This thin and hilly crescent betwixt Provence, Piedmont, Tuscany and the Mediterranean sea is a summer playground, and home to some of the best wines you've never heard of.
I first went to Liguria in a pushchair and have been returning as often as possible ever since. It's a pretty peaceful existence in the height of the summer season, quiet weeks punctuated by pedalos, paddling and pasta.
Sestri Levante has always been our base, a sleepy seaside village with a fin de siècle feel to it. Close to Genoa, it is well placed for visits to Cinque Terre and Colli di Luni, and you can day-trip it to the vineyards of Riviera Ligure di Ponente. Even Dolceacqua, closer to Monaco than Genoa, is doable.
Liguria is where it all began for us. That first summer, in August 2012, we drove the length and breadth of the region seeking out the best of her wines. Some we knew, some we didn't. Even then, bar a handful of estates, this is uncharted territory - and what utterly stunning territory. Winegrowers in these parts have skill and audacity in equal measure. The terraced vineyards of Cinque Terre make the Mosel or Cote-Rotie seem gently undulating. The hills of Dolceacqua (pictured above) are barely less arresting.
Quick summary. Liguria has seven DOCs, the most prominent being Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Rossese di Dolceacqua, Cinque Terre and Colli di Luni. There are three distinctive areas: west of Genoa, where you get reds made from Rossese and whites from Pigato; east of Genoa around Cinque Terre, with its inimitable white blends of Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino; and the Colli di Luni in the far south-east, which has more in common with the reds and whites of Tuscany than the rest of Liguria.
The main red grape, Rossese, comes in two forms: Rossese di Dolceacqua (from western Liguria around the eponymous town) and Rossese di Campochiesa (from closer to Genoa, among the hills of Savona). Both are fairly thin-skinned, making light, flavoursome, very northern Italian reds, though the latter producing the lighter of the two. The Independent's Anthony Rose called Altavia's Rossese di Dolceacqua "smoky" and "pinot noir-like", while Andrew Jefford in Decanter wrote that Rossese wines remind him of red burgundy.
Altavia is, as its name suggests, found in a very high up place. You'll be an expert at hairpins by the time you arrive, 400 metres high up in the hills behind Dolceacqua. Here you are fewer than 20 miles from Monte Carlo and barely 40 miles from Cannes. It is where the Riviera blurs, and it is no surprise that Rossese isn't in fact Italian at all: is is from across the border in Provence, where as Tibouren it has been making red and pink wines since the eighteenth century. Yet Rossese di Dolceacqua wines are very different to the Tibouren wines of Clos Cibonne for instance: more herbal, cherried and altogether more Italian.
The best whites are made from Pigato, a local clone of Vermentino, stylistically and visually distinctive. The old local word pigau means spotty: hence the name of this speckled grape. The wines are saltier, more mineral and herbal than classic Vermentino. Producers such as Maixei believe them to be so different, they'll have separate vineyards and bottle separate Pigato and Vermentino wines. "These are very similar grapes, of course, but which make truly different wines," says Maixei's charming winemaker Fabio Corradi.
Francesca Bruna and her husband Roberto make Pigato wines from vineyards planted by Francesca's father, in the small village of Ranzo (population a little over 500), about 25 miles inland from Albania and 50 miles south-west of Genoa. There is no sign above the door, so you must trust your nose, distracted as it is by the perfume of Mediterranean flora on the breeze. It's worth tracking down, because these are the finest expressions of Pigato that Liguria can offer. Le Russeghine is perhaps the finest varietal expression you'll come across, being made from an old single vineyard of distinctive red clay soils, but only around 8,000 bottles are made each year. Even scarcer is U Baccan, at just around 2,000 bottles a year it is an iconic natural wine made from their oldest vines (more than 50 years old) with astonishing ageing potential. Every vintage of U Baccan is different, which is why Roberto calls it his "anarchic" wine.
Other red grapes include Granaccia, the local clone of Grenache Noir, Ciliegiolo, a parent of Sangiovese making candied cherry pinks and light reds, and Ormeasco, an earthy, red fruited clone of Dolcetto given its own DOC in Pornassio. In Cinque Terre, salty, refreshing white wines are made of a traditional blend of Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino.
Cinque Terre is where the fading of the winegrowing light is most stark. The perilous, back-breaking challenge of tending vines on the area's vertiginous cliffs is discouraging young locals from taking up the art. Elio Altare is known for high-end Barolo. His project to revive winegrowing in Cinque Terre is something of a secret, apt for a man of such unassuming generosity. Elio makes traditional white blends as well as Sciacchetra, a famed local sweet wine made in minuscule quantities. All are very natural, unfiltered, with minimal intervention, native yeasts, and minimal added sulphur. They are very hard to find. We sat in his tiny, primitive cellar in Riomaggiore, trying bottles and wines out of tank, barrel and jerry can, wondering what the future held for this fragile industry. "The young don't want to work the vineyards," said Elio, but, gesturing to his young apprentice, "There is hope, because this is a tradition worth preserving."
by Nik Darlington