Legends of the Cinque Terre

Why doesn’t the fabled Italian wine praised by Petrarch pass muster today?

History Italy Literature Wine
A winemaking hotspot? The rugged coastline of the Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site (photo: Mike Albrecht)

It used to be rather different. You went somewhere on holiday, one evening drank what seemed to be an unassuming wine in a simple restaurant, and found it delicious. You scoured the local shops and found a few more bottles to bring home. A few weeks later, you opened a couple when friends came round, having primed them about this rather special but completely unknown wine you had come across in the Auvergne, or Puglia, or the hinterland of Barcelona — wherever. Without exception, it now tasted completely filthy.

Of course it is hard for a bottle of supermarket retsina opened in a solitary bedsit during the gloom of a February evening to compete with the bottle of apparently the same wine you drank with friends in Poros overlooking the harbour after a day’s sailing.There are so many factors that can throw a transient magic over wine consumed while relaxing abroad with friends and family.

Holiday wine is still, I find, one of the most reliable sources of disappointment — but not quite in the same way. Now it tends to be disappointing when you drink it on holiday, to the point where you never discover whether it would be equally or even more disappointing at home because there seems no point in putting yourself to the trouble of bringing any back. Today it is easy to find delicious, surprising, beautifully-made wine from all over the world in Britain. There are literally dozens of well-run, independent wine merchants with excellent websites and tempting lists who will deliver to your door the following day.  This is an excellent state of affairs, but it can make holiday drinking a bit dull. You go away, perhaps to an area renowned for its wine, but despite your best efforts can find nothing that pleases. Are the locals keeping all the good stuff for themselves? Or is it rather that some areas which used to be renowned for their wine have been left behind in the global wine race?

The Cinque Terre, just south-east of Genoa, is a case in point. A wonderful place to go walking (provided you are lucky enough to pick a time when the rest of the world has not also decided to go there), glorious coastal views, charming small towns perched on cliffs tumbling down into the Tyrrhenian sea, comfortable idiosyncratic hotels, delicious fish to eat, and — so at least those of literary education have been led to believe — superlative wines. Hear the extravagant praise of the humanist and geographer Giacomo Bracelli, the Notary and Chancellor of the Republic of Genoa, who wrote in 1448:

There are five castles on the coast, all more or less at the same distance from each other: Monterosso, Vulnetia, which the common people now call Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore — famous, not only in Italy but among the Gauls and Britons for the nobility of their wine. The spectacle offered by these localities is well worth the sight. In some parts the mountains stoop sweetly down, while in others they are so steep that even the birds have trouble flying up their sides; the earth being so stony, they do not detain water but are covered in vines so slim and fragile-looking as to seem more like ivy plants than vines. And yet from these you obtain wine fit for the tables of a king.

The fame of the wines of the Cinque Terre is unmistakable for students of Renaissance literature. In book six of his epic De Africa Petrarch heaped plaudits on the wine of this region:

Hinc solis vineta oculo lustrata benigno
Et Baccho dilecta nimis montemque rubentem
Et juga prospectant Cornelia palmite late
Inclyta mellifluo; quibus haud collesque Falernos
Laudatamque licet Meroen cessisse pudebit:
Tunc seu pigra situ, nulli seu nota poetae
Illa fuit tellus, jacuit sine carmine sacro.

On this side they surveyed the vineyards traversed by the sun’s fruitful gaze and so highly prized by Bacchus, and the red mountain [i.e. Monterosso], and the Cornelian heights [i.e. Corniglia] renowned far and wide for their sweet wine; wines it will be no shame to prefer to those of the Falernian hills and of celebrated Meroes. But then, whether because of its remote situation, or because no poet was acquainted with that district, it lay uncelebrated in verse.

In The Decameron the abbot of Cluny is cured of a stomach complaint by “a large glass of Vernaccia from Corniglia”. In one of his Novelas ejemplares Cervantes has his travellers arrive “at the splendid and magnificent city of Genoa, and, having visited a church, they entered an inn. Here they became acquainted with the smooth Trebbiano, and they tasted the choice wines of the Cinque Terre, as well as the sweet and gentle wines of Venaccia.”

So what are the fabled wines of the Cinque Terre? There are two. A dry white wine is made from a mixture of Bosco, the workhorse white wine grape of Liguria, and either or both of Albarola, a rather neutral grape, and the much more attractive and interesting Vermentino, which can impart some aromatic life to the wine (though it is not as successful here as in southern France). Then there is the legendary sweet wine called Sciacchetrà, which is made from the same grapes but dried in the sun to achieve concentration and sweetness — though you will be lucky to find any, as fewer than 200 cases are now made in any year.

It is hard today to see any justification for the praise of these wines by Boccaccio, Petrarch and Cervantes. What might account for the discrepancy? It is possible that, in an age when wine-making techniques were still very traditional, and when the chemistry of wine was not at all understood, the peculiar situation of the Cinque Terre — thin soil, steeply-raked vineyards, a protective westerly aspect and moderation from sea-breezes — helped to preserve the wine made there from the obvious faults of “cooking” on the vine and of being fermented at too high a temperature. Even now in Sardinia the Vermentino is sometimes harvested a little early, before it is phenologically ripe, in order to preserve freshness and acidity. For the contemporaries of Boccaccio and Petrarch the wines of the Cinque Terre might indeed have had a genuinely rare lift and precision.

There is a further, more cultural, possibility. Since the tenth century this part of the Ligurian coast had been subject to raids from Saracen pirates, who plundered the villages and took away the women and children. These raids continued throughout the 16th century, until in 1634 the Republic of Genoa established a squadron of corsairs to protect the Cinque Terre. Their emergence from this very westerly site of struggle between Christendom and Islam may have varnished these wines with a faint apocalyptic glow, now however long since departed when this stretch of coastline has dwindled into nothing more than an agreeable holiday destination for the affluent European middle classes.