Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Winemaking Hangs in the Balance in Mesmerising Cinque Terre

Region: Cinque Terre People: Luciano Capellini

There is a chill briskness in the air as I wander around the sleepy town of Monterosso in early March. At this time in the morning few people are about, mainly tradesmen in paint-splattered overalls heading off to work.  I tail one into a small shop above which hangs the sign Panificio Cerere and am rewarded with a freshly baked slice of focaccia. Simply made, with a crunchy bite that fills the mouth with flavours of salt and olive oil, it is so good I have to turn back for seconds.

Monterosso, along with Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola form the Cinque Terre, a series of five villages connected by winding terraces that are a hiker’s dream. Located in the crescent-shaped region of Liguria on a coastal strip known as the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre is a popular destination for those seeking spectacular scenery, azure waters and a laidback experience. Far removed from the chic fashion houses of Milan and the imposing ruins of Rome, Cinque Terre is a place to lose yourself in the contemplation of sea and sky.

Despite the rugged and hilly landscape, Cinque Terre is a source of prime agricultural products, renowned for its olive oil, basil and citrus fruits. In springtime, lemon groves heavy with fruit dot the villages with motes of yellow and green. Steeped in alcohol and sugar syrup, this bounty transforms into Italy’s sweet liqueur known as limoncello. A staple dish is trofie al pesto, a knobbly, tapered type of pasta that is served with green beans, potatoes and sauce made from local basil leaves.

Tourist dollars have given the region a much-needed boost, especially after a devastating landslide in 2011 buried the villages in mud and blocked off access to many roads. Even today, evidence of the disaster can still be seen in the zoned-off areas and netted cliffs. However tourism, like a sword, can cut both ways. A resident I spoke to told me the story of how he had returned to his orchard to find some decidedly organic fertiliser left behind by two hurriedly departing tourists. For those Italians who had sought out this quiet corner of the world to retire in, the hordes of camera-clicking visitors and stomping boots are a disruption to be borne with stoic resolve.

Luciano Capellini in his vineyard
One of the locals I met during my trip was Luciano Capellini, a sixth-generation winemaker based in Volastra. Spry and contemplative, Luciano is deeply involved in revitalising an industry that has been abandoned by the younger generation in favour of less physically demanding jobs. He traces the history of winemaking back to the 12th century and states that much of the early agricultural activity of the region was based around grapes. The wines of Cinque Terre were being enjoyed by the merchant princes of Florence in the 16th century, however when winemaking started in Tuscany, the higher prices of Cinque Terre wine made them uncompetitive.

The grapegrowing environment in Cinque Terre is a complicated one. The steep terraces on which the grapes are planted preclude the possibility of using tractors for harvesting. The sole concession to mechanisation is the monorail system that runs up and down the vineyards carrying baskets of grapes to the winery. I asked Luciano what was the most difficult aspect of winemaking in Cinque Terre, expecting him to name some pest or vine disease, and he told me that it was the task of maintaining the stone terraces, which have to be replaced every few years due to erosion. Looking at the miles and miles of terraces snaking through the villages, I begin to have an idea of the arduous work required.

The main grape varieties used in Cinque Terre are the white Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino. The regulations specify that to be labelled a Cinque Terre wine, the blend must be at least 40% Bosco, with another 40% comprising Vermentino and/or Albarola and the remainder any local varieties. Classic Cinque Terre wines are light, fresh and citrussy with a suggestion of Mediterranean herbs and salinity. The region also produces a sweet wine called sciacchetrà made from the same grapes that have been left to raisin. It reminded me of an Italian vinsanto – sweet and honeyed with notes of fig, caramel and orange blossom, but less full-bodied than a Tokaji Aszú or Sauternes. These sweet treasures don’t come cheap – expect to pay upwards of €30 for a half bottle – but they offer a glimpse into a unique place.

My visit to Cinque Terre furnished many incredible memories – wandering a disused cinema in Monterosso, its rusty chairs still laid out in rows, spectacular sunsets over the town of Vernazza, and mouthwatering feasts of crayfish and stuffed anchovies. Yet its wine industry runs the risk of being consigned to the annals of history if a new generation does not take over from aging hands. Luciano, who also sits on the town council, is hoping that the rural economy will receive greater priority with incentives for young people to be involved in agriculture. “This land”, he says, indicating the vast expanse of rocky cliffs falling away into the sea, “is too beautiful to be abandoned.”

Getting there:
From Milan, a high-speed train via ItaliaRail will get you to Monterosso in three hours. From there you can take a local train to any of the other villages, although if you are feeling particularly fit hiking the trails from one village to the next will reward you with amazing scenery.

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