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In Cinque Terre white wine is the thing....

There are three main grape varieties: Bosco, Vermentino and Albarola. The ‘vineyards’ are planted on the 60 degree slopes on a series of terraces more commonly associated with pictures of the Rhine but every bit in use here. The terrace system goes back in time at least a thousand years. On the hillsides there are terraces everywhere. Terraces back to back, marching up the slope. Many now overgrown. We were told that in aggregate there are more miles of dry stacked rock walls creating the Cinque Terre terraces than there are in China’s Great Wall. (Who knows?..... never been to China, maybe next month.)

a plate of seafood

Ligurian seafood cuisine mainly uses humble but tasty ingredients - clams and mussels, mackerel, anchovies, and something called blue fish.  Species that taste great but are not highly commercialized due to their smaller size or the extra time and care needed to prepare them; traditional small-scale fishing techniques; and ecologically sustainable high quality aquaculture. 

cinque terre fisherman sits in his boat mending his nets

Locally, the grape growing is known as ‘heroic viticulture’. To me it was ‘vertical viticulture’ and what a labor of love and tradition it is! No machinery can reach the vineyards. There are a few teeny monorails that support one (insane) man and maybe 500 lbs. of grapes and supplies that connect some of the vineyards but they are few and far between. Apart from that, the work is done by hand. Everything.  The grapes are trellised on a pergola system of wires which places the canopy maybe four feet off the ground. That works great for sun exposure (the pergola trained vines look like giant green solar panels) but it places the hapless grape picker sitting on his / her butt to harvest the fruit into his basket which he will then carry upslope or down to the nearest cart path or monorail. These people are tough!

Is the wine worth it? You’d think it ought to command a price right up there with Romaneé Conti. It doesn't. The dry table wines are in the 15-25€ range though Sciacchetrá, the sweet, passito wine is about 35€ for 375 ml. The wines are much more austere than our fat, oaked California chardonnays. They are fruity, minerally sometimes tart and occasionally look way too yellow suggesting over-the-hillness. But that’s to the California palate and eye. The key to these wines is that they perfectly accompany the food of the region, mostly seafood (of all kinds), pesto, breads and veggies. I have never had it made so clear how important pairing wine with food is. As stand alone, sipping wines, those of Cinque Terre would come up short. With the local foods they are perfect. Indeed, the thought of a Talbott (or God forbid, a latter day Rombauer) chardonnay with the meals we had is almost repulsive. The Sciacchetrá (sha-keh-trá) is certainly sweet and reminded me of apricots and creosote bush. I liked it.

While we were in 5T, Amy arranged several lunches and two dinners for us and they were all beyond first rate. They were outstanding. The most memorable was a special arrangement she cooked up for Martye’s birthday. Amy got a local guy to take us for a sunset boat ride down the coast from Monterosso to Riomaggiore and back. We sat on the front of the boat sipping iced Proseco and nibbling on assorted antipasti provided to us in a large picnic basket. On returning to Monterosso we went to the rooftop terrace at the home of a local couple, Daniella and Piero, who are into cooking and who, from time to time, cater special meals. They cooked and served us a 10+ dish meal (including a whole cooked fish….bream) and three wines on the terrace of their home. After dinner we persuaded them to join us for grappa and we talked a bit until Piero put on his Italian opera recordings (The Three Tenors is still hit) and began singing. Well that sorta got me singing and we all had a great time until I happened to notice it was 01:30 in the morning and these people had to go to work the next day! Fortunately, Monterosso is teeny and our B & B was literally next door so we got back and to bed without issue. But, what an evening and what a meal!!   Hat’s off to Daniella and Piero and to Amy for arranging it all.

On our last day in Cinque Terre the three of us took the ferry to Portovenere near La Spezia. It is very much the resort town with a wonderful harbor and some glorious sailing yachts. We walked the ancient ruins and saw a babe with the highest pair of platform shoes I have ever seen . We took a water taxi over to Palmira Island, about a five minute boat trip, to another absolutely incredible seafood lunch lasting two hours and limited only by the need to catch the last taxi back or swim for the mainland. Once back we enjoyed a limoncino (think of vodka with a strong lemon infusion, over ice) while waiting for Dannino to pick us up in the cab and take us to Pisa.