- Written by Gabriele Pieroni
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A city of beginnings, a city of endings; for the characters of Cesare Pavese, it was both the door to the world and the insurmountable gate out of their provincial lives. Canelli is the last stronghold of the Langhe (or the first of Monferrato) where the passage of time is still measured by the farmer’s work rather than by city calendars created with the scientific exactness of a watch.
I liked Canelli for itself, its valley and hills and the riverbanks that stood out from the waters. I liked it because everything ended there, because it was the last country that changed with the seasons and not with time. The industrialists of Canelli could make all the spumanti they wanted; building offices, cars, rail cars, warehouses was something I did, too – from here, the road for Genova left and led to who-knows-where. [...] Canelli is the whole world – Canelli and the Belbo valley – and time ceases in its hills.
Cesare Pavese, The Moon and the Bonfire
Whether arriving in or departing from Canelli, one may see the city as a reference point or as a simple throughway that casts you away elsewhere. The city is situated on the first widening plain that the course of the river Belbo carves along its solemn flow towards the Tanaro plains, and it’s the last important center before the Asti hills become the Langa, then the Apennine Mountains. It’s to here that ancient Ligurian sea routes arrived, and from here that Asti caravans departed for Vado and Savona. And, most importantly, in these hills the history of Asti Spumante began, a history that – taking such strong root in the territory to necessitate the excavation of underground cellars – won over the pockets of every nation, becoming the most consumed and appreciated Italian spumante in the world. Its contributors include the labels of Gancia, Martini&Rossi, Riccadonna, Cinzano, Bosca, Coppo, and Contratto.
Even the morphology of Canelli’s living environs has two elements. The “village” is settled on the plain, following the zigzag line of the Belbo valley, and then arches suddenly up on the hills where the villanova and Castle stand out prominently. The Castle was a medieval fortress that was dismantled by the Spaniards in the 1600s, finally restored by the Gancia family whose own history in incarnated in the bubbles of the spumante they produce. It was, in fact, Carlo Gancia who, after passing a period of time in the wineries of Champagne around 1850, believed that the native Moscato spumante could be created in Canelli to win over consumers for its sweetness and fine “perlage,” or bubbles. But the bottles tended to explode in the cellars like firecrackers, at least judging by the old photos that depict workers protected with leather aprons and screened masks. These were called the “champagnisiti” (not without a bit of irony), and they were the precursors of Asti Spumante. A few years later, Asti production was stabilized and enjoyed immediate commercial success; from the beginning, it was aimed towards foreign markets. Asti Spumante also founded the first Italian Consortium in 1932, and was imitated a few years later with the founding of many other consortiums all over the Italian peninsula.
Today the Spumante and the Moscato d’Asti are the supporting columns of Canelli’s economy, around which these wines have created a thriving industry specialized in oenologic machinery. It is so prosperous that the town’s inhabitants, the Canellesi, boast that they’ve provided every worthy winery in the world with one of their pieces of machinery.
But the small town so loved by Pavese for its appearance and industrial metropolis is also historically fascinating, with a heritage from the Baroque Era that has left indelible signs throughout the territory. Crossing over the lower hamlet of Canelli, a series of oratories, churches, and seventeenth century palazzi follows. Even the Parish Church of St. Tommaso in Piazza San Tommaso at its foothills was restructured in the seventeenth century. Beside the Oratory of Annunziata, the Stërnia road climbs up a steep, cobblestoned road that leads past small, rural houses and crotin excavated directly into the rock at Canelli’s high point that ends at the Castle, offering a great panorama. At the third sharp turn is the Oratory of St. Rocco in brick and stone (from the first half of the 18th century) and, in front of it, the Parish Church of St. Lorenzo, reconstructed around the end of the 17th century.
On this striking climb on the third Sunday of June, the most lively part of the Siege of Canelli is celebrated. The celebration is a battle reenactment that, in 1613, saw the city of spumante triumph over the Gonzaga troops of the Duchy of Monferrato who wanted to seize this town, under the Duchy of Savoy.
During the reenactment, Canelli and the Stërnia are transformed into a town from the 1600s that, in an opera with a cast of more than 1000, relives the siege; even tourists are involved in the battle. Particular attention should be given to the Canelli gastronomy, including traditional meals in osterie and taverns that are prepared in the historical city center with a spread of agnolotti filled pasta, boiled Piedmontese meats, meat roasted on a skewer, bean soup, and soft sheep cheese robiola. All the dishes are served with wines especially selected for the occasion.
Before departing Canelli, don’t miss the Underground Cathedrals and the MU.S.A., the Multimedia Museum of South Asti. The Underground Cathedrals are actually incredible cellars historically excavated in the volcanic rock that the city sits upon, with a perfect thermal equilibrium for aging great wines. The Multimedia Museum is an excellent example of the territory’s history told through farmers and the great care they have always taken of their wine, from the past centuries to the industrialization of Canelli. As the food and wine historian Gianni Brera writes, the Canellesi are always “proud to never completely be a city, and yet neither just an irreparable countryside.”