History Is Deeply Rooted in Cinque Terre Wine Country

BY Lesley Sauls Frederikson TIMEMay 10, 2022 PRINT

Standing with arms outstretched in the sun on his steeply terraced vineyard above the Ligurian Sea, Alessandro Crovara told us proudly, “This is my office.”

My husband and I had come to Cinque Terre at our daughters’ recommendation during a longer trip to Italy. We were ready to soak up the five seaside towns and the hikes that connect them, but we found several other surprises in store, too. The first was wine.

“The most important thing to know about us is that we are not fishing villages,” Crovara said emphatically as he gestured with his hands to drive his point home. “We are winemakers!”

And his family has been at it for the last century.

More than 1,000 years ago—long before Italy became a country—tiny villages emerged atop steep slopes along the seacoast where people could live in peace away from feudal wars and high above plundering pirates. Once maritime republics such as Pisa began to protect the area’s seas in the 12th century, the villages were safe to move closer to the water’s edge, where most remain—the villages of Cinque Terre. Throughout the centuries, villagers have worked with determination to conquer their rugged land by building stone walls and terracing the steep landscape for gardens, olive trees, and ancient grapevines.

Epoch Times Photo
Alessandro Crovara explains the intricacies of caring for grapevines on the steep terraced slopes above Manarola, Italy. (Photo courtesy of David Frederikson)

In this wildly rugged land, only the heartiest vines can survive, and Crovara showed us how. First, he makes pergolas of wire that his sturdiest vines can grow upon. Then he trains them to grow with the wind so that strong storms can’t break tender shoots and thicker vines can protect precious bunches of ripe fruit. After that, he prays for perfectly timed storms to sweep salty sea air over his grapes before harvest so that the resulting vintage bears the taste of the sea and minerals of the terroir.

Most of the wine produced in Cinque Terre is DOC-controlled to protect these specific flavors, and the jewel in their crown is the Sciacchetra. This sweet wine is served with rich cheeses or sweet biscuits at the end of meals and is made with tender care by some of the 4,000 people who call these villages home. These winemakers cut the grass beneath their vines, prune them, and harvest their grapes all by hand—and often lying on their backs beneath the protective pergolas.

The grapes are carried down hundreds of feet of terraced cliffs—one basket or box at a time—to cellars where each bunch is carefully dried for two months, inspected, and destemmed by hand before being very gently crushed. The wine ages one to two years before it is finally ready to bear the local name, Sciacchetra, a special wine with a yield too small to be sold anywhere outside this rugged region.

And rugged it certainly is. The second surprise for us was exactly how vertical these five villages are.

Epoch Times Photo
Rugged and extremely steep paths connect the five villages of Cinque Terre in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls Frederikson)

Each boasts charming narrow lanes—too small for any vehicle—that wind and climb with stairs and stone inclines throughout. Even a visit to the local cafe for fresh yogurt and cappuccino in the morning requires a heart-pounding climb.

Having learned that the villages were once completely isolated from one another except by rustic footpaths, we decided to try one out and were humbled by the vertical climb straight up and then down an equally steep path on the other side. These hikes are not for the faint of heart and speak to the tenacity of the people who live here.

For the less daring visitors, a ferry connects four of the five villages—Corniglia does not have any water access. The view of the terraced cliffs is majestic from the water, but the sea is not always cooperative. In such instances, a local day pass for the train includes passage between all five villages and bus rides within each. This is helpful in some of the steeper villages.

Cinque Terre is not a place to be rushed, though. That was our best surprise of all. These are people who savor life and take time to connect. They know where they come from and are happy to share it. Some 90-year-old grandmothers tell of hiking to the forested ridges before dawn as children to carry back bundles of vegetation they burned in pits on the terraces for natural fertilizer.

Sitting on our small balcony each morning with steamy coffee I could see local farmers heading up the terraces to work. These are tenacious people who, like their vines, have found a way to grow in an unexpected and difficult environment. It has made them exceptionally strong and resilient, and like their wines, the finish makes them sweet, inviting, and well worth seeking out.

When You Go
For more about the villages:
How to get around:
Where to stay in Manarola:
Taste the wine:
Tour a vineyard: (email for English)

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