When you think of the Cinque Terre in Italy, you likely picture its picturesque candy-colored villages perched on cliffs overlooking the azure sea. But there’s more to this enchanting region than meets the eye – it’s a storied wine region with some of the world’s steepest vineyards, where grapevines defy gravity by climbing mountains that reach heights of up to 1,300 feet.
Local sommelier Yvonne Riccobaldi, hailing from the village of Manarola, one of the five that gives Cinque Terre its name, sums it up perfectly: “Wine came first, and the villages came next, so the history of the Cinque Terre is the history of wine.” Nestled between the seafaring cities of Genoa and La Spezia, the Cinque Terre National Park stretches across nearly ten miles of rugged coastline, and its unique wine culture is intertwined with its breathtaking landscapes.
Sipping History: Wines of Cinque Terre
While exploring Cinque Terre, you’ll encounter around 30 small producers crafting white wines from Bosco, Albarolo, and Vermentino grapes. These wines are meant to be enjoyed in their youth, capturing the essence of this coastal paradise. But the crown jewel of the region’s wine offerings is the rare and exquisite sciacchetrà (pronounced shaak-eh-tra). This complex, aged dessert wine evokes flavors of apricots, almonds, and candied orange peel, harking back to ancient times when the Greeks colonized the Mediterranean.
During the Renaissance, Pope Paul III himself indulged in sciacchetrà at his grand banquets in Rome. The grape varietal Ruzzese, once lost to history, has been resurrected by local vintners, adding a unique twist to the region’s heritage. And the good news is that almost all the Cinque Terre restaurants now proudly support local vineyards, offering an array of wine-paired dishes, from seafood lasagna to spaghetti with local anchovies.
Exploring the Vineyards
To truly immerse yourself in the magic of Cinque Terre’s wine culture, consider embarking on a vineyard tour or visiting wine tasting rooms like the one at A Pié di Campu in Manarola, run by the knowledgeable Yvonne Riccobaldi herself. These intimate experiences not only offer a taste of local wines but also provide insights into the region’s rich history and traditions.
For instance, Cian du Giorgi, a restored vineyard in the medieval village of San Bernardino, is a hidden gem where a French-Italian couple crafts wines aged mainly in Ligurian amphorae. And if you’re up for a hike, some vineyards, like Azienda Lìtan, require a trek up from the port, allowing you to appreciate the laborious process of winemaking in a region where rugged terrain makes machine harvesting impossible.
Challenges and Hope
Yet, behind the beauty of Cinque Terre’s terraced vineyards lies a struggle. Giancarlo Gariglio of nonprofit Slow Wine Italia notes that it takes about 2,000 hours a year to cultivate one hectare of grapes in Cinque Terre, a stark contrast to Napa Valley’s 250 hours. The region’s terraces have been abandoned over the past century due to depopulation, with many locals seeking better-paying jobs in tourism or shipyards.
The dwindling population not only threatens the vineyards but also endangers the ancient dry sandstone walls, or muretti, that support farming terraces. Without restoration, the land could once again slip into the sea, as it did a decade ago due to torrential rains. The influx of day-trippers, mainly from large cruise ships, also poses a risk to the preservation of the region’s traditional culture.
A Sustainable Path Forward
Thankfully, there’s a glimmer of hope. Efforts are underway to redirect tourist revenue from national park entrance fees back into the land through wine tourism. Italy’s Minister of Tourism, Massimo Garavaglia, recognizes that selling a bottle of wine means selling the territory’s culture and history, emphasizing the environmental sustainability component of wine-related tourism.
Christine Godfrey, an American living in Cinque Terre, organizes events like SciaccheTrail, an annual ultra-marathon followed by wine tasting, to raise awareness of the region’s backcountry and its wine terraces. By encouraging visitors to explore beyond the main streets and appreciate the impact of the handmade walls, she hopes to preserve the region’s unique heritage.
As you explore Cinque Terre, remember that every bottle of wine tells a story – a story of a land perched between mountains and sea, of ancient traditions revived, and of the dedication of winemakers who are the true custodians of this breathtaking territory. So, raise your glass to Cinque Terre, where wine, culture, and sustainability intertwine in a harmonious blend.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Cinque Terre Wine Culture
What is the Cinque Terre known for besides its picturesque villages?
The Cinque Terre is renowned for its rich wine culture, featuring rare wines like sciacchetrà, stunning terraced vineyards, and sustainable tourism.
What are some popular white grape varieties used in Cinque Terre’s wines?
Bosco, Albarolo, and Vermentino grapes are among the popular white grape varieties used to craft Cinque Terre’s delightful wines.
How can I explore Cinque Terre’s wine culture firsthand?
You can explore Cinque Terre’s wine culture by visiting local vineyards, participating in vineyard tours, or indulging in wine tastings at charming establishments like A Pié di Campu.
What challenges do Cinque Terre’s vineyards face?
Cinque Terre’s vineyards face challenges like depopulation, which endangers both the vineyards and the historic dry stone walls that support them, as well as the impact of large cruise ship day-trippers on local culture.
How can I contribute to sustainable tourism in Cinque Terre?
You can contribute to sustainable tourism in Cinque Terre by supporting local vineyards and businesses, exploring beyond the main streets, and being mindful of the region’s delicate ecosystem.