Liguria & Cinque Terre
Last October, we took our epic 21-day trip to Northern Italy. Our last day, well, part of our last day, was spent in Cinque Terre. We drove in from Florence, skipping a stop in Pisa to arrive as early as we could manage in La Spezia.
Cinque Terre is located in Liguria. Bounded by France, the Piemonte, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany, the Province of Liguria holds the coastline on the Gulf of Genoa. Cinque Terre is on the southeast side of this horseshoe-shaped province.
This month the #ItalianFWT writers are exploring the wines of Emilia-Romagna and Liguria. Led by our founder Jen from Vino Travels, (you can read her Preview Post here!) you’ll find an array of wines from these regions that they have discovered!
Scroll to the bottom for links to all of their articles!
La Spezia is as close as you can really get to Cinque Terre by car conveniently and sits southwest of the villages. We parked in the garage at the train station and then headed into the crowded station to figure out how to get a ticket for the train.
Cinque Terre means Five Lands, and indeed these cliff-bound towns seem like separate lands as they are not easy to get between, with cliffs rising to 800 meters (over 2,600 feet) above the sea. The train that skirts the cliffs, often carving through tunnels, is the most convenient way, although there are beautiful hiking trails connecting the villages if you have the time or boats that can bring you to the region from the sea.
The 5 cities from North to South are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
With only a day to soak in this beautiful region, we decided to skip Riomaggiore and Monterosso al Mare to focus on the 3 towns in the center of Cinque Terre.
We took the train to Vernazza and planned to work our way back to the south toward La Spezia.
Vernazza was founded around 1000 AD, when it was originally called “Castrum Vernatio,” and was a naval base for the Obertenghi family. In the 13th century, it fell under the rule of the Republic of Genoa, who built fortifications to protect the city from pirates.
We walked the Via Roma down to the harbor. The street is lined with brightly painted buildings and dotted with small produce stands and cafes.
Buildings here are built into the rock of the cliffs and often span small caves and crevices where the water flows through.
Michael and I wandered, pausing to capture photos of things we found beautiful. It’s funny how laundry hanging on the line outside a window becomes so picturesque in Italy.
While these villages might be all about tourists, you will not find large hotel chains or restaurants. That is the beauty of it. The people who work here live here.
As we get closer to the harbor, the Chiesa di Santa Margherita di Antiochia church rises before us, with vineyards terracing the steep hill behind it.
The Wines of Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre DOC
Grapes for wine have been grown on these steep hillsides for centuries. Boccaccio and Petrarch wrote of the region’s wines in the early Renaissance. Even before that, vines appeared in the area near the end of the 4th millennium BC. Merchants here bartered wine for other goods with the ships that came up the coast.
As in Valtellina, you find dry stone walls rimming the cliffsides, holding in the soil. Vines here are grown only 1 meter high, sometimes even lower, protecting them from the wind. To harvest, workers must be on their knees.
The grapes of the region include Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino. The blend must be at least 40% Bosco to be labeled as a DOC wine.
This sweet passito-style wine is made primarily from Bosco with Albarola and Vermentino. Picked early, the bunches of grapes are individually hung in a cellar or placed in well-ventilated racks to dry. I have also seen photos of them drying in small wooden boxes on rooftops in the sea breeze. After November 1st, they may be destemmed and pressed. They age until November 1st of the following year before they can be released.
A Riserva version is made that must age 3 years prior to release.
This sweet nectar has notes of honey, candied orange, hazelnut, dried apricot, citrus, almonds, figs, and white flowers.
The vineyards of Vernazza
Not long ago, this hillside was covered in brambles. In 1997 when Cinque Terre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bartolomeo Lecari and his wife, Lise Bertram, went from professors to vintners. Bartolemeo’s family owned property here and was part of the historic Lercari-Cheo family of the region. They now run Cantina Cheo.
They bought up abandoned property and began to replant and revitalize the vineyards, rebuilding the dry-stone walls that prevented erosion. Then they got to the work of harvesting, making, and bottling their own wines.
They work the farm by hand daily, and very little of the work making the wine uses mechanical equipment. They focus on the history and tradition of winemaking in this beautiful region.
After spending some time by the water, we felt the need for another vantage point of this beautiful village, and those vines were calling. We found a path between the buildings, or perhaps more of a tunnel. A winding stone stairway led us up behind the church and along a stone wall for views of the town from above. The trail weaves around the cliffs, past a shady spot where the morning glories were still open and blooming.
The trail becomes narrow and steep, and the sun was hot. Cactus reach out over the path. We passed houses and gardens with doors that open right onto this tiny trail. It feels a little intimate, like walking across someone’s back porch. It is all worth it when we turn to take in the view.
We turn to make our way back down, enjoying the cool shady spots as we go and reveling in the intimate back alley pathways, as small as so many in Venice, but here they seem even closer as doors and windows open onto them.
As we worry about the time, we head back to the train station and find ourselves next in Corniglia.
I had read that this was the least popular of the 5 villages. Perhaps that is because it doesn’t have as much access to the water, sitting high on a cliff, 100 meters above the sea. It is the smallest of the 5 villages, and, quite honestly, as the least popular, I looked forward to it, hoping to be able to soak in the village with fewer people around.
The train arrives below the city, and when you disembark, you must decide, will you take the trail and the Lardarina staircase or the bus? The day was warm, our time was limited, not to mention we were getting a bit hungry, and the staircase is 382 stairs, so the bus it was!
We arrived at the top of the hill in the town and headed down an alleyway to find the view of the sea! Well, “down” is a bit misleading. The path here, called caruggi, led us up and up, with small stairways and paths winding up the spine of the cliff. To either side, stairways led down even smaller paths between the brightly colored buildings. Small gardens and terraces for restaurants sat on these lower levels. Shaded by trees.
At last, we gazed upon the sea and the coastline.
We made our way back to the square in front of the L’Oratorio di S. Caterina. As we stepped into the square, Cucina Casalinga was on our left, a doorway leading into a kitchen. They had tables across from the restaurant on the square. Gratefully we were led to a table. It seemed we were the first to sit for lunch.
As I stared at the menu, I almost picked the “Colli di Luni DOC Vermentino (I love Vermentino), but instead, I stepped out of my comfort zone and ordered the Cantine La Polenza Corniglia 5 Terre DOC Vino Bianco and paired it with a local dish I had read about, Tesaroli al pesto.
Cantine La Polenza
Cantine La Polenza is located in Corniglia. Some of their vineyards are on terraces near the village. Perhaps they are among some of the vineyards we passed. Unbeknownst to me, I had strolled right past their winery, which is between the shuttle stop and the restaurant we were sitting at.
For over 2000 years, wine was the primary livelihood in Cinque Terre. Plini the Elder wrote about these wines. But over the last 50 years, young people headed to the cities, and the elderly were left to make the wine. Eventually, vineyards were abandoned. Like Cheo, La Polenza worked to save and reconstruct the vineyards of old.
La Polenza worked to bring together mechanical innovation and traditional viticulture, transforming the traditional terraces to allow partial mechanization.
Soils here are sandy and fine gravel. They are permeable with modest water reserves. The thin topsoil lies on top of the rock. The mild climate and the soil’s minerality make this perfect for grapes.
The “Polenza” I had with lunch was 20% Albarolo, 40% Bosco and 40% Vermentino. The grapes are gently pressed and vinified in stainless steel.
They note that these grapes come from soils at different altitudes with different exposures. The wine is described as floral, fruit, and mineral, with a noticeable sapidity on the finish. 12.5% abv
Now about that Testaroli al pesto!
This dish is part of the tradition of Lunigiana, the area where Tuscany, Liguria, and Emilia Romagna meet. This is a Cucina Povera dish. Testaroli is a cross between a pancake and pasta. This sounds strange, I know. It is thought that this is perhaps the first type of pasta in Italy, created before the Romans. Made of flour, salt, and water (ideally wheat or spelt flour), the batter is dropped into a large cast iron pan. Once, these “testo,” as they are known, were made of terra cotta. The mixture spreads to look like a thin pancake or crepe. Once toasted, they are cut into diamond-shaped strips with a knife. These strips are then tossed into boiling salted water to cook for 3 minutes.
The testaroli are tossed with sauce, which they absorb beautifully, soaking in the flavor. They are traditionally served in pesto, which is thought to have been created here in Liguria. Pesto Genovese is made with Genovese basil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Sardo cheese, pine nuts, garlic, and salt. These items are mixed in a pestle.
It was so delicious.
After lunch, we headed back to take the train to Manarola. The main street has covered boats parked in front of the buildings, as you would see cars in a city.
Manarola is the 2nd smallest of the five towns and the oldest. The brightly colored houses make it one of the most photographed. The village is built along a creek, which you can see under the bridge.
If you follow the bridge and the pathway toward Nessun Dorma, on the cliff opposite the town, you will find some stunning views of the village. It can be crowded. This is one of the most iconic views in Cinque Terre, so bring your patience, you won’t be the only person looking to take a picture. But after taking in that view, continue on the path. The northern side brings views of Corniglia and clear turquoise waters where the cliffs dive into the sea.
Of course, if you have the time, head into Nessum Dorma, the restaurant on the top of the cliff, where you can relax with some Cinque Terre wine in your hand as you take in the view. Sadly, we did not have time for this.
I found a shop, a bottle of Sciacchetra in a wine shop, and then a tiny jewelry vendor, where I picked up a pair of earrings and a necklace to remind me of my time in this magical place.
I can tell you firsthand that ½ day is not enough, but if it is all you have, do it. It is well worth it.
La Polenza Sciacchetrà 2019
The Sciacchetrà was from La Polenza and is the same blend as the Vino Blanco I had enjoyed for lunch, 20% Albarolo, 40% Bosco, and 40% Vermentino. For this wine, the grapes are harvested in early September and made in the appassimento style, partially dried, extended maceration, then softly pressed and vinified in stainless steel.
The grapes are dried, fermented with indigenous yeast, and the juice remains on the lees for 30 months.
The winery notes: “candied apricot and lemon on the nose with eucalyptus and sweet spices. Sensual structure on the palate with fine tannins.” They suggest pairing it with dry desserts and aged or blue cheeses.
Pairing a Sciacchetrà
As I prepared to open this very special bottle, I searched for ideas for pairings.
As this is a sweet wine, dessert or blue cheeses come first to mind. I riffed on the flavors that were often noted on this wine…honey, almond, apricot, hazelnut, fig, candied citrus…
Our platter to pair included fresh ripe peaches that we had picked at our local organic orchard, hazelnuts, dried apricots, jam that Michael made earlier this year from apricots from the orchard, honeycomb, gorgonzola dolce, almonds, a stilton cheese with apricot in it, fig & olive crackers, candied lemon, and Italian biscuits.
The wine was a deep rich amber, which flashed like copper in the afternoon light. It was gorgeous in the glass. On the nose I found notes of almond, honey, hazelnut, date and caramel. On the palate, the fruit notes came forward with baked tart peach, dried apricot, citrus, and honey.
The wine is sweet without being cloying. There is an underlying fruit tartness. Yes, this is a meditation wine, and I meditated with a bit of cheese, fruit, and nuts! Across the board, the pairing was perfect.
We Coravined this, so we will be able to return to it again. Thank goodness, I would have been very sad for this wine to be gone. When it is, I will need to return to Cinque Terre.
The Italian Food, Wine, and Travel Writers on Emilia Romagna and Liguria
My colleagues’ at #ItalianFWT explored these regions and share with you the amazing wines and places that they discovered!
- Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm shares 2 Treats from Emilia-Romagna; Gnocco Frito and Celita Sangiovese
- Andrea at The Quirky Cork will share A Love Affair with Lambrusco
- Cam from Culinary Cam shares From the Italian Riviera: Animated Sea Monsters, Linguine Al Pesto, and Mataòssu
- Gwendolyn Alley from Wine Predator shares “How You Can Help After Devastating Floods in Emilia-Romagna: Drink Wine Made by Women“
- Susannah Gold from Avvinare shares “Celebrating summer with Ligurian Gems”
- Jen, our host at Vino Travels, shares “Ligurian Vermentino and Pesto“
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.
Check out our book series, “Tempting Spoonfuls” available through Amazon!
Inspired by the flavors and aromas in wines, these books create “tempting spoonfuls” of flavors to pair with wines.
“Tempting Spoonfuls – Pairing single bites with glorious wines” – Our first book paired wines from boutique wineries on the west coast, in California, Oregon, and Washington, with delicious spoonfuls.
This book is 60 pages, 18 recipes, lots of beautiful photos, and insights into some fantastic small wineries!
“Tempting Spoonfuls – small bites paired with wines from around the Globe” – This book takes us around the globe to explore 12 wine regions, a wine from the region, and then gives you a recipe for a pairing!
A slightly larger book at 104 pages, this time you learn about pairing with a type of wine from a region. Rather than a specific bottle, you can look for a style of wine from a region and feel confident that it will go well with the recipe pairing we provide. We give you 12 recipes, each to pair with a wine.
The goal is to make your mouth water and encourage you to create your own “Tempting Spoonfuls.”