18 settembre 2023
by Stefano Rissetto

A step from the sea 


The region of Liguria almost fits in a wine glass. It is little larger than the province of Brescia alone, smaller than the provinces of Sassari, Foggia and Cuneo, for example. Yet there she stands, lejana y sola, in her little snobbish isolation, due partly to temperament and partly to necessity. Squeezed between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Apennines, it is a scalene region where everything is difficult, however much it you may be compensated visually with excruciatingly beautiful views that are not always straightforward.

Charting a road here and building a railroad are feats of military conquest, rather than civil engineering: in fact, most of the existing routes are legacies of the nineteenth century, if not the Roman Empire. The port that was once republic and kingdom is at the center of an inverted funnel, which leaves goods on landing in a crowded desert. When there was a need for an air terminal, they excavated a hill and the debris thrown into the sea became the runway. There was no space on the ground. Perhaps this was once the place of great seafarers and discoverers of new worlds, intense emigrants to the Americas, moved by the unconscious desire–as is the case with the Portuguese–to leave behind a difficult, rough and challenging land.

Under these conditions, surely the very last place to find winegrowers. Elsewhere in Italy, it is natural: the gentle hills of the Langhe are not too far away, as the crow flies, as is the Po Valley, ideal landscapes for planting vine rows. But here in Liguria, every inch of land is a challenge to geometry, even gravity. Yet on the Ligurian Rivieras, viticulture, more than an activity, is an art, made of silence, exile and cunning, a feat of the impossible.

But there’s Liguria and then there is Liguria. The first is where the conditions for planting and vineyard management are difficult but not unsurmountable: and it is here, between Ponente and Levante, that Vermentino–the most common variety of white–, Pigato, Rossese and Lumassina are grown. It has almost a semblance of normalcy, perhaps a serious parody.

Shifting your gaze to the far eastern edge of the region, viticulture becomes prestidigitation, extreme sport, a brazen defiance of the laws of time and space. The Cinque Terre is a scenic marine area of fragile charm, increasingly facing the dilemma that plagues all tourist sites that struggle to combine quality and numbers, tackling influxes arriving due to word of mouth but finding it hard to cope with the physical principle of impenetrability. Aside from Monterosso al Mare, much-loved by the poet Montale, which is the largest town of the Cinque Terre, the craggy rocks are dotted with little groups of houses that are a vacation destination, reached by hiking paths, spared in part by the relative inaccessibility by car. Here, most people arrive by train, the virtuous on foot: paved roads remain at a respectful distance above, safeguarding the enchantment.

In such a fairy-tale setting as the Cinque Terre, even wine is a hard-won miracle. In the entire territory, there is not a single square meter that is entirely flat, so space for winegrowing has to be conquered artificially, ingeniously, with human suffering and skill. The illusionist's trick is called drywalling. These are ancient constructions, put together literally stone by stone. An amazing transformation of the terrain: sandstone broken into increasingly small pieces, arranging them into walls to create a step filled with local soil. Step by step, the land needed for planting vines was carved out of the steep slopes, starting around the year 1000. But it is an endless activity of care and maintenance, in the secular cycles of existence that alternate between abandonment and rediscovery. A triumph of long-lasting loyalty and patience that involves endless care. Creators of ships in bottles and buildings made out of matches, puzzle solvers and chess players know what we are talking about when it comes to ensuring the stability of a system that is precarious by nature.

About six hundred winegrowers work in this open-air museum, suspended in time contradicted only occasionally by the use of modern mechanical means. The vineyards of the Cinque Terre are almost vertical. Therefore, every operation is complicated by slope, inaccessibility and the lack of routes suitable for transporting grapes. This terrain required the invention of something exceptional, and the search took them from the sea to the mountains, in the heart of the Swiss Alps.

Without wine, there's no more love

or any other pleasure left for men


Euripide, The Bacchae

Adopting a technological solution used at high altitudes, the winegrowers of the Cinque Terre have worked even greater magic: an integrated system of small mono-railroads, tiny trains whose carriages are filled by the driver with the fruits of the harvest, in order to negotiate the absurdly steep slopes from vineyard to winery. These rack and pinion railways are exceptionally delicate, requiring skilled use and maintenance that is just as careful as the upkeep of the dry-stone walls. Unfortunately, they are not used for passenger transport, because the views are truly incomparable.

Dry-stone walls and rack-and-pinion monorails are scenery that tourists in the Cinque Terre, traveling along hiking trails, often sense rather than see, attracted by the hum of the grape-laden trains. This enchanting invention, resentfully compromising with Leopardi's benign mother nature, produces two hundred thousand bottles a year of the Cinque Terre wine, traded with shrewdness and reservation. Of these two hundred thousand, two or three thousand make up the elite Sciacchetrà, which in local dialect means “crush and draw”: a high-alcohol sweet wine made from grapes dried on the vine or after harvest. After aging, it is put on the market a few years after bottling; and the price, depending on the vintage, can range from EUR 100 to 400 per bottle. This may seem like a lot only to those who have never tasted it, to those who have never seen up close the magic of the Cinque Terre, a miracle enclosed in a glass.

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