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Wines of the Italian Riviera – A Primer

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2,400 hectares of rugged terrain, a multitude of family-run small wine estates (hardly ever producing more than 100,000 bottles each), eight DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata quality label), and three IGTs (Indicazione Geografica Tipica quality label).

Those are the main features of Ligurian oenology, a casket of renowned jewels (e.g. Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà dessert wine) and unexpected gems (from sapid Lumassina, a varietal dry white, to elegant Granaccia, the Ligurian declination of French grenache, Spanish garnacha, and Sardinian Cannonau).

Stretched between the Côte d’Azur and Tuscany, the narrow regional arch sides the Apennines and the Mediterranean sea – and, definitely, has much to offer to wine connoisseurs, too.

From the French border to Tuscany, let us then move eastwards for a rapid overview of the eight Ligurian DOCs. (DOC = Denominazione di Origine Controllata, controlled origin denomination, a legally defined and protected quality label.)

  1. Rossese di Dolceacqua DOC, est. 1972. Mentioned for the first time in the 16th century, this vine variety probably derives its name from “Rocense” (rocky), hinting at the quality of the soil. A remarkable red, it is the “Frenchest” of Ligurian wines. Rossese Superiore features a longer aging (one year). White Rossese is a rare beauty of limited yield.
  2. Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC, est.1988. The “showcase” of the Vermentino, Pigato and Rossese varieties stretches eastwards past Albenga and Finale Ligure to Cogoleto and Arenzano. Pigato (this indigenous cited for the first time in the first half of the 17th century) comes from “piga” (the local name for little dot), the tiny, rusty-coloured fleck typical of ripe grapes. Vermentino is a Mediterranean must, grown also in Sardinia, Tuscany, and Corse, not to forget Piedmont and the Pyrenees. Its name most likely comes from the ancient “ver” root, signalling the red colouring of its shots.
  3. Ormeasco Pornassio DOC, est. 2003. The cultivation of this variety of Dolcetto was imposed by the Clavesana household during the 14th century. This border DOC — covering an area between Liguria (provinces of Imperia and Savona) and Piedmont (Ormea and the Val Tanaro are just around the corner) — includes Pornassio Rosso (red), Rosso Superiore, Sciac-trà (rosé), Passito, and Passito liquoroso.
  4. Val Polcevera DOC, est. 1999. It features Bianchetta, Bianco (white), Vermentino, Rosato (rosè), and Rosso (red). Set in the Genoese entroterra, the Val Polcevera still features corners of rural tranquillity such as Campomorone, Ceranesi, Mignanego, Serra Riccò and Sant’Olcese. Bianchetta is the perfect match of vegetable savoury pies, chick pea farinata and panissa, baked anchovies… Coronata white wine is a treasured rarity.
  5. Golfo del Tigullio DOC, est. 1997 (36 Communi). It ranks Bianchetta, Bianco, Vermentino, Rosato, Rosso, Ciliegiolo, Moscato, Passito. The Bianchetta of the Tigullio is a bit more full-bodied than the one from the Val Polcevera, hence its ideal pairing with vegetable soups, rice dishes, zucchini, and sweet-tasting ingredients such as pumpkins. Cherry-coloured Ciliegiolo (from “cerasuolo”, a vinification technique processing red grape musts and avoiding any contact with marcs) found its way to Liguria from Spain via Tuscany, where it tamed the toughness of ubiquitous Sangiovese. A varietal (at least 85%) Ligurian gem, it features moderate alcohol contents (around 11%), bright colour — from claret to violaceous red — generous and lasting scents (fruity, herbaceous, with a mineral hint), and elegant, delicately dry flavours, well-balanced and full. Served at 15°, it is at its best young (1-2 years’ aging ) and drunk with tomato-sauce based pasta dishes such as mouthwatering “taggiaen a o tocco” (taglierini with Genoese meat sauce), risotti, soups, ripieni (stuffed vegetables), tomaxelle (veal rolls), fish stews, “buridde”, and hearty stockfish. The Val Fontanabuona, in the entroterra of the Tigullio, offers the rarity of Ximixà (try the passito, too), saved from oblivion by passionate vine fans. This Lumassina-like white becomes fish soups.
  6. Colline di Levanto DOC, est. 1995, Bianco and Rosso. The DOC takes in 4 Communi at a stone’s throw from the Cinque Terre.
  7. Cinque Terre DOC, est. 1973. It includes Bianco, Rosso, and Passito Sciacchetrà. These ancient wines were the apple of the eyes of Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. Level areas are almost missing in these vertical vineyards clinging to the rock and creating a scenic landscape of heroic terraces and dry stone walls.
  8. Colli di Luni DOC, est. 1989. It features Bianco, Vermentino, Rosso.

As for the 3 IGTs (the IGT guarantees both geographical provenance and tipicity), the most intriguing one is the Colline Savonesi IGT, which provides some unmistakable whites (Lumassina, Buzzetto, Mataossu) and red Granaccia. Lumassina probably derives its name from snails (lumasse in the Ligurian dialect), a treat of the terroir, whereas Buzzetto comes from “buzzo” (i.e. unripe) and Mataossu from “matti” (the local name for children and early things). This white trilogy is the best companion of fried fish, seafood, stuffed vegetables, and omelettes. Granaccia is also known as Alicante — a worldwide hit known as Grenache, Cannonau, red Tokaj, Gamay, Tinto. Hand-harvested, it is an elegant wine matching beef, game, and flavourful cheeses.

The Colline Genovesi (or del Genovesato) IGT includes whites, rosés, and reds, each of them in sparkling versions, too. Last but not least, the Golfo dei Poeti IGT from La Spezia offers whites (sparkling, too), red (sparkling and nouveau, too), rosé, and passito.

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