Beneath an old palace in the heart of Piedmont rests one of Italy’s great secret wine treasures. The Wine Bank – La Banca del Vino – is located in a long basement cellar within the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Pollenzo: a glorious structure that only twenty years ago had become a slumped ruin. It took the energy and impetus of Carlo Petrini and Slow Food International to transform this neglected building and its grounds into the University of Gastronomic Sciences, now sharing the space with the hotel Albergo dell’Agenzia – and also incorporating The Wine Bank.
La Banca del Vino is Italy’s first interactive wine museum that covers all regions and all styles of local wine, bringing the encyclopedic regional detail of Italy’s complex wine story into clear focus. The only problem is that its administrators no longer want this great facility to remain a secret.
‘This is the cultural memory of Italian wine!’ says manager Francesca Rinaudi. While surveying the 100,000 bottles stored in the cellars, hailing from about 300 producers across the length and breadth of the country, a compelling snapshot of the Italian vinous landscape emerges. The regional differences are clear to see; the indigenous grape varieties of each region are proudly celebrated. No attempting to piece together the complex regional wine story within this diverse wine nation has happened in Italy before; however, the unique nature of this offering has also been The Wine Bank’s curse: people in Italy are not sure what to make of it.
“The majority of the 80,000 visitors who come here each year are foreigners,” explains Francesca. “There are many Germans, Russians, Americans – but not so many Italians, I’m afraid. They think that drinking wine is something to be done after 7pm, with the evening meal, and not during the day. They don’t quite understand that this is a place of education, to learn about all aspects of Italian wine.”
For anyone who is keen to learn, The Wine Bank offers unlimited possibilities, with scores of tutored tasting workshops available on wine, terroir and food matching, each led by prominent wine experts and wine producers, and at a very reasonable price of €30-€40 per person. Among its most popular workshops are tasting tours that link different Piedmont regions (Langa, Roero, Monferrato and Asti, accompanied with traditional salami); a focus on the Langhe’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines; a celebration of the Piedmont’s most celebrated wines (Barolo, Brunello and Amarone) and a comparative tasting of aged white wines (paired with goat’s cheese from Roccaverano).
Wines from Piedmont, Francesca admits, are rather over-represented in the cellars, due to local producers having the strongest understanding of and support for this Wine Bank concept. “Their support comes as appreciation of what Carlo Petrini, through Slow Food International, has done in promoting the virtues of Piedmont wine to the rest of the world,” she says. “His endorsement over many years has been especially important for the small winemakers, and it has shown the full picture of our region’s wines of excellence. By always talking about wine with food, he got more people looking more closely at all of the wines of this area.”
Petrini’s staunch advocacy of fine Italian wines not only drove up prices from serious international buyers, but also encouraged wineries to view themselves and their wares with greater seriousness. Previously, most producers saw all wines as mere commodities and sold every bottle from every vintage; they kept no museum stock and therefore never had comparative tastings of their aged wines. Petrini demonstrated that there was great value in holding onto some of their wines, to present them to critics and buyers to assess them in maturity, showing off when and how these wines perform at their absolute best.
This is the task that The Wine Bank aims to perform for wineries across Italy, and the presence and variety of wines from regions beyond Piedmont is steadily growing. “We have a quite democratic approach,” says Francesca. “Anyone who chooses to participate and meets the criteria will be included.” Still, it is mostly larger wine producers that submit wines, because they need to have sufficient quantities to meet The Wine Bank’s entry criteria – about 90 bottles of each wine per vintage – and embrace a spirit of generosity.
It marks a significant commitment for wineries to participate: a third of the bottles are offered for sale, a third are allocated for tastings and a third are kept as reference material in the library. “We guard our stocks very preciously. We actually don’t have enough to be a wine shop, so we suggest that people go back to the winery they like to obtain direct sales.” Still, tourists can buy individual bottles of the wines that they have tasted and been delighted by.
Participating wineries see the presence of their wines in The Wine Bank as a good promotional opportunity, and they obtain a listing in the best-selling Slow Food Guide, an international bible for food and wine connoisseurs. Still, this form of promotion doesn’t resonate with everyone.
“Not all winemakers understand what we are doing,” admits Francesca. “We approach many each year and only a few new ones come to us each time; it is a slow success rate. We find that they need to see it to understand it – there is nothing else like this in Italy, being completely even-handed and not purely provincial. I suppose that’s why the Piedmont is so proud of this and is represented in such strong numbers. These wine producers have been here and they appreciate what The Wine Bank is doing.”
The Wine Bank collection has been building for the past ten years, although it is only in the past five years that its doors have been open to tourism – and Francesca says they would like to double the current number of visitors; yet without resources for widespread marketing, recognition and excitement about what the facility has to offer has been slow.
However, upon entering The Wine Bank, its virtues are clear to comprehend. To start our tour, we are handed a glass of Fratelli Mossio Dolcetto d’Alba, one of the Piedmont region’s more pleasant lighter red wines, full of lifted sweet cherry and plum aromas, the flavours held tight and fresh by a firm seam of acid running down its long spine.
This wine, explains Francesca proudly, is evidence of increasing regional quality. In previous decades, dolcetto was often insipid and lacking in character – a nondescript workaday wine – but now, wineries such as Fratelli Mossio are putting greater care into viticulture, fruit selection and winemaking to ensure its dolcetto is of consistently high standards. Indeed, it stands as a fitting emblem of the Italian wine story that The Wine Bank strives to explain to its visitors and tasters.
As you walk through more than two thousand square metres of storage space in the cellars, the full story unfolds. Areas are divided into regions, with cards detailing the wine styles that are indigenous to each region, and the wares of producers are displayed atop boxed dozens. Then there are the treasures of big bottles – up to six-litre vessels of mostly Barolo and Barbaresco – stored behind a locked gate in a separate alcove.
Francesca says it is especially important that all facets of this story are told in one place. “Usually you have to travel to the individual regions and spend time with the winemakers to learn about their wines,” she says. “We have a chance here to do more – to pull focus on all the obscure indigenous grapes, which are so prevalent throughout Italy. Our ultimate goal is to promote culture, and tasting across a wide platform of wines from many places is a very important part of that.”
A hint of the old palace’s former grandeur and historical significance is still evident in The Wine Bank. Tucked away in a far corner of the cellar, just next to the section of wine from Umbria, is an excavation that reveals an ancient Roman ruin, signposted to inform the curious about its origins. Out in the gardens, many more ancient ruins stand proudly. It’s hardly surprising that restoration of this former Savoy residence has resulted in it now being recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Wine Bank also forms part of a bigger gastronomic picture that unfolds within the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele compound, and throughout the town of Bra. The note of regional gastronomic authenticity that has long been preached by Carlo Petrini and his Slow Food brethren is most clearly defined at Osteria del Boccondivino, a charming 16th century courtyard restaurant managed by Slow Food since 1984. Its menu promotes Slow Food Presidia projects, promoting small-scale production of superb-quality foods in dishes made according to traditional practices. These recipes range from the daunting Bra e carne cruda (raw meat sausage) or lumache con cipollotti e fagioli (snails with spring onions and beans) to the irresistible comforts of fresh pasta tajarin (the famed “40 egg yolks” ribbon pasta) with butter and sage sauce, or a truly extraordinary panna cotta, made without gelatin and held firm by exceptional, thick local cream.
Celebration of food is equally vaunted at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, where about 100 undergraduates and Masters students from around the world find the allure of campus life very seductive. A big part of this is the food service. Le Tavole Accademiche (The Academic Tables) is a new project aiming to combine education, haute cuisine, fair price, taste and local produce. The project invites Michelin star chefs, including Alice Waters, Ferran Adria, Antonio Santini and Niko Romito, to each create a weekly menu prepared by the kitchen staff for daily student lunches. Each dish costs no more than €5, although it is exclusive to university students. “This way, lunch becomes an educational experience for us all,” says university staff member Alice Fabi. “Between this and The Wine Bank, we’ve got the best learning experiences that anyone could dream of.”
La Banca del Vino – The Wine Bank – is located in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Pollenzo, near Bra in Piedmont. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday: 10.30am to 1pm, and 3.30pm to 7.30pm from Tuesday to Saturday. Bookings are recommended.
For more information, visit the website: Banca del Vino
The gateway to the treasure – reproduced by permission of La Banca del Vino
All other photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved