High on wine: Cinque Terre’s dramatic vineyards

Text & photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

In Cinque Terre, five tiny colourful villages cling to rocky spurs that plunge into the turquoise Ligurian Sea. This rugged landscape has been softened for centuries by hardworking winemakers who painstakingly carved and maintained terraces into the cliff faces to cultivate them. Most terraces were planted with vines. A few areas were devoted to olive trees, citruses and vegetable gardens, and higher up in the mountains, forests provided chestnuts for the flour and leaves that were used to enrich the soil of the vineyards. Today, Cinque Terre remain Italy’s most dramatic wine area and the most difficult one to cultivate producing some of the most confidential and best wines of the country.

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Vineyards on a slope above the sea, grapes and bottles of wine in Italy

 

However, the industrial development of nearby towns and more recently the boom of tourism have led many of these terraces to be abandoned for easier and better paid jobs. The consequent landslides are unforgiving. Thankfully, a few young local winemakers have picked the stones up to rebuild a small part of the 6,700 kilometres of dry-stone walls supporting the vineyards, and have replanted selected vines.

The Cantina Sociale, the cooperative that supports the wine making in Cinque Terre by installing the monorail used to transport the grapes and by helping with irrigation counts a bit more than 200 producers for about 200,000 bottles a year. Beyond the cooperative, independent winemakers like Samuele Heydi-Bonanini at Azienda Agricola Possa in Riomaggiore have taken over the land of their ancestors to produce small quantities of high-quality wines thanks to a never-fading passion, a strong determination and a lot of really, really hard work.

We are walking amongst Heydi’s vines on his land overlooking Cinque Terre. The view is simply amazing: in the distance, the islands of Palmaria and Tino off the coast of Porto Venere; in the foreground, the terraced vineyards that seem to drop into the deep blue sea 150 meters below us, and that he has been rebuilding one by one, by hand.

One cannot grow grapes here without the dry-stone walls. Some of them on his property of two hectares are 600 to 700 years old! They were built by the local communities before being divided into private properties. If the monorail goes through Heydi’s land (actually, the steepest section in all of Cinque Terre is right here!), he hardly uses it to transport stones to patch or rebuild collapsed walls as the load would be too heavy for the rack wagons. It is all done by hand. First carrying the stones to where they are needed, and then rebuilding the three layers that compose a dry-stone wall so that it can retain the land properly. When it rains, the water has to infiltrate very fast into the soil: if it goes over the wall, it washes it away into the sea destroying every terrace below in its fall. Heydi owns some other patches of vineyards in some of the other villages of the Cinque Terre National Parks such as Monterosso and Volastra. The soil there is slightly different and requires a slightly different technique to build the dry-stone walls to allow for the water to drain. Dry-stone wall building is a very specific skill that is hard to master and requires experience. “The grandparents were all winemakers, the parents went to work in the heavy industry in La Spezia or other Italian cities, abandoning the fields for better paid jobs, and most of us have returned to work in tourism renting out rooms or running restaurants in Cinque Terre”, Heydi explains with a bit of sadness in his voice. Indeed, from about 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) that used to be cultivated, barely 100 (250 acres) remain cultivated today… Luckily, he cherishes the memories of his young years working the vineyards with his family and remembers the centennial-old techniques.

Then, it is a matter of selecting the vines. At Possa, 19 varieties of grapes are grown, bosco representing the largest share, with others such as albarola for the whites or bonamico and canalolo for the reds. In-between the vines, tomato or potato plants grow: potato plants enrich the soil in nitrogen, and get rotated with other plants to balance the soil content. Permaculture is also applied by planting aromatics such as rosemary to extract the humidity from the air, while citruses help fight specific mushrooms to limit the sulfuric treatments to the minimum.

Given the humidity level close to the Mediterranean Sea, growing grapes here is like milk on fire. The vineyards have to be very carefully monitored to prevent illnesses and mushrooms. This is also by studying the grapes carefully that Heydi knows when to harvest and how to select the best grapes and even, the best parts of some grapes for his best wines.

When it comes to the winemaking, it is years of studies, the advice of the elders and experimentation that have led him to win many national and international awards. Back at his troglodyte winery in the oldest street of Riomaggiore, we are savouring every sip of Heydi’s selection for our wine tasting: of course the dry white Cinque Terre DOC, comparing the bottles produced from the grapes grown in Riomaggiore, fermented and partially aged in acacia wood barrels to the more elegant Monterosso ones aged in jars; the unexpected rosé that is usually not produced in Cinque Terre (and results from a successful experimentation with canalolo and red moscato following a devastating hail storm); the red aged in chestnut wood barrels; and the delicious Sciacchetrà DOC (pronounce “shaketra”).

To produce the latter, Heydi Bonanini follows the ancestral method. Sciacchetrà has been made in Cinque Terre for centuries. In the old times, when this territory was very poor, inhabitants would produce this liquid gold and sell it to passing ships to then be savoured by the influential families of Genova or even the pope. They would keep only a few bottles to celebrate important life-events such as weddings or births, or use it as a gift or a form of payment for services such as visiting the doctor.

This nectar is the result of a very delicate and time-consuming process. “We handpick only the perfect bosco and albarola grapes on the vines during the harvests in late August to mid-September. Then we transport them very carefully and we put them to dry for a minimum of two months on racks sheltered from the sun. Once the raisin size is perfect, they are fermented on raisin skins in steel tanks for 28 days. Then they are pressed before being aged for at a least a year in jars, or oak, cherry or pear barrels.” Heydi explains with passion and emotion, remembering his own childhood memories and the most recent ones of the first time his own son participated in the Sciacchetrà making process when he was only 3!

All this hard work pays off. The amber gold liquor wine is simply delicious. So delicious that Heydi Bonanini’s Sciacchetrà won the award for best sweet wine of Italy at Vinitaly in June 2020 with a grade of 98%!

These rare wines are better enjoyed with the view here in Cinque Terre in a local restaurant, and preferably after having hiked amongst the vines to get a feel for what it takes to produce each bottle. It seems to be the only right way to truly appreciate not only these wines, but also this unique landscape shaped by Ligurian men and women for centuries.

Travel tips:

  • To live this experience, meet the passionate and talented Heydi and go on a unforgettable wine tasting, refer to BeautifuLiguria, an Italian-based boutique tour operator that crafts unique tailor-made travel experiences.
  • To buy some of Heydi Bonanini’s wines sold under his winery Azienda Agricola Possa, email info@possa.it. Bear in mind the production is small with only 22,000 bottles yearly.
  • Weirdly enough, it is not common for restaurants of Cinque Terre to serve local wines! Before you pick a place, do yourself a favour and make sure local wines are proposed. This is also a way of supporting the hard work of local wine producers thanks to whom you can enjoy these amazing landscapes.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For your perfect trip in Cinque Terre & in Liguria, click on these images:

Coastal villages with their harbours in Cinque Terre, Italy Woman making fresh pesto in Cinque Terre, Italy

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