A paradise for walkers, this astonishing corner of Liguria reveals an age-old tradition of vine-growing and a small but thriving food and wine scene, as Sarah Lane discovers...

Cinque Terre travel guide

Cinque Terre fact file

Planted area 80ha
Production 5,333 hl
Producers 26, including one cooperative
Main grapes (red) Gamba Rossa, Bonamico, Canaiolo (white) Bosco, Albarola, Vermentino, Piccabon/Pizzamosca

A wild and rocky coastline with improbably steep, terraced vineyards seeming to rise directly from the sea joins the dots of the Cinque Terre, five tiny villages that have remained practically unchanged since medieval times.

The dry-stone walls supporting the narrow terraces are the result of centuries of gruelling work and have led to UNESCO recognition as an extraordinary cultural landscape resulting from man’s harmonious interaction with nature. That harmony is reinforced by a refreshing lack of traffic; the sheer slopes leave no room for cars and the roads that do exist are long and winding, if panoramic, so transport is dependent on the railway, a dense network of footpaths, and ferries in high season. Olives, agaves and prickly pears add to the spectacular scenery and, as both a national park and marine reserve, the environment is carefully protected.

Despite being such a small area, wine culture is truly ingrained in the way of life. ‘Prestige wines have been produced here ever since the area was inhabited,’ explains Yvonne Riccobaldi, president of the local branch of the Italian Sommelier Association.

The term Cinque Terre was first coined in a 15th-century document referring to wine for the tables of kings, and over the centuries eminent writers from Pliny to Petrarch and Pascoli have found inspiration in the wines. ‘In the past, every family made wine and, following a decline, there’s been a reassuring return to the land over the past decade, with excellent results,’ adds Riccobaldi.

The two principal wine styles are made with the native Bosco grape, together with Albarola and Vermentino. Cinque Terre DOC (minimum 40% Bosco), a dry white, offers herbal freshness and a pleasant sapidity. It is perfect with local seafood.

Ideal with strong cheeses or cantucci biscuits, sweet Sciacchetrà DOC (minimum 85% Bosco) is an amber passito made with grapes dried on racks then fermented on the skins and vinified in steel, presenting an explosion of honey, citrus and butterscotch, especially in the riserva version.

Riccobaldi is behind a successful scheme to bring restaurant owners into contact with wine producers so that they are better qualified to advise customers. As she says, ‘you really must see where the local wines come from to understand them’. Luckily, most wineries in the area offer vineyard visits and tastings, though booking is necessary.

Cinque Terre travel map

A good place to start is Terra di Bargòn in Riomaggiore, where Roberto Bonfiglio focuses exclusively on Sciacchetrà. He’ll show you archive film from the 1940s highlighting exactly how arduously his predecessors worked, creating new terraces from sheer rock faces, while recent shots demonstrate how little has changed: everything is still done by hand, though some wineries do benefit from monorails provided by the cooperative. Riomaggiore, a medley of tall, narrow houses, is at the steeper, eastern end of the Cinque Terre, where much of the winemaking happens and quality is at its highest. The three crus are here: Costa de Posa, Costa de Campu and Costa de Sèra.

The latter is prospering thanks to the hard graft of cousins Orlando and Francesco Cevasco and Luigi Andreotti, who restored their grandfather’s abandoned terraces at Cantine Litàn.

‘As the terraces are even more precipitous, visitors are warned that the Costa de Sèra vineyard tour is a challenging one,’ says Cevasco. He regularly runs the tracks and last March took part in Sciacchetrail, an annual 47km trail run which becomes a wine festival for non-runners, as wineries invade the five villages, bringing a party atmosphere.

In Manarola, where pastel-coloured buildings are piled above the dark rock of the narrow marina and fishing boats line the road to the sea, Alessandro Crovara runs a one-man show, opting to use the minimum permitted Bosco and higher percentages of Vermentino, Liguria’s most popular grape, for his Cinque Terre DOC. ‘It’s lighter and more fragrant so appeals to today’s market,’ he says, and for this reason his wines are among the first available every spring. Crovara agrees that Bosco is ideal for the passito style, as the grapes have tough skins and are well spaced, so dry effectively.

Corniglia, the clifftop village in the middle, has a peaceful atmosphere and memorable views. Next in line is pretty Vernazza, with a natural harbour overlooked by the two-floor Santa Margherita d’Antiochia church. Here the Cheo winery (+39 333 9594759), run by Bartolo Lercari and Danish wife Lise Bertram, has quite a substantial estate with 27 terraces behind the village; most others struggle with modest plots here and there, the result of successive generations of family fragmentation.

The couple, both qualified agronomists, work with extreme precision and experiment extensively with native vines. As president of the Sciacchetrà consortium, Lercari organises a festival for the wine style each September.

At Monterosso, the westernmost village, the landscape opens out into gentler slopes; it’s the only one of the five with a proper beach and solid fishing tradition. Anchovies, always on local menus, are celebrated with two annual festivals: fried and served with local wines in June, and salted in late September. Another festival, in May, celebrates the area’s Monterosso lemons, which can be particularly appreciated in the fragrant limoncino liqueur.

The latest addition to the wine scene, new label A Scià (‘The Lady’) is dedicated to the women who traditionally worked the local vineyards. An offshoot of Cantine Sassarini, it uses grapes from its own vines to make Cinque Terre DOC, which takes on vanilla notes from barrique ageing.

The 2015 vintage was a record harvest all round, with far better quality and volumes up massively from usual; even so, production is limited and Cinque Terre wines are nigh-on impossible to find outside the area itself. What better excuse to visit such an extraordinary and beautiful place?

How to get there
Cinque Terre is about 100km from both Pisa and Genoa airports. Driving is not advised but there is a regular train service. Once there, be sure to invest in a Cinque Terre card for the free use of local trains and buses and for guided tours of the villages and vineyards.

Sarah Lane is a freelance journalist who specialises in wine, food and travel. She has lived in Italy for more than 20 years.