You've never walked through a vineyard like this one before: the Art Park La Court in Piedmont.
In the vineyards in the hills of Monferrato, Piedmont, don’t be alarmed if, when wandering, you come across a totem pole topped with a fierce-looking head. You’ve discovered the Art Park La Court of Michele Chiarlo winery. And though this fearsome totem guards the vines, anyone can book a visit to explore this Art Park in Piedmont.
It’s all in the vineyards
If you ask a winemaker about his or her winemaking process, you will hear about vinification, maceration, fermentation, aging… and, inevitably, the vineyards. Time and again, you will hear that the quality of a good wine starts here; bad grapes do not make a good wine. Many winemakers will even contend that wine is a way of simply conserving what nature has already given them. The vineyards, then, are of utmost importance for what goes into the bottle and glass months or years down the road.
Michele Chiarlo, a Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Gavi producer, has emphasized this central role that the vineyards play by creating a fascinating route through one of the winery’s and wine zone’s most important vineyards: La Court, whose fanciful works take you on a journey through elements and time.
Nizza DOCG: Barbera d’Asti in a league of its own
The winery of Michele Chiarlo, founded in 1898 by Pietro Chiarlo, is today run by Michele Chiarlo and his sons Alberto and Stefano. The winery is in the Monferrato territory of Piedmont in northern Italy in a tiny town called Calamandrana —which, as small as it is, nonetheless boasts its own 12th century castle and beautiful vineyard views all around. This is the land of the so-called “Lady in red,” or Barbera; more specifically, within the highly-regarded wine denomination Nizza DOCG.
Today, anyone who’s even a tad bit oenologically-inclined will recognize the name of the grape and wine, Barbera. But this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1980s, Barbera was known in Italy (rarely beyond) as a grape for mass-produced, lower quality wine. When a small handful of producers began recognizing Barbera’s potential in the first half of the 1980s, Michele Chiarlo was one of those who believed firmly in Barbera’s quality, and focused his production on Barbera d’Asti.
Fast-forward to the 2000s, and Barbera d’Asti has reached such levels of appreciation from critics and consumers alike that it has earned itself another denomination: what was once a subzone called Barbera d’Asti Superiore di Nizza DOCG is now, beginning with the 2014 vintage, the much simpler and easy-to-pronounce Nizza DOCG.
Today, Michele Chiarlo makes not just Barbera d’Asti and Nizza DOCG, but his production extends to the most classic Piedmontese wines made from Nebbiolo, Barbera, Cortese, and Moscato. The pride of his labels remains Nizza DOCG La Court and Barolo Cerequio DOCG. His Nizza has great body and elegance with notes of coffee, tobacco, and black fruits, and can age up to seven years, while his Barolo is made from one of the Langhe’s most important crus. It’s a Barolo known for elegance, with notes of aged balsamic vinegar and mint, smooth tannins, and ripe fruit, and can age over 20 years. His activities have extended to beyond pure winemaking, too. Now, the winery forms part of a larger estate that includes the luxurious Palas Cerequio. If you’ve always wanted to sleep among the vineyards, this is the only relais situated right in the midst of an important Barolo cru. Palas offers a unique wine experience for true wine lovers: vertical and horizontal tastings of the most important wine producers from the major crus of Barolo.
But, as noted in the beginning, it all comes back to the vineyards —the raison d’être, and at the base of an important part of Piedmont’s identity, culture, and economy. And the Art Park La Court of Michele Chiarlo both recognizes this and captures the producer’s style and ability to stay one step ahead of the trends.
A fantastical walk through the vineyards
Of the four Barbera d’Asti wines made by Chiarlo, the most important one is La Court. If you come to the Art Park then you’ll be walking through the Barbera vines of the La Court vineyard, the very grapes that go into this wine (as well as the Cipressi vineyard, which makes Nizza DOCG Cipressi).
Visiting the Art Park La Court:
Visitors can come to the Art Park for free, no reservations necessary, walking or biking. Download the free La Court Audioguide app for a guided explanation through the park in Italian or English. Reservations for a guided visit are available, too, with the option of adding on a wine tasting at the end.
The Art Park, located in Castelnuovo Calcea among 20 hectares (49 acres) of barbera vineyards, consists of several trails that take visitors past original sculptures. The park is a way to honor the vineyards as well as the men and women who have been a part of Piedmont’s and especially Barbera’s history. The words le orme su La Court can be found on the free app, meaning “footprints through La Court.” It signifies a walk in the footsteps of these people; a portrait collection by Giancarlo Ferraris may be visited at the farmhouse Cascina Castello adjacent to the vineyard.
Walking through the vineyards La Court and Cipressi, you’ll come upon the colorful works of art by Ugo Nespolo, such as the gate in exuberant pop art style. The sculptures found within follow the theme of the natural elements and Mother Nature, with creations by Emanuele Luzzati representing water, fire, and air; or the fairytale-like figures of a king, queen, minstrel, dragon, and more. Chris Bangle of the Big Benches throughout Piedmont also makes an appearance. His benches recreate the awe-inspiring sensation of the landscape, which, when viewed from horizon to horizon, can make even the biggest of us feel small compared to the natural beauty, evoking a sense of child-like wonder.
And then, of course, those totem heads sit solemnly at the end of each vineyard row alongside trail indications. Created by sculptors Balthasar Brennenstuhl, Rolando Carbone, and Dedo Fossati, the primal gazes of these totems recall old pagan gods, or primeval guardians of the vines. In the past, such totem poles were routinely erected in vineyards throughout Piedmont as a protection against disease and malign spirits. But don’t worry —as long as you’re a wine lover, you’ve nothing to fear.