The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Memories of Liguria

A lesson in terroir

When I hear “Liguria,” I have a few images pop to mind: Pesto Genovese, Pigato, Cinque Terre and just-off-the-boat seafood. But what really comes to mind is the inextricable nature of all these images. With its beautiful landscapes, interesting wines and super-fresh cuisine, Liguria, a crescent-shaped coastal region in the northwest of Italy, demonstrates the epitome of the word “terroir.”

During my one-year stay in Italy, I learned about the wines of Liguria.  I’d heard that Cinque Terre was a scenic place on the coast of Liguria, and I made it a point to go see the land, drink the wine, eat the food and talk with the people.  Cinque Terre means “Five Lands,” and indeed there are five villages that make up the region: Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso al Mare, Manarola and Riomaggiore.  Cinque Terre, the epicenter of Liguria, is best known by its coastal mountainous trail that can be several hundreds of meters high, and when walking, you’ve nothing but some wires to prevent you from falling to the rocky ocean bottom. This is why you must leave the wine drinking until after the hike.

Many vineyards in Liguria are literally chiseled out of the coastal mountains and rest precariously on terraces.  Heat radiates off the rocks and adds extra ripeness to the grapes, something that would not normally be achievable in these higher climes. Not only are these vineyards on steep slopes that allow for good drainage, but they also benefit from cool sea breezes that provide air circulation, which keeps the grapes dry and prevents molds and other forms of rot from developing. The refreshing, cool nights near the coast help the grapes retain their natural acidity, and the proximity to the sea can impart a savory quality to the wines. The region’s dominant white grape varieties, Pigato and Vermentino, thrive in these conditions, and while they’re often considered the same variety, they do portray different flavor profiles.

July is a pretty hot time of year in Italy, and it was exceptionally hot when we decided to go to Liguria. The sun’s rays reflect off the rocks and radiate outward. The heat is good for the grapes, but it’s not that good for me.  All I could think about was getting to the next town to sample some of the local food and wine.  Thankfully, some clouds came rolling through and showered us with rejuvenating rain. This, however, made the rocky walking surface slippery and slightly more fun.  I made it safely from the southernmost town, Riomaggiore, past the second town of Manarola and then into Corniglia.  This is not as simple as it sounds as there were close to 400 hundred zigzagging steps needed to get into Corneglia. Still, I made it safely.

After the climb, it was definitely time for food and wine. I found a restaurant with a good view and a nice wine list.  I ordered some crudo that consisted of raw local fishes.  I don’t remember the types of fish, but they were awesome with the house white. The light, refreshing and crisp character of the wine was a perfect complement to the delicate flavors of the crudo. Next I had Pesto Genovese; Genova is the Capital of Liguria and this basil infused dish is everywhere.  I paired this dish with a Pigato from one of the local producers.  The wine’s savory, fresh character and aromatic profile played up both the freshness and the aromas of the pesto. This Pigato also paired well with the main course, an assortment of seafood that included mussels, clams, calamari and prawns lightly poached in a simple garlic and parsley broth.

After a white-wine-and-seafood fest I needed something sweet. Fortunately, Liguria makes a dessert wine that is unheard of—unless you’ve been to Liguria and have tasted it. This beloved artisanal wine is called Sciacchetrà, and it’s both rare and expensive. This sweet wine from Cinque Terre is composed of several indigenous white varieties that include Bosco, Vermentino and Albaroa. The grapes are hand-harvested and left to dry in cool ventilated area until the proper dehydration level is reached. Then, the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed. The must is fermented until the wine contains about 14 percent alcohol, leaving residual sugar and a refreshing vein of acidity. Not cloying sweet like many dessert wines, this wine retains its acidic backbone due to the region’s bracing terroir.

After walking three towns and eating a big dinner, I decided that the best route out of Cinque Terre and back to Florence was by train.  I didn’t have the energy to hike another two towns, but my mission was accomplished, and I was more than satisfied. Visiting the region, I learned that the wines, the food, and the land of Liguria are not to be missed. The heat, the light, the ocean breezes all converge to create Liguria, and my memory of the place remains tied to the region’s exceptional wines.