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Feature Story

Liguria from Quirky to Chic

by Wolfgang M. Weber  spume • posted on August 16, 2017

The Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi in Nervi, east of Genoa.

Liguria is a deliberate place. The region’s main city, Genoa, is a massive international port, but aside from the obvious access to the sea, the city is connected directly to Milan and the industrial north of Italy by a busy motorway that slices through the mountains that line the coast here. The rest of Liguria, in many ways, feels oddly removed from the fray, a place to pass through more than a destination itself, the main thoroughfares leading away from the province.

“Aside from the Cinque Terre and Portofino,” says Ceri Smith of Biondivino in San Francisco, “Liguria is often overlooked as a travel destination.” It’s after hours at the shop she opened on Green Street in 2006, and the dimmed lighting seems to embrace the boldly painted walls, their orange glow radiating out onto the foggy, dark sidewalk. In the years that I’ve been hanging out at Smith’s shop, one of our tightest bonds is a shared love of all things Liguria.

In this moment, the mood takes me back to the bright orange deck chairs and umbrellas last summer on the rocky beach at Bonassola, a small town in Liguria Levante, the eastern part of the province not too far from Cinque Terre. I had trekked in from France to meet friends for a wedding, a journey of four different trains and a final section on foot, down a winding street and some steep stairs to Bonassola’s main square.

Once settled at the beach, the groom-to-be shared a bottle of local wine, blended from albarola, bosca and vermentino. The family behind the wine had previously owned a restaurant in town, and now the father and sons were rehabilitating an old vineyard, farming organically and bottling their own wine as Cà du Ferrà rather than selling it to the co-op in neighboring Levanto.

Their vineyards could be seen high above the town, clinging to steep terraced slopes that overlooked the sea. It seemed like a tricky place to farm, necessitating the energies and focus typically devoted to an aspiring grand cru rather than what’s essentially refreshing coastal table wine. But in that moment, there wasn’t anything else I’d have rather been drinking.

Looking east from the center of Genoa. Looking east from the center of Genoa.

“These are honest, food-friendly wines, quirkiness and all,” Smith says, catching my reverie. During a visit to Liguria in the months before she opened Biondivino, Smith found herself in Camogli, not far from the super yachts and glitz of Portofino. “It was a long lunch of the most delicate fish crudo and gamberoni, the contrast of the bright green olive oil against the translucence of the fresh raw fish,” she recalls. “And with it, a bottle of pigato—its salty texture was like the ocean air. It was magic.”

Any grower with proximity to the sea wants to claim the salty air as part of the terroir expression of their site; however, in Liguria, that sentiment feels more real than elsewhere. Certainly the region’s winds have a major effect here, both those from the sea as well as diurnal winds from the high inland mountains.

As Paolo Ruffino at Punta Crena puts it, the wind is fundamental to farming in Liguria, driving different stages of a vine’s growth cycle throughout the year, as well as providing beneficial effects, like moderating heat or tempering mildew and rot when there’s excessive moisture. The result is a vibrant, salty, lemon verbena quality to wines like vermentino and pigato, a characteristic that helps balance the textural richness and density these varieties can pick up.

While Smith has stocked vermentino and pigato from classic producers like Punta Crena and Bruna since Biondivino first opened its doors, in more recent years she’s expanded those offerings into one of the most impressive collections of Ligurian wine west of Genoa. There’s bianchetta and çimixa from the storied Bisson winery in Chiavari, of course, but where things get interesting is with Smith’s array of rossese (she’s determined to have all of the rossese in the market if she can get it).

“These are honest, food-friendly wines, quirkiness and all.” —Ceri Smith
Rossese hails from the western end of Liguria and shares genetics with tibouren in Provence; however, for growers like Antonio Perrino at Testalonga in Dolceacqua, it’s less that the two grapes are nearly identical, genetically speaking, and more that the vines have long since adapted to their growing area and therefore yield a distinctive wine. Smith considers Testalonga—with its nervy, bright cherry flavor and delicious freshness—benchmark rossese.

If Liguria’s better-known white varieties face a chronic land shortage that effectively limits how much wine can be produced, then I should point out that rossese isn’t much easier to find. Still, just a few short years ago there was hardly any rossese in the American market, and yet today Biondivino is able to offer eight different cuvées, ranging from feisty and fresh efforts from the likes of Danilo Pisano to the more serious and structured wines of Maccario Dringenberg.

A common criticism of Ligurian wine in the past was that the wines were too scarce and too expensive to ever really catch on. Yet, in a market that is constantly searching for something new, and where there’s now an infrastructure of importers in place to specialize in scarce artisanal wines, it seems like things have shifted. Already, more Ligurian wines are entering the market, including an avant-garde of the local natural-wine movement with producers like Selvadolce and Stefano Legnani, both of whom are pushing regional stylistic boundaries with nods towards traditional skin-contact white wines, in addition to organic farming and promoting a minimal interventionist attitude in the cellar.

“In talking with people there, you see over and over that these growers know each one of their vines individually, like students in a classroom,” Smith says. “They have a belief in their land, and thankfully in their native grapes like çimixa, mattaousu, pigato and rossese. There is no ‘elevated status’ among wines; they are what they are, and are made and used how they’ve always been made and used. Liguria is a land of ghosts but the ghosts are alive and they are the protectors of tradition and history.”

Ligurian Selections from Ceri Smith with notes by Wolfgang Weber

BioVio 2014 Riviera Ligure di Ponente
Vermentino • Green melon, bright flavors,
lemony finish

Punta Crena 2015 Colline Savonesi
Lumassina • Crushable and fresh, slight spritz,
lime zest

Punta Crena 2015 Riviera Ligure di Ponente
Vigneto Ca’ da Rena Pigato • Herbal and
citrus pith aromatic, mineral, oily texture,
savory length, feels classic

Punta Crena 2015 Riviera Ligure di Ponente
Vigneto Isasco Rossese • Ruby hued, light
cherry notes, delicious, invigorating

Bisson 2014 Portofino L’Antico Çimixá •
Herbal, saline, melon, lasting flavor, complex

Rocche del Gatto 2013 Riviera Ligure di
Ponente Vermentino • Golden hued, structured
and firm, preserved citrus

Selvadolce 2015 Vino da Tavola Bianco
Crescendo (pigato) • Textural, herbal notes,
juicy melon, energetic

Selvadolce 2015 Vino da Tavola Bianco
Rebosso (vermentino) • Bright citrus and
melon, fresh and salty

Selvadolce 2013 Terrazze dell’Imperiese
Bianco VB1 (vermentino) • Yellow-copper color,
hillside scrub, fresh mint, lemon-verbena notes

Stefano Legnani 2015 Vino da Tavola Bianco
(vermentino) • Fresh herbs, pine, lemon zest,
saline texture

Danilo Pisano 2015 Rossese di Dolceacqua •
Fresh, invigorating aromas of rose and red
fruit, long, juicy

Maccario Dringenberg 2015 Rossese di
Dolceacqua • Savory herbs, dark fruit tones,
chewy tannin

This story was featured in W&S August 2017.
photos of Liguria by Wolfgang Weber; photos of Ceri Smith by Megan Bayley

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