When Maurilio Garola and Nadia Benech opened their restaurant above the Barbaresco vineyards 15 years ago, they had twin goals: create an oasis for wine lovers and, says Garola, "make a cuisine at the same level of the great wines of the region."
Chef Garola and wine director Benech—both Piedmont natives self-taught in their trades—quickly gained a Michelin star and have built one of Italy's top wine lists. Over the past decade, the wine program at La Ciau del Tornavento has grown more than fourfold, to about 2,800 selections and 38,000 bottles.
La Ciau boasts encyclopedic coverage of Piedmont, a treasure chest for wine-loving visitors to the region. Highlights include more than 150 selections from Angelo Gaja back to a 1974 Barbaresco ($1,035). There are 250 other Barbarescos to choose from as well, along with more than 600 Barolo bottlings, including a 26-bottle vertical of Conterno Fantino Barolo Sorì Ginestra back to 1996 ($199/750ml; $425/magnum). Tuscany and other Italian regions are well-represented, including 27 selections of Ornellaia back to 1990 ($664) and 25 bottlings of Sassicaia back to 1994 ($332). There is impressive depth in the classic wines of France, along with a smattering from elsewhere in Europe and the world.
Housed in a repurposed 1930s-era elementary school perched on a sleepy hilltop, La Ciau features a large, airy dining room and expansive vineyard views. A staircase leads guests to the cellars, where wine is packed floor-to-ceiling in bins and in racks that dramatically display bottles overhead.
At the heart of the cellar is a massive vault protected by a foot-thick steel door. Here the jewels include a 5-liter jeroboam of Gaja Langhe Sperss 2007($2,655) along with French selections such as 23 vintages of Château d'Yquem back to 1967 ($4,247) and a decade's worth of grands crus from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
"We don't put money in the bank, we put it in wine," says Benech, explaining that all the wines are paid for with restaurant profits. "We don't have vices or other hobbies; this is our lives, our investment."
Benech oversees the wine program and works evenings with two sommeliers; the restaurant is a destination for both visiting wine lovers and the local wine trade, so sales are brisk. Sometimes, ageworthy wines are cycled off the list to preserve them for their apogee. "Italians like to drink young wines, but foreigners like to drink old wines," Garola says. "We have to dose them out."
When a wine's stock is nearly depleted, it is removed from the list, and the remaining bottles are saved for a special occasion such as a wine dinner or a celebratory meal with friends, he adds.
Garola is an inventive practitioner of Piedmont's complex and hearty cuisine—combining handmade pastas and butter with the local bounty of Fassone beef, rabbit, lamb, game, hazelnuts, wild herbs and mushrooms. The dining scene reaches its zenith in fall-not only a good time to uncork Piedmont's expressive reds, but the season for prized white Alba truffles. Garola adds his personal touches year-round in dishes such as plin di seirass, ricotta-stuffed agnolotti pasta cooked with hay sprigs and served in a nest.
A spring menu began with shrimp fried with hazelnut crumbs, with which the sommelier served a glass of Angelo Negro Perdaudin Roero Arneis 2011 ($7). He then recommended, and ceremoniously decanted, a bottle of the elegant Ca' del Baio Barbaresco Pora 2004 ($106) to match the main course of roasted kid accompanied by breaded and fried chops.
Dessert brings Garola's signature hazelnut-chocolate tart topped with pipe tobacco ice cream. To complement that throat-pricking confection, Benech recommends either of two sweet wines (for different budgets): the aromatic pale red Passito di Brachetto Pian dei Sogni 2008 by Forteto della Luja ($52/375ml), or the rich, caramel-like Avignonesi Vin Santo di Montepulciano Occhio di Pernice 1995 ($552/375ml).
Though pairing wines with Garola's more unusual creations isn't easy, Benech thrills at rising to the challenge. La Ciau, she says, "is about the passion the two of us have for wine. We try to transmit that passion every day to our staff and clients."
France-based Robert Camuto is a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator.
Piazza Baracco 7, Treiso, Italy
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