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.