Italy has many picturesque wine regions, but the rugged dramatic coastline known as Liguria, or the Italian Riviera, is an improbable treasure trove for the traveling wine enthusiast. Curved around the Mediterranean, the small, terraced vineyards of Liguria dot the landscape from the French border along the west coast of Italy down to the famed Cinque Terre.
The region’s geography plays a significant role in shaping the distinctive characteristics of its wines. Located between the Ligurian Sea and the Maritime Alps, it is a land of both rugged landscapes and a harmonious climate. The unique combination of warm coastal breezes and mountain influences creates an ideal environment for viticulture. The cool maritime influence helps retain acidity in the grapes, while the sun-drenched slopes provide the perfect conditions for grape ripening. The steep grades of many slopes create challenging conditions for grape growing. Some vineyards are isolated on terraces that have been carved out of the cliff and are only accessible by boat. Winemaking traditions in this area can be traced back 2500 years to the Etruscans and Greeks.
The indigenous grape varieties in Liguria have adapted to the region’s particular terroir over centuries. High concentrations of limestone give them a distinct minerality. The region produces mostly white wines (75%) and its most prominent white grape is Vermentino, referred to locally as Pigato meaning ‘spots’ that develop on the grapes as they reach maturity. This aromatic variety thrives in Liguria’s coastal areas, producing wines with vibrant acidity, crispness, and a bouquet of citrus fruits and floral notes. The best examples are praised for their refreshing and mineral-driven profiles. Vermentino is often blended with two other white grapes called Bosco and Albarola. Bosco gives structure and richness to these wines whereas Albarola can express notes of honey, flowers and perfume especially when made in the sweet style under the unique Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà DOC. For those who like rich and charismatic white wines the Cinque Terre.
As for red wines, Rossese and Ciliegolo and Vermentino Nero take the spotlight here. They create subtle and fruity wines that can show notes of herb and spice. Rossese wines are usually light-bodied and elegant, with red fruit flavors, floral nuances and delicate tannins. These wines capture the essence of Liguria’s terroir, reflecting its maritime influence and mountainous landscapes.
When it comes to tasting Ligurian wines, visitors will also be captivated by the region’s extraordinary food. The bright acidity of the region’s white wines complements the local seafood perfectly. Their citrus notes and hints of salinity provide a delightful pairing with dishes like seafood pasta, grilled fish, or even the Ligurian specialty, pesto. For red wine enthusiasts, their signature lightness offers a pleasant balance that doesn’t overwhelm the palate. They pair excellently with Ligurian-style pizza, salted cod dishes, or even a selection of local cheeses.
Of course, a visit to Liguria would not be complete without experiencing “The Five Villages of the Cinque Terre.” This string of ancient seaside towns nestled along the rugged coastline just northwest of La Spezia have earned themselves the coveted status as a UNESCO World Heritage site as a “cultural landscape” of extraordinary value.
Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the five villages, and it is also home to the only expansive beach in the region. The village is divided into two parts: the new town, where modern buildings and amenities can be found, and the charming old town, with its narrow streets and colorful houses. Monterosso is a great place to start your Cinque Terre adventure, with plenty of hiking trails and panoramic views to enjoy.
Vernazza is considered by many to be the most picturesque of the five villages. Its colorful alleyways and charming harbor attract visitors from all over the world. Vernazza is also home to the Doria Castle, which dates back to the 15th century and offers spectacular views of the village and the sea.
Corniglia is the only village in the Cinque Terre that is not directly connected to the sea. Instead, it is perched on top of a rocky promontory, surrounded by terraced vineyards. Due to its unique position and the effort required to reach it (by climbing 377 steps), it is the least visited of the five villages, making it an ideal spot for those seeking a more tranquil experience. On the hiking path from Corniglia to Manarolo you will find one of the best local wineries, Cantina Cappellini. Here you can taste wines in the middle of the terraced vineyards with stunning views overlooking the sea. Luciano Cappellini and his family have been making remarkable examples of Cinque Terre wines for seven generations.
Manarola is a small village that exudes charm and character. Its tall, colorful houses rise up the hillside leading up to the 14th-century church of San Lorenzo. Manarola is also home to the famous Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane), a scenic path that connects Manarola to Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore, the furthest south of the five villages, is a lively town with vibrant houses that cling to the steep hillside. Its bustling harbor is always busy with fishing boats that provide a steady supply of fresh seafood in its cozy restaurants. Riomaggiore is also home to the ancient Church of San Giovanni Battista which offers stunning views of the village and the sea.
Between Riomaggiore, Vernazza and S. Stefano Magra and Castelnuovo Magna, are 6 hectares of special vineyards cultivated by a talented winemaker named Walter de Battè. Leaving behind his life as a sailor he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up viticulture. In 2003 Walter founded the Primaterra label with a group of friends and local experts. His philosophy is to produce wines that express the union between man, grapes and terroir. Both his whites and reds undergo considerable skin maceration to capture the unique qualities of their territory.
If you continue a little further south past La Spezia you will reach the picturesque town of Portovenere, sometimes called the “Sixth Town” of the Cinque Terre which also has UNESCO World Heritage status. Overlooking the Gulf of La Spezia you can take in the same views and archipelago that enchanted the 19th-century writer Lord Byron. The natural beauty here is truly breathtaking. Enjoy the numerous hiking trails along the coast or take a boat out to Palmaria island where you can dine at the legendary Locanda Lorena seafood restaurant. Portovenere itself also has plenty to discover, from the Doria Castle to the numerous boutique shops and restaurants offering the best of Ligurian wine and cuisine.
If you’re looking for memorable places to visit while tasting these delicious wines and local dishes, there are a few places that stand out. In the north of Cinqueterre, Portofino is a traditional fishing village with sophistication and elegance that attracts celebrities and jetsetters, but its beauty and charm make it worth the visit. For a more laid-back ambiance, the village of Santa Margherita Ligure offers just as much charm with some nice beaches that are perfect for a swim after lunch.