MONFERRATO AND EXPO
Millions of visitors will visit the EXPO event in Milano. Many politicians have been speaking of the opportunities EXPO will bring to Italy and it´s suffering economy. Italy needs impulses so any economic boost will be wellcome. Apart from economic impulses, also some positivity may be needed. Italy has a lot to offer but needs also more positive thinking. Visitors of EXPO can enjoy many pavillions where incredible creativity and impressive sums of money have been spend. It´s a 2-mile long adventure park with some extravagant, futuristic constructions next to modest but intelligent set-ups like the Dutch pavillion. Is that all there is to say? No, there is more. Expectations have gone further as there were expectations that more tourists will spend time in Italy which might be a much needed impulse for Italy´s tourism sector. Italy offers the world´s most dense concentration of culture, history, art, gastronomy, wine, architecture, monuments, so the relation is obvious. Probably most visitors will make up their mind before and visit destinations they know from beforehand. So where will they go? Alas, many of them will not visit Monferrato and that is a pity.
Foto: Lerma in Alto Monferrato
What is MONFERRATO? It is one of Italy´s most interesting and beautiful regions, situated at only 1 hour drive from the pavillions of EXPO.
Monferrato is situated in the heart of Piemonte. It´s name has probably to do with the fertile hills ´mons ferax´: the German emperor granted it in the 10th century to his vassal, Aleramo, who became the first ruler of Monferrato (961 AD, the story is a legend, however). It boasts some of Italy´s most beautiful landscapes, history, culture, interesting towns, wonderful and original wines, authentic gastronomy and space.
Monferrato landscapes have been awarded UNESCO world heritage in 2014. It’s landscapes are of great beauty. Visitors will be surprised to see so much space, often untouched territory with many open fields, forests, vineyards, little towns situated on hilltops, and so well-maintained. After the Second World War Monferrato lost part of its inhabitants and population is stil lower than before 1940. As a result in many villages more than 50% of houses are always closed which give those villages a sleeping image. The many castles offer a great attraction, most of them are from Middle Age. Parts of Monferrato can be very melancholic, offering romantic views, especially in winter time. Take for example the road from Lu Monferrato to Vignale Monferrato, or the road from Viarigi along Grana and Calliano to Moncalvo. Or the winding road from Nizza Monferrato to Acqui Terme. Such roads are offering mind-blowing panoramas and it is a question of time when international public will start to discover this timeless landscape.
Foto: infernot, old historical cellars, are part of the protected UNESCO heritage of Monferrato. Unfortunately many are under private homes. But when you´re allowed to visit one, you can notice how people used to gather snow and ice in winter to bring it to the cellar where then meat and other produce was stored to be kept until the warm summer days.
Monferrato is huge: it forms the biggest part of the South central hills of Piemonte. It can be divided in three parts: Basso Monferrato (often the word ´basso´ is left away), the northern part between the river Tanaro and the Po river; Astigiano is the part of Monferrato around Asti, more or less equal to Asti province; Alto Monferrato is the part south of Nizza Monferrato along the towns of Acqui Terme and Ovada, where the hills end up in the Appenines which form the border between Piemonte and the sea.
Foto: vineyards in Alto Monferrato with the Alps in the background
Monferrato is one of Italy´s biggest wine production areas and the real heart of Piemonte´s wine scene. Few wine regions boasts such a huge variety of grapes, wines, wine styles, DOCs and DOCGs. Barbera and Moscato are most produced. But there is a wealth of indigenous grapes which few international winelovers will have tasted: Grignolino, Ruché, Malvasia di Casorzo, Malvasia di Castelnuovo don Bosco, Freisa, Albarossa, Cortese, Brachetto. Also Dolcetto can be found, mostly in the higher hills to the south, especially around Ovada.
The part north of Asti is highly interesting: here you will find much Barbera which can be outstanding. But you may also discover a rather unknown wine: Grignolino, which used to be overly tannic and acidic but now producers have paid more attention to fermentation and aging producing a style that can please a bigger public. Actually producers are also working on an aged version. Local sweet red Malvasia di Casorzo (or Casorzo DOC) can be overwhelming. Also Freisa thrives here and some ones can be found near Casale or near Castelnuovo don Bosco. Another interesting grape is Ruché which produces a very elegant, smooth and light aromatic wine with hints of herbs and light red fruit.
South of Asti the most produced wines are Moscato d´Asti DOCG and Asti DOCG, which together reach a production of ca 100 million bottles a year. But also here we can find new interesting developments, like the Nizza DOCG, a Barbera Superiore, which has been aged and is in fact a reserve version. Some Nizza DOCG wines belong to the elite of Piemonte´s red wines. The Asti area is also much dominated by Barbera (as Barbera d´Asti DOCG) and many are reliable and present an excellent price/quality ratio. Recently producers started to return to some forgotten varieties of former times, like Uvalino (still vino da tavola), or Gamba di Pernice (now Calosso DOC).
Further south and southeast it is Alto Monferrato which ends up near the mountains. A wonderful territory with interesting towns like Acqui Terme, Ovada, but also many little forgotten villages and castles in between, in some castles there should be even phantoms as locals believe. Also in this part we find much Moscato and Barbera. Near Acqui Terme we find another local wine: Brachetto d´Acqui DOCG, a wonderful, fragrant, light sweet wine, traditionally drunk at Christmas. Another upcoming wine is Albarossa, also planted elsewhere in Piemonte, a crossing of Chatus and Barbera and considered Piemonte´s next interesting red wine, well-made and with some elegance, some depth, some tannins. Near Ovada it is Dolcetto territory produced as Ovada DOCG, in fact a Dolcetto superiore, because the wine needs more aging. Some producers surprise with outstanding, complex, tannine-rich wines, which are still quite drinkable with an intense fruit expression and aging potential. Also some interesting sparkling wines are made here, mostly from Cortese grapes.
Monferrato is truffle territory: a high percentage of Piemonte´s truffles are found in Monferrato. The typical dry calcareous soils in combination with the fog and somewhat humid autumn climate contribute to the growth of this unique fungus. In autumn there are charming little truffle fairs like the ones in Moncalvo, Murisengo and San Sebastiano Curone. And from November on prices are lower but quality is at its best!
Who drives on a working day in the hills of Monferrato may have difficulties finding a restaurant. Tourism has still to be developed, and as a result many restaurants are not always open, but fortunately now with the I-phones and Androids this problem can easily be solved.
Monferrato´s gastronomy is one of Italy´s most rich and original kitchens, dominated by the local produce, meat and vegetables, herbs and rice from the rice fields near Novara.
Some good restaurants (the list is not complete!!): La Commedia della Pentola (Lu Monferrato), Cascina Martini (Murisengo), La Torre (Casale Monferrato), Hotel Paleologhi (Lu Monferrato), Ametista (Moncalvo), La Braja (Montemagno), Due Lanterne (Nizza Monferrato), Da Bardon (San Marzano Oliveto), Locanda del Boscogrande (Montegrosso d´Asti), I Caffi (Acqui Terme), Nuovo Parisio (Acqui Terme), La Loggia (Acqui Terme), Cacciatori (Cartosio).
Foto: The Abbey of Vezzolano, one of Monferrato´s cultural highlights, was built during early Middle Age, and was part of the pilgrims route, the via Francigena.
HISTORY & CULTURE
The marquisate of Monferrato was first ruled by the Alerami family, then Gonzaga di Mantova and finally it became part of Savoie terrritory, which later changed name into Piemonte.
There are also some interesting cultural festivals: Bacco & Bach, Grignolino a Grignolino, Riso e Rose in Monferrato. There are interesting towns like Acqui Terme, Ovada, Casale Monferrato, Nizza Monferrato, but also many little forgotten villages and castles in between. Too much to quote in this page – follow this blog.
Enjoying this sweet and romantic territory, the good wines, the authentic local dishes, the great truffles in autumn, you will forget time and get lost in the middle of these hills. But getting lost in these hills is recommendable, it is a great experience. It will allow you to discover places where time stands still, where old traditions are not yet forgotten and where every foreign visitor is wellcomed.
Foto: the palio in Asti represents old traditions going back to Middle Ages or before.
Foto: Orsara Bormida, one of the many charming hilltop villages, this one in Alto Monferrato near Acqui Terme.
Foto: the bollente, the monument dedicated to the natural source of warm mineral water below the town of Acqui Terme, already famous in Roman times.
Foto: Synagogue of Casale Monferrato, detail. It is one of Italy´s and Europe´s best kept synagogues.
Foto: chiesa di San Nazzario, a late romanesque church, situated in the countryside north of Asti. A interesting monument, but not frequently visited.
More information on EXPO and Monferrato: follow this blog.
More information on Piemonte: read ´Piemonte Wine and Travel Atlas´ by Paul Balke
See also: http://www.monferratoexpo2015.com/en/