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.
“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
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 story was featured in W&S April 2013.