JULY 2019 ITALIAN WINE CLUB
LIGURIA : CLINGING TO THE COASTLINE
Liguria is really pretty special… which seems a redundant statement when referring to the embarrassment of riches Italy boasts in the category of “special.” But for all of the legendary magic that happens just north in the Piedmont region, could you imagine if it also had a coastline? Nope. Sorry. That’s Liguria. The boomerang shaped Mediterranean boundary with waterfront property ranging from historic and rustic fishing villages to the ritz and romance of the Riviera. From the beach to vineyards is an intensely steep climb in most parts of Liguria, earning the region one of the very few in Italy with truly ‘heroic viticulture’ outside of the Alps (sometimes referred to as the Maritime Alps). These vertical vines are producing mostly white grapes (>70%), mostly one grape variety… Unless you ask the locals. The iconic Ligurian native grape Pigato has recently been identified as genetically the same Vermentino (though differing clones) and there has been plenty of pushback. The argument is that taste, appearance, growing challenges and even ampelography (identifying grape vines through leaf shape, and your new favorite nerd word) can be markedly very different. For now we are seeing some producers embracing the change, some retaining the traditional Pigato name and even some actively throwing the gauntlet by bottling the two different grapes separately under their own names. A delicious debate to be sure, but here we will honor and appreciate the Ligurian native Pigato, and check out what more is still to be discovered from this very special coastline.
WINE NO. 1
Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Liguria 2017
Not only has Pigato been genetically identified as Vermentino, but so has Favorita (a Piedmontese darling) and Rolle (an aromatic beauty from South of France.) Digging deeper into this well travelled and clearly important white grape seems to unlock an even bigger ball of tangled twine, however, as the mystery remains even as to where it may have originated. Vermentino is most prolific and adored in both Liguria and on the island of Sardegna and is a pretty safe bet for a delicious go-to when given the opportunity. So when you see wine labeled as Pigato, know that it also carries with it a sense of very important local identity, culture and flavor.
Riccardo Bruna is one of the producers that has championed Pigato as its own variety throughout this debate, and vehemently so. They have their Vermentino planted in rows side by side with their Pigato and anyone who’s ever spoke with him or anyone in his family on the subject (his daughters Francesca and AnnaMaria now run the operations) will immediately find themselves impassioned about the difference between the two grapes. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of tasting the Bruna Vermentino side by side with this Pigato, but those who have are made believers quickly, it seems. The Bruna family’s stunning and organically farmed vineyards are planted 1000 feet above sea level even though they’re less than 10 miles from the shore.
If there’s one thing to note in the Pigato vs Vermentino debate, it’s that I expect to smell that fresh sea spray minerality so much more distinctively in Pigato – and this wine does not disappoint! As this wine warms a bit there is a lovely sweet fennel flower interwoven into that coastal breeze that just warms my soul (can you picture yourself sipping in the Ligurian sunshine yet?) Soft grapefruit, kaffir lime and star fruit are beautifully ripe throughout on the long palate, and the finish has that touch of saltiness like licking the inside of an oyster shell. Pigato like this reminds me how much I love the cool complexity of coastal whites. Although Vermentino can certainly be similar it can often be more tropical and ripe in character.
Majé refers to the stone walls built to create the terraced vineyards along the steep inclines. Pigato is derived from the word pighe meaning ‘spots’ as the grape is freckled with amber color pigment. And the birds sure love it!
Portofino, Liguria 2017
Ciliegiolo – [chee-lee’eh-JOH-loh]
Besides being really fun to say (Ciliegia = Cherry), this grape has fabulous potential for great wine but has somehow not yet found its fame. In Tuscany it can be found mostly as a blending grape for Sangiovese, in fact there are still areas in which it is being found misidentified as Sangiovese. There are very few examples of single varietal red wines made from Ciliegiolo, and, admittedly, I’ve been underwhelmed as often as I have been excited about them when I get the opportunity to try them. But there are a good number of producers finally giving it the attention it needs to find its path to stardom in the near future. Keep your eyes out for more of this one, though only Bisson makes it in this unique light style.
We can’t visit Liguria without spotlighting Piero Lugano. Impossible. He has been so influential in the growth of Liguria’s overall reputation for quality and has been vital in preserving rare native grapes like Bianchetta Genovese, Alberola and Bosca. All of his wines are small batch and passionately looked after through every step. Starting out as a wine trader and retailer in the area, he is now far more famous for his unorthodox efforts submerging and aging his sparkling wines in the Meditteranean Sea. The man just exudes Liguria in every thing he does.
Ok, let’s acknowledge the pink elephant in the room. This particular shade of pink (reminiscent of the ‘white zin’ headache bombs of old) is the exact opposite of what has helped drive rosé wines back into popularity in the US (Provence pale or bust!) But this wine is truly the exception to the rule as it is produced to express the Ciliegiolo grape variety as opposed to just a light crisp summer treat. Served chilled for sure, but not too chill- this wine carries tons of tart cherry fruit character, minerality and herbaceousness which could be looked over if it’s too cold. Pomegranate and chokecherries with a lasting chalky mineral texture makes for an outstanding food pairing wine- which is more important than it may sound. Despite common belief, rosés are very often really difficult to pair with food… perhaps why they are often gone by the time the food arrives at the table.
Hard to put my finger on it, but there are some labels that once you drink one, you can somehow always pick it out on a shelf. I can see a Bisson bottle a mile away. The absence of the word ‘rosato’ (rosé) on the label is both intended and obvious.
Il Torchio “Il Nero”
Colli di Luni, Liguria 2017
Vermentino Nero [ver-mehn-TEE-noh NEH-roh]
Here is yet another classic Italian wine curveball: it would appear that this grape is not only NOT the dark skinned mutation of the Vermentino grape, as one might expect (see: Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc etc…) but genetically unrelated entirely. And although there is mention of it in the historical record of Liguria, this is not one of those grapes that one or two farmers have been quietly championing this whole time awaiting people to take notice of its potential quality. Instead, it was all but extinct up until 35 years ago -it was somehow being mistaken for Merlot even though, once again, it shares almost nothing in common with that grape either. Very few are working with it now and it remains to be seen if it will gain much in popularity.
Giorgio Tendola was an important local figure and the first to designate his wine to the now prominent Colli di Luni appellation. After his unexpected passing, his grandchildren Gilda and Edoardo have maintained his thoughtful attitude with hands-on organic farming and slow approach minimal intervention winemaking. Their wines are a favorite in local restaurants. Their farm is a unique one for the area specifically because it’s all on one compact, yet steep, plot of land as opposed to broken up into tiny plots due to the natural geographic challenges.
Having zero personal reference points to draw from on a wine is a rare treat for me. What does Vermentino Nero really taste like? Well it’s certainly not shy in expressing itself, is it? Black cherry soda and minty herbs is what jumps out to me on the nose and the palate is equally unique. Pomegranate, cassis, hibiscus and garrigue (wild coastal herbs.) What little I do actually know about this grape is that it’s got naturally ripping acidity, which is not only apparent here but is also one of the reasons producers have had difficulty working with it in the past. Only relatively recently in the US have wines like this been celebrated for their tooth enamel stripping qualities.
Il Torchio is the name of a traditional community olive press – the Tendola family used to run the local press for their village. The label artwork was designed by local artist, Francesco Musante, and you can find his work throughout their family-owned agriturismo today.
Rossese di Dolceacqua
Dolceacqua, Liguria 2017
I think the only debate about this grape is which side of the French/ Italian border it is native to. Being that neither Rossese nor its French counterpart, Tibouren, are likely to become the next Pinot Noir, I don’t think too many people really care much. What’s important is that the small sampling of these distinctively maritime Meditteranean reds are made are of great quality and stand up to the expectations of such an exclusive coastline.
These vineyards are located on another planet. Well, at least it appears that way with the tall limestone cliffs (Terre Bianche = white earth). The daunting switchback dirt roads from the valley floor find Filippo Rondelli’s vineyards tucked into small parcels, amongst olive trees of course, at about 400 meters high and are about the same distance from the border of France as they are the Mediterranean Sea. He makes incredible wines that speak to this very unique place and the soils from which the grapes are grown. At a whopping total of around 4000 cases per year (total, including his Vermentino) it is a humble treat that we’re able to enjoy his wines at all.
Peppery right from the get go, Rossese stands out to me as one of the more uniquely distinct grapes in Italy. This wine showcases equal amounts of high toned ripe fruits as it does grounding rich earthy tones. It is truly a rare treat to be tasting currants and cranberries at the same time as espresso and truffles. Dried strawberries and pencil shavings (or graphite) and still more of that ground peppery goodness. It is no wonder that this wine is absolutely built for the local Ligurian cuisine pulled straight out of the Meditteranean. The very first time I had a Rossese was oh so memorable: at a seaside restaurant outside Genoa, in a thick handled glass coffee cup, alongside a heaping plate of Pesce Fritta, or what we call ‘Fries with Eyes.’ I’m pretty sure I ordered a second round of both about three seconds in.
Gotta love a good old school map on a label… though you clearly need a magnifying glass: Dolceacqua (Sweetwater) is the name of the impossibly picturesque ancient village tucked amidst the mountains, split by the Nervia river, and is all the way to the left near the border of France. The grape, Rossese, is only listed on the back as part of the DOC name.