Why you should seek out Ligurian wines


Why you should seek out Ligurian wines

16 January 2017

Italian wine is complicated. So why add to the confusion, instead of just sticking to the big names?

It’s the infinite diversity of Italian wine that makes it compelling, interesting, and just plain fun to keep discovering more. But we’ll start with baby steps and not dive headfirst into obscurity: let’s take a look at some of the biggest names in one of Italy’s lesser-known wine regions, Liguria. Think Pigato and Vermentino, Ormeasco and Rossese: wines of the Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC.

The Ligurian Riviera

The region of Liguria is a slim crescent of coastline stretching from France in the northwest down to Tuscany to the southeast, with Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna at its back (and just eight kilometers as the crow flies from the border of Lombardy). This is the Italian Riviera. The ritzy name refers to a coastline that has called celebrities and aristocrats to its clear blue water’s edge for centuries. These seaside towns have been literary havens, as well: D.H. Lawrence lived near Lerici for a time, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound lived in Rapallo, and the Poet’s Gulf in Portovenere was named for Lord Byron and Shelley. Riviera Ligure di Ponente. Riviera Ligure di Ponente. © Poggio dei Gorleri

It's easy to see why this land is popular with the famous. Other than its perfectly comfortable Mediterranean climate—the heat is mitigated by the mountains while the cold, northern Alpine air is buffered by the Maritime Alps—Liguria is exceptionally pretty. Bright homes line the waters in shades of peach and rose, flowers bloom everywhere (its western end is known as the Riviera dei Fiori, or Riviera of Flowers), terraced vineyards rise up behind the villages, and the dramatic, craggy slopes of the Alps form a stunning backdrop. Liguria is home to the UNESCO-named Cinque Terre, the flourishing exotic gardens of the Hanbury Villa, and endless other jewels.

Ligurian grapes

Vermentino grapes Vermentino grapes - © Poggio dei Gorleri

The grapes grown in Liguria are, like anywhere, profoundly affected by the local climate and terrain. Sixty-five percent of the region is mountainous. Its altitude paired with the marine coastline makes this region more like Provence, France than its neighbor Piedmont. In fact, similar grapes do especially well in this region: granaccia (grenache), pigato (rolle), and rossese (tibouren). Then there are vermentino (said by some to be the same as pigato and Piedmont’s favorita—but many others say it is a clone and vinify it separately) and ormeasco—a local variation of Piedmont’s dolcetto grape. Pigato is one of Liguria’s most important grapes. Its wine is part of the denomination Riviera Ligure di Ponente, a DOC from western Liguria and the region’s biggest. This is one name you’ll want to keep an eye on when perusing the wine menu, if you’re lucky enough to find it. Pigato wines of Riviera Ligure di Ponente are, in their best form, aromatically complex, mineral, long-lived, and with a saline touch that comes from the nearby coastline. You will also find other labels under this same denomination: the red Granaccia and Rossese as well as the white Vermentino.

French influence in an Italian winery

The terroir of Liguria, especially that of western Riveria Ligure di Ponente, is reminiscent to that of France. Brothers Matteo and Davide Merano, owners of the Poggio dei Gorleri winery in Diano Marina in western Liguria, hooked onto this similarity. They strive to express it in their wines. Poggio dei Gorleri Brothers Matteo and Davide, owners of Poggio dei Gorleri. © Poggio dei Gorleri

The Merano family bought the winery in 2003, effectively introducing winemaking into the family—hence, their self-proclaimed title of “wine orphans.” Poggio dei Gorleri is a beautiful structure overlooking the sea with a wine resort for those who wish to completely immerse themselves in the pleasures of local wine, cuisine, sea, and the sun—the Ligurian Riviera lifestyle. Matteo and Davide have taken inspiration from Chablis and Sancerre of the Rhone Valley. Their pigato grapes are grown in Albenga in soils rich in iron and clay. The wine has a sound structure, pronounced minerality and notes of flint, complex aromas, and great longevity. Savory, fresh, and well-balanced on the palate, they say their Riviera Ligure di Ponente is similar to a Chablis. Poggio dei Gorleri modeled their red Shalok after the Grenache of the Rhone Valley. Enamored with the fruitiness and spiciness of Grenache, their own granaccia with its marine influence displays those same characteristics. The wine has excellent structure, characterized by red fruit and spices on the nose. It is quite a rare gem from Liguria; if you do find red Ligurian wines available, they’re more likely to be Rossese di Dolceaqua or Ormeasco.

On the menu: Best food pairing with Ligurian wine

As already noted, Riviera Ligure di Ponente is the largest wine zone in Liguria. When it comes to Ligurian whites, Pigato is definitely one of the region’s most-distributed wines. It matches beautifully with the traditional dishes of Liguria, like the ever-popular pasta with pesto alla Genovese, mushroom risotto, oven-baked bass or sea bream with potatoes and olives, and the dish capon magroa peasant-chic dish that has become aristocratic (a salad of layered vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and fish). And in general, if those dishes aren’t on the menu, stick to fish, vegetables, and dishes with herbal or citrus notes. Fresh, early spring vegetables are especially good. Pesto genovese Pesto genovese - by Artur Rutkowski

Some of the Riviera Ligure di Ponente denominations you’ll see on a wine menu beyond Pigato are white Vermentino and red Rossese. These wines pair well with fish-based dishes and vegetables. Vermentino is good with simple grilled seabass drizzled with fresh olive oil, or with veggie-filled pansoti pasta with a walnut sauce; and Rossese with ragù or rabbit prepared Ligurian-style (with olives, pine nuts, and aromatic herbs). Granaccia is good with game and the Slow Food Presidia Toma della Pecora Brigasca (a sheep’s milk cheese). The light and fruity red Ormeasco refutes the claim that reds don’t pair well with fish—it is especially delicious with cacciucco, or fish stew.