With our stay in the Cinque Terre over, it was time to move on to the Piemonte. A short train ride took us from Manarola to La Spezia, where we rented a car. We had the chance to explore La Spezia over lunch before driving on.
La Spezia is a small city on the Ligurian coast is a port city, home to a naval base and a frequent stop for cruise ships. We came across a wonderful, open-air market in the heart of the city that filled about two city blocks. The market included stall after stall of fresh seafood, including many I had never seen before. The produce was absolutely gorgeous, crate after crate of impeccable quality.
From La Spezia, we made the three-hour drive through the Ligurian Apennines. The Italians seem to prefer driving through the mountains rather than driving over them. The route was filled with tunnels, many of them about a half mile long.
We reached what would be our home for the remainder of the trip in the late afternoon. We stayed in a refurbished farmhouse from the 1800s just outside Montegrosso d’Asti, a small town southeast of Asti. The property has a magnificent view over the hills of Monferrato, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On clear days, it was striking to see on the Alps on the horizon. There were great views of Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and Mont Viso. The landscape between us and the Alps was all rolling hills.
Trying to get the lay of the land in Piemonte was confusing. I realized I needed to brush up on my geography. I knew the Alps formed the northern border of Italy, but I didn’t realize it was somewhat more complicated. Like the Rocky Mountains, the Alps comprise several mountain ranges. The northern border of Italy consists of the Eastern, Central and Western Alps. I didn’t realize the Maritime Alps formed the northwestern border of Italy with France. Thus, Piemonte sits in a very large, natural amphitheater with the Alps both to the north and the west.
Before arriving in the Cinque Terre, I had been completely unfamiliar with their wines. It’s a small region, and very few of the wines make it to the United States. In fact, most rarely make it out of the Cinque Terre.
Today’s wines are the result of centuries of human effort to transform an inhospitable landscape into one that could provide sustenance and livilhood. Terraces were carve out of the steep, surrounding hillsides to provide a place to grow grape vines. The terraces were then supported with hand-crafted, dry walls to keep them from sliding into the sea.
The terrain here necessitates doing everything by hand. It’s impossible to work with machinery on these slopes. An ingenious system of carts on monorails helps move grapes from the vineyards at harvest time.
We spent a beautiful, sunny afternoon on the patio of the Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre with Matteo Bonanini, the president of the Cooperativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre. a cooperative of 200 farmer-members whose grapes go into the production of the Cantina. You can learn more about the wines of the Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre at https://www.cantinacinqueterre.com/en/.
Cinque Terre has been granted its own Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) which ensures that the wine is produced in a specified area of the Cinque Terre and is made with at least 40% Bosco, and no more than 40% each of Albarola and Vermentino.
While some red wines are produced in the area, the vast majority of the wines are white. In this case, the adage holds true that local wines almost always pair well with the local cuisine. With the Cinque Terre’s position at the southern end of the Italian Riviera, fish is king. Each of the five Cinque Terre villages has always been a fishing village first, and great fish dishes are available everywhere. The wines produced by the Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre, with their floral crispness, are the perfect complement to the local fish dishes.
Matteo walked us through a selection of wines from the Cantina and gave us some background on each of them. All the wines are produced from the local, indigenous varieties Bosco and Albarola along with the relative newcomer Vermentino, probably brought to the area from Spain in the 14th century. The proportion of each variety varies in their different wines.
This wine impresses from the start in the glass with its brilliant clarity and pale straw color. There is a slight tinge of green as well. The wine really shines when you bring it up to your nose. Wonderful floral notes abound with some apricot and lemon notes. You notice the crispness when you first taste the wine, very fresh and somewhat fruity, although not nearly as intense as the aroma. There are some herbal/vegetal hints in the taste as well. The wine’s minerality comes through in the middle and is prominent in the finish. Vigne Alte reminds me somewhat of a crisp, Alsatian riesling.
Vigne Alte is made from grapes grown in the Cinque Terre’s highest vineyards, about 300-400 meters above sea level. The cooler temperatures and diurnal temperature fluctuation contribute to the noteable acidity. The wine is allowed to macerate on the skins for 24 hours prior to fermentation and again allowed to rest on the lees for 6 months before bottling. I believe both of these techniques contribute to the vegetal flavors in the wine.
We moved from the highest altitude vineyards to the lowest with the Costa da’ Posa. This wine comes from vineyards down by the sea. It has a greenish golden color, almost like good olive oil. There are still sweet, floral notes on the nose, but it’s far less floral than the Vigne Alte. On the palate, it is more rounded and full bodied with less acidity. The remarkable quality of this wine is its briny, almost salty minerality on the finish.
I’m not sure of the location of the vineyards providing the grapes for this wine, but what sets it apart is that it has been fermented on the skins. The color is a rich gold with tinges of grees. The nose is very light , but what there is provides hints of citrus and vanilla. This is a nice, well balanced, round, full wine. That said, it is still a light wine, nothing even coming close to a big chardonnay in mouth feel. This wine has a less acidic taste, but there is some bitterness in the finish, probably as a result of the tannin from skin contact during fermentation. Honestly, this was my least favorite, but that probably has to do with whether you care for white wines fermented on the skins.
The Costa de Campu vineyards cover the middle of the Cinque Terre DOC. This wine is golden with a slight green tinge. The nose is filled with floral citrus notes, like the lemon blossoms that are abundant in the Cinque Terre. As you taste the wine, flavors of lemon and grapefruity come through, with mineral & flinty overtones. The wine has a nice, acidic crispness which lingers on the finish. This wine is a beautiful complement to oily fish, such as the anchovies that are so abundant in the Cinque Terre.
If there is one wine for which the Cinque Terre is known, it is Sciacchetra, a sweet dessert wine. The Cantina offers both their regular Sciacchetra and a Riserva Sciacchetra. Schiaccetra is a pasito style wine. Selected clusters of grapes are allowed to dry naturally on trellises until the potential alcohol percentages reaches 17%, ensuring a sweet, dessert-style wine. The standard version is fermented partially on the skins in stainless steel andaged for about 16 months, also in stainless steel, while the Riserva is fermented partially on the skins in stainless stell and aged for three years in small oak barrels. Note the color difference in the photo. The regular Schiacchetra is a deep, golden yellow, approaching a yellow amber, while the Riserva is almost amber/bronze.
These wines have an intense nose filled with candied fruit with nut scents. On the palate, these wines are sweet and rich, almost sherry-like, but with an acidity and crispness that most sherries lack. These wines would be great with hard cheeses or sipped alone. They are also served in the tradition of Tuscany’s Vin Santo with a biscuit to dunk in the sweet wine.
We concluded our tasting with Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre’s grappa. As you can see, we had perhaps a little more than a small taste, but the grappa in northern Italy was a real discovery on this trip. Most producers who make wine also make a grappa, frequently identified by the grape must used for distillation.
The grappa is made through steam distillation of the grape must left behind after the wine has fermented. It is made in specially licensed facilities, so the wine producers don’t actually make their own grappa, but it is from their grape must and carries their label. While the grappas all bear a family resemblance, the aromas and tastes can be remarkably different depending on the grapes used.
Cantina Agricoltura Cinque Terre’s grappa was quite enjoyable. At 84 proof, it packs a punch, but the alcohol is softened by a rich, full feeling in the mouth. The nose had aromas of dusty grapes, lemon, violets and fresh paint.
After we walked back to Manarola, we picked up a bottle of Cantina Agricoltura’s Costa de Sera. the one wine we did not try at the winery, to enjoy as we watched the sun set over Manarola from the garden of our room.
The grapes for Costa de Sera are grown in the southern end of the Cinque Terre. The first impressions when smelling this wine are more of herbs, almost minty, than the citrus notes prevalent in the other bottlings. The wine undergoes a brief period of maceration on the skins prior to fermentation, which likely accounts for the herbiness. The taste is light and neutral, with the acidity characteristic of the Cinque Terre.
With that, it was time to call it a night. If you happen to find a wine from the Cinque Terre, do yourself a favor and try it. You’ll be in for a treat.
On Tuesday, we moved on for three nights in the Cinque Terre. We took the train from Firenze directly to La Spezia where we hopped on the Cinque Terre Express, a train that runs frequently between the five towns of the Cinque Terre, to our destination of Manarola.
We soon learned that hiking distances in the Cinque Terre are relative, as everything is almost straight up or straight down from where you are. Nothing is flat. The determination of the people who originally decided they could make a life in this spot defies imagination. Especially around Manarola, the surrounding hills are covered with terraces that have all been constructed by hand to grow their grapes. Today’s residents seem to possess that same grit and determinations to do what it takes to live in this spot.
Our Airbnb was near the top of town. There was actually a tiny winery on the narrow street/alley that led to our room. To get supplies to the winery, they used a hand truck on treads powered by a gas engine.
On our first night, we hiked to the top of the hill above Manarola for some spectacular views of the town. In the process, we learned that the “trails” in the area were very often sets of steps either carved out or constructed with the native bluestone and schist rocks.
Our second day in Manarola brought rain, and from what we had learned about the trails, we realized they would be slippery and unstable in the rain, so we took the train up to Vernazza, another of the Cinque Terre villages, to take a look around. Vernazza was beautiful, but we were glad to have chosen Manarola for our home base. Vernazza had as somewhat more tourist-oriented feel.
The rain let up for our third day in the Cinque Terre, so we made the three-mile hike up to the town of Volastra. After lunch, we found, with some effort, the trail down to the town of Groppo. The trails in the area are not always well identified and frequently take off from some random point in town without a trailhead being identified.
The headquarters of the Cooperativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre is in Groppo. This cooperative is one of the major wine producers in the Cinque Terre. We had a great afternoon tasting their wines and grappa (more on that in the next post.)
Debbie and I took a bottle of their wine home and enjoyed it on the garden terrace outside our room while watching the sun set over Manarola. Life could be worse.
On Monday, we packed up and moved on to Firenze to return our rental car and spend a night before moving on to the Cinque Terre. We needed to return the car in the heart of Firenze, near the Santa Maria Novella train station. Driving in an Italian city, even a small one such as Firenze, rivals driving in lower Manhattan. It’s an adventure that I don’t care to have too many times.
We schlepped our much too large, much too heavy luggage to our Airbnb just a couple of blocks from the Duomo. Our Airbnb host is a student at Accademie di Belle Arti di Firenze, which is adjacent to the Galleria dell’ Accademia, the home of the David, where he makes masks and studies set design. Who knew there really was an art academy, and like everything else here, it’s been around since the 1500s.
We set out to explore Firenze on foot for the rest of the afternoon and evening. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio and through Oltrarno. Then we climbed up to Piazelle Michaelangelo to watch the sun set over Firenze.
The title of the story really begins there. At Piazalle Michaelangelo, people congregate on a large group of stairs and await for the sunset. We happened to be next to a group of three young German men and struck up a conversation. They had been there for several hours (and consumed a few beers). It turns out two of them were pranking the third, convincing him that this was the bachelor party they planned for him. His real bachelor party would be the following weekend, but he didn’t know that, so they were in full, bachelor-party mode.
After a while, a young, American woman, Candace, joined us. It turns out that she is a singer/actor and has been working as an entertainer on cruise ship. Somehow, that translated into the possibility that she was a stripper (at least in German). The guys had a good time with that, and she grudgingly played along for a bit. After the sunset came and went, one of the guys got a taxi, and we all headed back into Firenze for drinks.
On a rainy Sunday morning, we hopped in the car and drove about 30 minutes over the winding roads through the hills of the eastern portion of Chianti, Chianti Rufina, to visit Castello del Trebbio.
The winery operations are housed in a 12th century castle built by the Pazzi family, rivals of the Medici family who ruled Firenze. The castle has been beautifully restored, including the Conspiracy Room where members of the Pazzi family hatched the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478 to kill a few of the Medicis and take power in Firenze. Unfortunately for the Pazzis, the conspiracy failed and all their property was confiscated by the city-state of Firenze.
The property has been owned by the Baj Macario family since 1968. Today they are striving for the biodynamic, organic production of fine wine. Based on the wines we tasted, they are succeeding.
In the afternoon, we returned to tour the vineyards and winemaking operation of the farm where we stayed. Fattoria Lavacchio is an organic farm, working to be sustainable in every facet of their operation. They are experimenting with a wine made from Sangiovese grapes without sulfites. The wine, Puro, is fresh, light and fruity. Without the use of sulfites, they are not expecting the wine to be long lived, so they make it a style best enjoyed young.
Our host for the tour, Katziko, masterfully took Debbie and me, along with a Japanese couple through the entire operation, explaining things one time in English and then a second time in Japanese. He was a treat.
We began Saturday with mixed emotions. It was bittersweet to see our time with Christiana at her farmhouse south of Siena come to an end. We had a magical experience there. But, that also marked the beginning of the next leg of our adventure.
I had always imagined Tuscany to be cut from the same cloth, ecologically very similar throughout. Driving through the region taught me differently. Tuscany, from Siena south, is an area of open valleys dominated by farmland and ancient towns on the hilltops. The natural vegetation seems to be lower and more shrub-like. This is the region of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in the wine world.
As we drove north from Siena, the valleys became narrower, the hills became a little steeper, water became more abundant, and the vegetation became densely forested. All in all, a very different feel from the area just to the south. This is now the land of Chianti Classico, one of the eight subzones of the Chianti region.
Along the way, we stopped for a visit to Castello di Fonterutoli in the small village of Fonterutoli, not far from the beautiful town of Castellina in Chianti where we tasted some wonderful Chianti Classico. Continuing on, we took a slight detour to visit Casa Brancaia, a much more modern winery south of Castellina in Chianti. Brancaia produces some much awarded super Tuscan wines, and it’s clear that’s where their focus is. Their Chianti Classico did not compare with Fonterutoli’s, but their super Tuscan Blu was outstanding.
We continued driving to the organic farm east of Firenze, Fattoria Lavacchio, where would stay for the next two nights, just north of Pontassieve and Rufina, in the Chianti Rufina subregion. The farm is a multi-faceted, family-run operation that includes a number of rooms in a small, boutique-hotel-like setting, a bodega, a full restaurant, a winery and vineyards, as well as a garden to supply the restaurant. Shortly after our arrival, we were greeted by a beautiful double rainbow over the valley below the farm.
We spent Friday on the farm outside Siena. It was time for our cooking class with our Airbnb host Christiana and her mother, Nora. It could not have been a more perfect day. We learned Italian cooking the way it is done best, i.e., from the heart. Our day was filled with love, laughter, new friends and great food. The lessons included ravioli with a ricotta filling, mushroom ragu, a wonderful asparagus pie, an amazing fennel au gratin and tiramisu.
We began the day at 10:30 a.m. with coffee and tasty cakes made by Christiana. We soon moved over to well chosen local red, white and rose wines to accompany our lesson.