In today’s post we’ll take a closer look at the hilly coastal region of Liguria in northwestern Italy which boasts some of the country’s finest food like the world famous pesto genovese, Liguria’s tasty basil pesto. The region is also home to stunning white and sweet wines which are often overlooked. Wine from the Gulf of Poets is at the center of today’s article.
In the first of two posts, I give you an overview of the region and its most important appellations. My tasting notes follow in a separate post.
For centuries, the beautiful and breathtaking landscape of the Gulf of La Spezia has attracted poets and artists from all over the world, including David Herbert Lawrence, Lord Byron, Gabriele D’Annunzio and George Sand. They all enjoyed the food, wine, landscape and hospitality of the locals. Many of them created some of their most important works in the region. This is why the Gulf of La Spezia has been given the nickname Gulf of Poets.
Wine-making is a deep-seated tradition of the Liguri, the inhabitants of the region. However, it is very labor-intense because the grapes are planted on terraces on the steep cliffed coast. These terraces protect the vines from cold winter winds which come from the Alps in Piedmont. From Genoa to La Spezia, vineyards are clinging onto the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. The first records of winemaking in Liguria date back to the Etruscans and Greeks – approximately 2.500 years ago.
Most of the vines are grown by family-owned, artisanal grape growers who sell their produce to one of the social cooperatives that then vilifies the grapes into wine. As of late, the number of wine growers who produce their own wine has increased significantly as a result of the boom in the entire region which started about ten to fifteen years ago, making Liguria one of the country’s most visited regions. Tourists from all over the world flock to the picturesque Cinque Terre and the surrounding towns like Portofino and Levanto.
Naturally, the demand for local products has skyrocketed and the same is true for Ligurian wine, especially for those from the Cinque Terre itself which has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 together with Portofino. Despite this boom, Liguria remains one of the regions with the lowest output of wine in Italy. All of the vineyards along the cliff coast are harvest by hand which results in high production costs.
The region is home to more than a hundred grape varieties but almost all the white wines are produced from Vermentino, Bosco and Albarola grapes. Vermentino can be vinified as a varietal. Bosco and Albarola on the other hand are usually found in blends together with Vermentino and only occasionally as varietals.
The Star: Cinque Terre DOC
The five villages of the Cinque Terre – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – were given their own eponymous DOC appellation, the most well-known appellation in Liguria. Dry white wines from the earlier mentioned grapes as well as a sweet passito wine called Sciacchetrà are vinified in this small viticulture area. One of the characteristics of the Vermentino-based wines in this area is a notable herbal touch.
The most successful winery in all of the Cinque Terre is the Cooperativa Agricoltura di Riomaggiore. Since its foundation in 1982, the Cooperativa Agricoltura has made large investments to increase the overall quality of its wines. Almost all the grape growers in the Cinque Terre sell their produce to the Cooperativa Agricoltura, granted there are not that many. The winery offers vineyard and cellar tours. A must for all wine lovers who visit the region.
One of my personal favorites of the Cooperativa Agricoltura’s wines is the Sciacchetrà Reserve, a mind-blowing passito made from air-dried grapes.
Video from the Cooperativa Agricoltura di Riomaggiore showing the vineyards of the Cinque Terre
The Little Brother: Colline di Levanto DOC
A few kilometres up the coast are the Colline di Levanto DOC which are the natural continuation of the Cinque Terre. The climate and the vineyard soil is identical to those of the Cinque Terre and its white wines are also vinified from the same set of grapes. Therefore, the wines have strong similarities but the Colline di Levanto tend to have a better QPR because the region is lesser known.
The grapes are sourced from vineyards in the tiny and small communes of Bonassola, Deiva Marina, Framura, and Levanto along a rugged, 11 kilometres-long stretch of coastline.
The key difference between the two viticulture areas is that the Colline di Levanto also allow the production of red wines but their number is low. Approximatly 75% the wine production in the region is white.
Just like in the Cinque Terre, a social cooperative is the largest winery in the area. The Cooperativa Vallata di Levanto collects most of the grapes from small producers who grow their grapes on terraces on rocky slopes. Vallata di Levanto produces affordable, everyday wines.
The young winery Verment ing, a portmanteau of the words Vermentino and the abbreviation ing for ingeniere (engineer), is located in Bonassola. It is notable because it is one of the few farms which does not sell its grapes to Vallata di Levanto but instead chooses to make its own wine.
Vermenting produces two single-vineyard wines at different altitudes: Terre del Salice is from a vineyard in Montaretto at 150 meters above sea level while Terre di Reggimonti is sourced from vines grown at 400 meters above sea level. Both are excellent wines and retail for less than €10/bottle in Liguria.
The Hills of the Moon: Colli di Luni DOC
The Colli di Luni are found in the southern tip of Liguria and the bordering region of Tuscany. The appellation is interesting because its wines combine characteristics of Tuscany and Liguria. Next to the widely used Vermentino, the appellation is also known for its Trebbiano varietals. The Tuscan influence on the Colli di Luni is not limited to Trebbiano, Sangiovese, the star behind Brunello di Montalcino, is the preferred red varietal of the appellation.
The viticulture area of the Colli di Luni is many times over the combined viticulture area of the Colline di Levanto and Cinque Terre.
Unlike in the Colline di Levanto and Cinque Terre, the number of family-owned wineries is much larger and social cooperatives are of a lesser importance for viticiulre in the area. One of the many family-owned wineries in the region is Arrigoni, a winery which also owns some vineyards in the Cinque Terre DOC area.
Azienda Agricola Giacomelli cultivates a few vineyards and makes some of the best Vermentino in the Colli di Luni. I especially recommend the Le Pinnace Vermentino.
Fun fact: The appellation’s name literally means hills the moon.
In total, Liguria has eight DOC appellations. Next to most important ones which I covered in this post, there are also Golfo del Tigullio, Pornassio, Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Rossese di Dolceacqua, and Val Polcevera. Even though Rossese di Dolceacqua was Liguria’s very first DOC, created in 1972, it remains widely unknown abroad. For those in the Wine Century Club, Rossese di Dolceacqua might be worth seeking out because it is produced from the eponymous grape Rossese.
This concludes my first post on Ligurian wine. In a second post I’ll share my tasting notes of the wines I tasted for this article with with you. Cheers!