Home of Michelangelo’s David, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the leaning Tower of Pisa, the Palio of Siena, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Chianti, Brunello di Montalciano and super- Tuscans like Sassicaia and Ornellaia, Tuscany is surely the best-known and most-travelled region of Italy. But even for the most knowledgeable wine aficionado or the most jaded international traveler, there may be one small corner that remains to be explored. Lunigiana, Tuscany’s northwestern corner, is quickly gaining attention for its distinctive local vines and coastal wines.
The vineyards of Lunigiana’s Candia dei Colli Apuani, where Aurelio Cima produces vermentino bianco and nero.
In 177 BCE, the Romans founded a city they named Luni, after Luna, their goddess of the moon. Located near the present-day border of Tuscany and Liguria, the port city grew up along the primary route between Rome and the Gallic colonies (present-day France), becoming an important commercial and cultural center for the surrounding area, known as the Lunigiana.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Luni was repeatedly sacked by pirates and barbarian hoards and quickly declined. Over time the Magra River, which cuts diagonally across the Lunigiana from the mountains to the sea, deposited silt, making the once-bustling port city landlocked. Then malaria infested the humid swampland, forcing people to flee into the nearby hills. By 1058, Luni was abandoned (it is now a protected archeological site). The Lunigiana, however, remains, even if it’s not always easy to say exactly where it begins and ends.
“The Lunigiana is an ambiguous region,” says local culinary historian Salvatore Marchese. “It has no clear, official boundaries.” The area straddles Tuscany and Liguria, where the borderline resembles a jagged jigsaw puzzle (the result of a truce brokered by Dante Alighieri in 1304 between the Archbishop of Luni and the ruling Malaspina family of Ortonovo). “The Ligurians think of us as Tuscans and the Tuscans think of us as Ligurians,” said Elisabetta Morescalchi, who manages the Enoteca Regionale della Liguria in Castelnuovo Magra, in the heart of the Lunigiana. “Sometimes we’re not even sure ourselves who we are!”
But if the boundaries are ambiguous, the significance of the Lunigiana as a wine-producing area is not. As far back as 79 AD Pliny the Elder wrote that “the wine of Luna carries off the palm of Tuscany” (an ancient Roman way of saying it takes the prize). And nearly two thousand years later, the Lunigiana continues to offer unusual and compelling wines.
The Lunigiana comprises the area south of the Cinque Terre and north of Carrara, with the Apennine Mountains and Apuan Alps to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. The mountains form a kind of semicircular barrier enclosing an expansive coastal plain, the steep eastern hills dividing a relatively small area into a range of distinct microclimates. In this area, two regions meet and intermingle. Tuscany is represented by sangiovese, Liguria by its standard-bearer, vermentino; but the wines they produce here are notably different. What’s more, the region boasts a number of very promising indigenous grape varieties found nowhere else.
The area’s wines fall mainly under two DOCs and an IGT (Indication of Geographic Typicity). The Colli di Luni DOC, which was created in 1989, is the largest denomination, both in terms of volume of wine and number of wineries. It is also one of very few Italian wine appellations to cross regional boundaries.
“See that marker?” asked Ivan Giuliani of Terenzuola winery, as we stood before one of his vineyards in the flat valley. “The part on the right is Tuscany, on the left is Liguria. The border cuts right through the vineyard, so I have to deal with bureaucracy from both regions. Two times the headache!” Regardless of which side of the marker it falls on, the soil, says Giuliani, is loose and sandy with lots of rounded stones deposited by the Magra River.
We get in his car and drive a few minutes east to another vineyard. While still fairly flat, the soil here is rust-red with blackened deposits that crumble in your hand. Giuliani points out an old boarded-up building, once the entrance to a lignite mine. The brownish coal provided local employment until the mines were shut down in 1953.
We head up into the mountains to another vineyard suspended high above the sea. Here the soil is less sandy; schist and limestone take the place of river stones and the steeply terraced vines quiver under a noticeably cooler breeze. “The different microclimates make different wines,” says Giuliani.
This differentiation of terroir is reaffirmed by Diego Bosoni of Lunae, the Lunigiana’s largest winery. It produces 37,500 cases from 160 acres of estate vineyards and grapes from 150 small farmers. “The soil in the plain has a lot of sand and alluvial deposits and the fresh water of the Magra River tones down the salinity from the sea, making wines that are fresh, simple and best drunk young,” says Bosoni. “Up in the hills, the earth is more compact; the steeper slopes and terraces provide better exposition, ventilation and drainage, and there is a significant difference between day and nighttime temperatures, creating wines with more perfume, body and complexity. Between the plain and the hills it’s sort of a crap shoot depending on the various mineral deposits in the earth.”
What Bosoni and Giuliani said is borne out once I begin tasting: Both of their basic 2011 vermentinos are simple, fresh, appealing wines with 12.5 percent alcohol, while their higher-altitude single-vineyard wines from the same vintage, Terenzuola’s Fosso di Corsano and Lunae’s Cavigno, have more character as well as heft (14 and 13.5 percent alcohol respectively). Surely the impact of terroir is further accentuated by handling—grape yields from hilly vineyards tend to be lower than vineyards in the plain, fermentation time is longer and so is aging—and yet, on the basis of these wines, as well as a number of others I tasted at the Enoteca Regionale, overall the vermentinos of Colli di Luni come across as softer, rounder and less sapid than most Ligurian vermentinos, with a lower-toned acidity and subtler minerality, but lighter and more elegant than those from farther south, such as Sardinia.
Up in the hills, the earth is more compact; the steep terraces provide better exposition, ventilation and drainage, and there is a significant difference between day and nighttime temperatures, creating wines with more perfume, body and complexity.” —Diego Bosoni
The Lunigiana’s other DOC, Candia dei Colli Apuani, is just south of the Tuscan border in the province of Massa. Though only a few miles away, the landscape is notably different. Here the hills, with the white-capped Apuan Alps hovering close behind them, are curvier and steeper than those of the Colli di Luni, the disparity between the frenetic hubbub of the Via Aurelia and the desolation of the higher reaches even more extreme. There is a feeling of remoteness here, and as I drive along the narrow roads with winemaker Aurelio Cima, it looks even wilder due to the damage caused by heavy rains in the fall of 2012. “Roads and houses throughout Massa were flooded,” laments Cima, “but up here the water turned hillsides into rivers and tore up the vineyards. It’s going to take us years to recover.” He perks up a bit back at his winery as he begins to open bottles. “Candia is the truly ancient part of the Lunigiana,” says Cima. While the soil of Candia’s hills is rather loose, it has more clay and chalk than the Colli di Luni. This seems to make for earthier and more concentrated wines such as his Vermentino Vigneto Alto, which combines a cool minerality reminiscent of marble dust with a full palate of caramelized pineapple flavor and an almost tannic finish.
“This was the preferred viticultural area of ancient Luni,” says Cima, whose 12,500-case winery is the major player in a field of tiny wineries. “The ships that landed in the port brought vine cuttings directly from Greece and the colonies in southern Italy, which were then planted in these hills. That’s why we have so many different local varieties.” He pours another wine, this one deep, dark purple and full of ripe wild fruit flavors mixed with woodsy brambles, good acidity and firm tannins. “This is vermentino nero and it is indigenous to this area.” I later learned that the first official mention of the grape was in 1874 but it was only entered into the list of recognized varieties in 1992 due to the tenacious efforts of producer Pier-Paolo Lorieri, who makes a vermentino nero called Vernero. Cima goes on to suggest that white vermentino, which is grown throughout Liguria, Tuscany, Sardinia and Corsica, is actually a mutation of vermentino nero. Others, however, believe white vermentino is an entirely separate variety.
Whatever the origin of vermentino nero might be, a few things are clear: It has been here for as long as anyone can remember and, although still rare—not to mention difficult to grow and vinify—the variety seems destined for stardom (if, that is, it can manage to survive).
While vermentino nero is now one of the approved varieties under the Candia dei Colli Rosso DOC and the Val di Magra IGT (it can also be used in Colli di Luni Rosso blends), most producers prefer to bottle it under the region-wide Toscano Rosso IGT. In fact, some of the most exciting wines of the Lunigiana are produced under this generic designation. Cima, for example, makes a beautiful wine entirely from massaretta (also known as barsaglina), another rare, indigenous variety; a tiny winery called Casteldelpiano makes a promising white version of the pollera nera grape called Durilinda (as well as Melampo, a lovely pinot nero); and Terenzuola makes a captivatingly earthy, racy canaiolo nero called Merla della Miniera from the vineyard above the old lignite mine.
These are just a few of the treasures of the Lunigiana, a region, thanks to its very obscurity and ambiguity, that has not succumbed to the influence of an international market or experienced an influx of outside speculators. But it hasn’t fully come into its own yet either. Though the viticultural tradition is ancient, commercial winemaking here is still in its infancy. Out of the 40-plus wineries in the area, only a handful of them export internationally. As neither the landscape nor the inherent stubbornness of its inhabitants would seem to make it appealing to big business or outside intervention, the future of the Lunigiana lies in artisan-scale production based on indigenous varieties which, given current market trends, doesn’t seem such a bad place to be. Perhaps it’s time for the sun to shine on the land of the moon.
This article first appeared in W&S April 2013.