There’s a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Michael Palin recounts the trials and tribulations behind the founding of Swamp Castle.
“Everyone said it was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ‘em. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up.”
This should give you something of an idea of the challenges faced by the wine producers of Liguria. Not that there’s anything swamp-like about the region (far from it), but the conditions are not for the faint of heart or weak of will. The Italian Riviera is dominated by hills so steep they drop almost straight into the sea, and further inland the hillsides are only marginally less intimidating. The vineyards are few and far between, planted on inclines that can only be accessed by foot or boat. This has made Liguria the second smallest wine region in the nation, with the word “heroic” thrown around to describe the sea-kissed wines produced by the few courageous (or crazy) enough to brave the slopes.
The high limestone content of Ligurian soil is good for white grapes like Vermentino, Albarola, Pigato, Bianchetta and Lumassina. In fact three-quarters of the wines produced here are light-bodied aromatic whites, which is highly convenient for a coastal region renowned for its seafood. Still, the reds make an appearance. The Rossese, probably brought here from southern France, is used in a number of blended and varietal wines in the DOCs, and is considered by many the finest grape in the region.
I reached out to my sommelier friend Marta Rezzano, born and partially raised in Genoa, and asked her to suggest three wines to give us a taste of Liguria without breaking the bank. Here’s what she recommends…
Rossese di Dolceacqua – DOC
This medium-bodied, ruby red wine received its title in 1972, but its legacy stretches back for centuries. The Farnese pope Paul III drank it at the advice of his cellar man Sante Lancerio (for “medicinal” purposes), and Napoleon kept barrels of it in Paris. The Rossese grape grows in the alpine valleys of the far west, a stone’s throw from the French border, and is rarely seen anywhere else. It accounts for 90% of the Dolceacqua, with the remaining ten made up of other neutral varietals from the Imperia province. Slightly tannic with floral and wild berry notes, it pairs well with roasts and seasoned cheese, and according to some, Margherita pizza.
Vermentino dei Colli di Luni – DOC
It’s safe to say that Vermentino is the most important grape in Liguria; it’s frequently compared with Sauvignon Blanc, so if that’s your thing, this is one for you. Vermentino is found in most of the region’s white wines and enjoys a great presence in Colli di Luna, in the coastal hills around Massa and La Spezia. Interestingly, this particular DOC stretches across the regional border into Tuscany (in fact, I’m drinking a Tuscan Vermentino as I write this). With a grape known for expressing its environment, Ligurian Vermentino embodies the salty essence of the Tyrrhenian Sea, making it a great choice for fish dinners on a sweltering August evening. Unlike their rich and floral twins in Sardinia, the Vermentino produced in Colli di Luni boasts aromas of basil and sage, with hints of green almond, making it a good pair with the local testaroli al pesto.
Pigato Riviera Ligure di Ponente – DOC
Pigato is the most common white grape in Liguria after Vermentino. In fact, the two are clones of the same variety, with the Pigato sporting brownish-red spots (from the Latin picatus, meaning stained or spotted.) It grows almost exclusively in this region and absolutely thrives in the coasts of Albenga and the Arroscia valley. More aromatic than its twin, it makes for a medium-to-full-bodied, straw-colored varietal with hints of peach, honey and flowers. When should you drink it? This is one for any kind of savory seafood dish, or just a summer aperitivo.
One last note: these wines are almost as challenging to track down as they are to produce. Given their highly limited production, their distribution outside of Liguria is modest at best. I recently paid a visit to my local enotecca to ask for a bottle of Rossese, and the owner laughed in my face. So if you want to sample these characterful, odds-defying wines for yourself, you’re just going to have to pay them a visit at their home.