise in his own way. He photographs the labels.
Click-clack goes his iPhone, just like the shutter on a Minolta single-lens reflex camera from the early 1970s. I always think to myself that people could turn off the sound, but of course I don't say anything, because he must know that.
Click-clack! It echoes round the vaulted cellar. And one more to be sure: Click-clack! And then he's finished. Now we taste the wines, discuss them and philosophise about them. About how much we have enjoyed them and the value for money. About carafes
and decanting, oxidisation and assemblage.
The atmosphere is informal and relaxed. The time goes far too quickly. But that's not so bad, because out on the hotel terrace, another treat awaits us: dinner with a view of the Piedmontese vineyards. But which wine should we have with it? After our enlightening tasting session, that should no longer be a problem. I confidently open the wine list, like a connoisseur. The list of about 300 wines promptly brings me back down to earth. Despite the tasting, I am no cleverer than I was before. Peter asks me two questions, then says, try that one. Of course, it's spot on.
Now all I have to do is enjoy it. Drinking, eating and enjoying life. That's what it's all about in Piedmont, it's at the heart of everything. Including on the hotel terrace, where the conversation continues until late in the evening...
At the Sunstar Hotel Piedmont, you soon feel at home: an amazing location, beautiful rooms, obliging service and a range of activities that caters for everyone: culinary delights on the terrace by the pool, Wine & Dine events, wine-tastings, visits to local vineyards and wineries, excursions to the wine-growing villages of Barolo and Barbaresco.