Hidden Gems: Discovering the Wine of Cinque Terre
When one thinks of Cinque Terre in Italy, the first images that come to mind are the candy-colored villages and breathtaking sea views. But what most tourists don’t realize is that this region is also home to some of the world’s steepest vineyards. Grapevines climb mountains that reach up to 1,300 feet, creating a unique and challenging landscape for winemakers.
“Wine came first and the villages came next, so the history of the Cinque Terre is the history of wine,” says local sommelier Yvonne Riccobaldi. Her hometown of Manarola is one of the five picturesque villages that make up this northwestern Italian region. These towns, including Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare, form Cinque Terre National Park, stretching along nearly ten miles of rocky coastline between Genoa and La Spezia.
The villages and vineyards are connected by a network of scenic former mule trails, dating back to the 11th century, that wind through the mountains and valleys. These trails offer stunning views of the vineyards enclosed by hand-hewn stone walls. However, the terraces are crumbling, and the population is dwindling, endangering this fragile ecosystem.
To combat these challenges, local winemakers and businesses are focusing on sustainable and heritage tourism to support the economy and preserve the environment. They are embracing the region’s rich history and traditions to create a unique experience for visitors.
The Cinque Terre is home to about 30 small producers who primarily produce white wines from Bosco, Albarolo, and Vermintino grapes. The yields are small, with an average vineyard producing just 5,000 bottles a year. These white wines are best enjoyed young, but the region’s most emblematic wine is the rare and expensive sciacchetrà. This complex, aged dessert wine has ancient origins and is enjoyed at special occasions and celebrations.
Another example of the region’s heritage is the revival of a native grape varietal called Ruzzese. After being lost for centuries, a local vintner is now bringing it back to life, adding to the richness and diversity of the Cinque Terre’s wine offerings.
Thanks to grassroots efforts, most of the restaurants in the Cinque Terre now support local vineyards. From creative and contemporary spots like Rio Bistrot in Riomaggiore to tiny, family-owned gems like Cappun Magru in Manarola, visitors can enjoy the region’s wines accompanied by delicious local dishes.
For those willing to venture off the beaten path, there are even more hidden gems to discover. Take, for instance, the tiny Osteria de Mananan in Corneglia, where a plate of ravioli in walnut pesto paired with a glass of dry white wine from CheO vineyard is worth the climb of nearly 400 stairs from the train station to the village.
To truly immerse yourself in the wine culture of Cinque Terre, vineyard tours and wine tasting rooms are a must. Places like Yvonne Riccobaldi’s A Pié di Campu in Manarola and Ghemé in Riomaggiore offer not only the chance to taste exceptional wines but also insight into local life and traditions. Book in advance because these establishments are small and family-owned.
For a more unique experience, visit restored vineyards like Cian du Giorgi in the medieval village of San Bernardino. This vineyard, owned by a French-Italian couple, produces wines aged mainly in Ligurian amphorae, adding a touch of history to every sip.
While some wineries, like Vétua in Monterosso, offer tastings in the villages, others, like Azienda Lìtan, require a trek up to their vineyard from the port. This gives visitors a true appreciation for the labor-intensive process of winemaking in a rugged and inaccessible region like Cinque Terre.
Winemakers in Cinque Terre face numerous challenges due to the difficult terrain and the labor-intensive nature of grape cultivation. It takes about 2,000 hours a year to cultivate one hectare of grapes in this region, compared to 250 hours in Napa Valley. Additionally, 95% of the terraces have been abandoned over the past century, further threatening the future of winemaking in Cinque Terre.
But through sustainable and heritage tourism, local businesses and entrepreneurs are working hard to preserve this unique wine region. By supporting the small producers and enjoying the fruits of their labor, visitors can help ensure the longevity of the Cinque Terre’s vineyards and the rich wine culture that is deeply intertwined with its history.
So, the next time you visit Cinque Terre, take a moment to appreciate not only the breathtaking views but also the stories and flavors that make this hidden gem of Italy truly special. Raise a glass of the region’s white wine or indulge in a sip of sciacchetrà, and toast to the preservation of Cinque Terre’s wine heritage.
The Cinque Terre region is facing a significant challenge in the form of depopulation. Over the past decade, about half of the population has left the area, with grape growers and farmers abandoning their lands and villages for more lucrative opportunities in tourism or nearby shipyards. This decline in population is not only threatening the region as a whole but also endangering the traditional farming terraces supported by the dry sandstone walls known as muretti.
Gariglio, a local resident, expressed his concern that if these walls are not restored, the land could once again succumb to the sea, as it did 10 years ago during a devastating landslide triggered by torrential rains. To exacerbate the situation, the region is experiencing a staggering growth in day-trippers, largely due to the influx of large cruise ships. This influx of tourists, while beneficial for the local economy, is overwhelming for the residents, who are struggling to preserve their traditional culture.
Christine Godfrey, an American who runs Cinque Terre Trekking with her husband Nicola, is actively working with village elders to uncover and restore the ancient stone trails used by Nicola’s ancestors. Their aim is to encourage visitors to explore beyond the main streets and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the handmade walls. One proposed solution is to direct more tourist revenue from the national park entrance fees into wine tourism, as selling a bottle of wine also means selling the territory, culture, and history behind it.
Fortunately, a new approach to tourism is emerging. Christine Godfrey organizes an annual ultra-marathon event called SciaccheTrail, followed by a wine tasting, to raise awareness of the Cinque Terre backcountry and its wine terraces. However, even those without the stamina for an ultra-marathon can still explore the region on foot, following centuries-old stone staircases and paths used by vintners.
Local residents are also taking steps to preserve their heritage. Heydi Bonanini, for example, has been rebuilding the stone walls on his family’s land since 2004 and now shares stories of regional winemaking with schoolchildren and visitors. Davide Zoppi, a former lawyer, traded his career to return to his native village and expand his family vineyard. His dream was to replant the original grape, Ruzzese, used to make sciacchetrà, a sweet wine that was highly regarded by popes. Through their dedication, Zoppi and his husband successfully achieved this goal, bringing a piece of history back to life.
Zoppi emphasizes the responsibility that winemakers have as guardians of the territory. It is their duty to rebuild, maintain, and preserve this cultural heritage for future generations. By supporting local winemakers and participating in wine-related tourism, visitors can contribute to the sustainability of the environment and help preserve the region’s history and landscapes.
In conclusion, the Cinque Terre region is facing depopulation and the threat of losing its traditional culture due to overwhelming tourism. However, individuals like Christine Godfrey, Heydi Bonanini, and Davide Zoppi are taking initiatives to preserve and promote the region’s heritage. By enjoying the wines and engaging in wine-related tourism, visitors can play their part in supporting these efforts and ensuring the sustainability of the Cinque Terre.