The town of Alba and the surrounding Langhe hills have come to signify two things: white truffles and red wine. The exquisite truffles are more delicate and aromatic than the black variety found further south, whereas most of the area’s very different wines all come from the same grape, the Nebbiolo. The final taste is dependent on the soil: tuff-rich soil produces the grapes for the light red Nebbiolo; calcium and mineral-rich soil for the more robust Barolo, the “King of wines and the wine of Kings”. In the hill-villages around Alba, there are a few wine museums and cantinas, the best being those at Barolo and Pollenzo. Ask at the tourist office for one of the excellent free maps and suggestions for wine tours. Buses from Alba don’t reach all the hill-villages, so your own transport is best.
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Whether or not you want to taste the extraordinary wines, ALBA is worth the visit for its alluring mix of red-brick medieval towers, Baroque and Renaissance palaces and cobbled streets. And if you come in early October, you might catch the town’s hilarious annual donkey race – a skit on nearby Asti’s prestigious Palio.
The town’s only sight as such is its late-Gothic Duomo, standing confectionery-pink on the central Piazza Risorgimento. But Alba is primarily a place to stroll and eat. Leading up to the centre from Piazza Savona, the main drag of Via Vittorio Emanuele is a fine, bustling street, with Alba’s local produce on display – wines, truffles, cheeses, weird and wonderful mushroom varieties, and the wickedly sticky nocciola, a nutty, chocolatey cake. Via Cavour is a pleasant medieval street, behind which the donkey race and displays of medieval pageantry attract the crowds during the October festival. There’s also an annual truffle festival later in the month, when you could blow your whole budget on a knobbly truffle or a meal in one of the many swanky restaurants. At the end of April/beginning of May, the Vinum wine festival gives you the chance to taste five hundred local wines.
The entire picturesque area is dotted with attractive hill-towns, castles and wineries. A few kilometres south of Alba, in the heart of Le Langhe, perhaps the most famous spot is BAROLO, which gives its name to one of the premier Italian wines. It’s a small village with peach- and ochre-washed houses set among extensive vineyards. A steady stream of wealthy gastronomes and wine connoisseurs come here for the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo (wbaroloworld.it) and the WiMu Wine Museum (wwimubarolo.it) housed in a turreted castle on Piazza Falletti 1.
Though not as famous as Barolo, the pretty village of POLLENZO, situated just south of the Alba–Bra road, merits a visit. The buildings at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele 13 are of particular note: once home to the Agenzia di Pollenzo, King Carlo Alberto’s headquarters for viticultural trials, they have been acquired by the Slow Food association and now contain the University of Gastronomic Sciences and the Banca del Vino (wbancadelvino.it), as well as a hotel and restaurant. Stored in the Savoy wine cellars, the Wine Bank is precisely what you’d imagine: it stores wines from all over Italy, a vault of the best vintages, as many producers do not keep reserves of their more age-worthy wine. Professional sommeliers guide you through the wine-tasting sessions, which are not solely focused on local produce. It’s an essential stopping-point for all wine lovers.