All about Ligurian wine and heroic viticulture
Salinity is the unmistakable and unique characteristic of Ligurian white wines, from the well-known Vermentino and Pigato to the rarer Sciacchetrà and Coronata.
Ligurian Wine, created between sea and mountain
In the year 218 BC, during the Second Punic War, Genoa, allied with Rome, suffered the unexpected and violent attack of Magone, the younger brother of the most famous Carthaginian leaders Hasdrubal and Hannibal. Magone destroyed, devastated and plundered the city which, according to him: “It did not deserve to be spared because it lacked a good vineyard“.
Since then, Ligurian viticulture has certainly improved and perhaps Magone today would have spared this region which boasts an ancient winemaking tradition, although its land is particularly difficult to cultivate.
With its 1,500 hectares of vineyards and a wine production of more than 46,000 hectolitres, Liguria ranks among the last places in Italy for importance of the wine sector, but the often extreme conditions from the point of view of the territory today give valuable results and absolutely unique wines.
The Ligurian territory, mostly crossed by a mountainous arc located a short distance from the sea, has always made it difficult for farmers to grow grapes. Just look at the terraced vineyards overlooking the sea in the Cinque Terre area, obtained by digging the mountainside and reinforcing it with dry stone walls, to understand why in Liguria wine is such a difficult affair that we often talk about heroic viticulture.
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Characteristics of Ligurian white wine
Due to its physical landscape, growing grapes in this region cannot therefore be of great extension and consequently also the wineries are mostly of medium-small size. However Ligurian wine is a high-quality wine with very particular characteristics of salinity, hardly present in wines produced elsewhere, deriving from the proximity to the sea.
In Liguria the most common grapevines are white: they are in fact 64% of the total grapevines. The production of this kind of Ligurian wine is concentrated in particular in the central and eastern area of Liguria. The two most cultivated native grapevines are Vermentino (23%) and Pigato (13%), followed by minor productions (but not for quality) deriving from grapevines such as Bianchetta Genovese, Albarola, Bosco (the last two are traditional grapevines from Cinque Terre).
In Liguria there are currently 8 DOC wines: Cinque Terre and Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà, Colli di Luni, Colline di Levanto, Golfo del Tigullio, Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Rossese di Dolceacqua or Dolceacqua Rossese, Val Polcevera – which includes the sub-denomination Val Polcevera Coronata – and Pornassio or Ormeasco di Pornassio.
The Cinque Terre wine
The terraced vineyards in the Cinque Terre are among the most evocative landscapes that can be observed in the world, with vineyards planted on steep slopes and on terraces that go down towards the sea.
Andrea Bacci, philosopher, doctor and writer who lived in the 1500s, speaking in his “De Naturalis Vinorum Historia” book of the suggestive vineyards of the Cinque Terre, wrote that the grapes of this land “are of greater value because, due to the roughness of the places, they are produced in small quantities and they are free from any excessive humidity”. Bacci focuses in particular on two wines produced in the Cinque Terre, the precious “Amabile” and the more common “Razzese”. They were both produced by stopping the fermentation after a few days; then, they were poured into small barrels inside ships that took the sea route. Thanks to movement and travel, they were better when they returned than when they left.
Today the Cinque Terre wines are produced with Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes, from which dry white wines and the special, as well as rare Ligurian wine, Sciacchetrà, one of the rarest Italian dessert wines, are obtained.
From a winemaking point of view, the most representative location in the Cinque Terre is certainly Riomaggiore with the three sub-areas: Costa de Campu, Costa da Posa and Costa de Sèra.
Dry white wines from the Cinque Terre are medium-bodied, characterised by a good freshness and an inimitable salinity given by the proximity to the sea.
However, the king of the Cinque Terre is Sciacchetrà, a rare and excellent sweet wine produced with dried grapes. In dialect Sciacchetrà (“Sciac” means “to crush” and “trà” means “to set aside”, “subject to long ageing”) is also called “refursà” (reinforced) as this Ligurian wine is produced with overripe grapes left to dry in airy rooms or more rarely now on racks hanging from the houses overlooking the sea, so as to favour the loss of water and the concentration of juice.
Schiacchetrà is a golden, sweet, velvety wine with great persistence and unique personality; this Ligurian wine must mature for at least one year before being marketed, three years for the reserve version. Sciacchetrà is one of the rarest Italian sweet wines (hard to find and very expensive!), it is excellent if paired with desserts, especially those made of almonds and dried fruit, or with spicy and aged cheeses.
In the dry white version, the Cinque Terre has got hints of fruit; this Ligurian wine is also “full” on the palate.
Both versions have got a great historical background: they had been appreciated by famous personalities, including Petrarca, Pascoli and Eugenio Montale who loved the Cinque Terre so much that in Monterosso, where he spent his summers, a literary park was dedicated to him.
The other Ligurian white wines
The most characteristic white grapes of Liguria are certainly Vermentino (a grapevine derived from a clone of Malvasia which is native to Spain, but it has been grown for at least four centuries in Liguria) and Pigato (a clone of Vermentino itself), often used alone. These wines ideally split the region in two areas with the Pigato as “king of the Ponente” (the Ligurian wine produced in Albenga, in the province of Imperia, is very famous) and the Vermentino as “prince of the Ligurian Levant”, although the latter is also widely found in the west.
Recently there have been commendable initiatives in the DOC areas of Val Polcevera and Tigullio for the revaluation of Bianchetta Genovese (which is the name by which Albarola grapevine is known in Genoa).
Another interesting area for Ligurian wine is that of Colli di Luni, largely influenced by nearby Tuscany: in this area, the most widespread white grape is Vermentino, used both alone and for the production of Colli di Luni white wine, at which Tuscan Trebbiano and other white grapes are added.
In the DOC Riviera Ligure di Ponente (extended in three provinces: Genoa, Savona and Imperia) Pigato stands out. This Ligurian wine is less savoury but more “full-bodied” and fragrant than Vermentino, which is however widely present in this DOC.
Moving on to the province of Genoa, there are two DOCs. The first one, Valpolcevera, is made up of 6 white wines, including the legendary Coronata that we will describe later. The second one, Golfo del Tigullio, includes an aromatic, sweet, effervescent but savoury Moscato, in addition to the aforementioned Vermentino and Bianchetta Genovese.
Finally, the province of La Spezia with three DOCs. The first one, Colline di Levanto (four municipalities), includes a Ligurian wine produced with the same white grapes as the Cinque Terre, but in different proportions. The second one is the Cinque Terre that we have already mentioned above.
The territory outside the DOC of the provinces of Savona, Genova and La Spezia has also got 3 IGTs: in Genoa “Colline del Genovesato”, in La Spezia “Golfo dei Poeti”, in Savona “Colline Savonesi” with a peculiarity: the Lumassina, a dry, light and inviting Ligurian wine.
The Ligurian wine to try: the Coronata
On the hills around Cornigliano, which has become famous in recent times for the view on the tragically collapsed Ponte Morandi, stands Coronata hill. Its name derives from the latin word “columnata”, i.e. from the columns that were planted on boundaries to support the vineyards. These vineyards give rise to a white wine that has been produced for centuries in Val Polcevera in the municipalities of Morego, Sestri Ponente, Fegino, Borzoli and, in fact, Coronata.
Today, after being almost impossible to find for many years, except in the wine cellars of some farmers who produced it for family needs, it is experiencing a sort of revival thanks to the initiative of some small local wineries (those in Cognata and Bruzzone, above all).
Val Polcevera Coronata is a Ligurian wine made with Bianchetta Genovese, Vermentino and Albarola grapevines, alone or jointly for at least 60%; in addition, Pigato, Rollo and Bosco grapes can be used for a maximum of 40%.
Coronata has got a bright colour and an intense and fine nose, with hints of slightly macerated white fruit. When you taste this Ligurian wine, the intense typical Ligurian salinity immediately strikes, as well as a final bitter note.
The most typical characteristic of Coronata is its hint of sulphur: some say it was generated by the abundant doses of verdigris used in the vineyards, while others want the sulphur to come from the fumes of the nearby steel mills. “U vin giancu de Cônâ” pairs well with local seafood, with the “ciupin” (Ligurian fish soup), with stuffed lettuce, as well as with salami from S. Olcese and broad beans.
These pairings are valid for all Ligurian white wines because the “vin giancu” (white wine) pairs well with fish, pesto genovese and the delicious focaccia genovese. This Ligurian wine pairs well with local food, as recalled by the beloved Fabrizio De Andrè in his “Creuza de Ma” song:
A ‘ste panse veue cose ghe daià
And what will he give to these empty bellies
Cose da beive, cose da mangiä
Things to drink, things to eat
Frittûa de pigneu giancu de Purtufin
fried fish, white wine from Portofino
Çervelle de bae ‘nt’u meximu vin
Lamb’s brains in the same wine
Lasagne da fiddià ai quattru tucchi
Lasagne del pastaio with four sauces
Paciûgu in aegruduse de lévre de cuppi
Sweet and sour hare pie of the tiles
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