There are two wines of importance that come from the Cinque Terre, but there is only one king: Sciachetrà, a straw wine of such goodness and scarcity that you can spent 100 bucks on a half-bottle of the stuff. The other, the crisp white Cinque Terre DOC, can be wonderful, but is rather pedestrian in comparison.
I’ve drunk some Sciachetrà, but as my friends in Levanto like to remind me, I’ve never had the really good stuff. That’s because, so they claim, the real stuff is not for sale. It’s jealously guarded by the farmers and vintners for themselves and their chosen friends. Apparently I am not one of the chosen people, because no one is offering any to me.
Like all straw wines, Sciachetrà is made by letting the grapes age off the vine, a process that concentrates their juiciness. The result is the remarkable sweet taste, but the process means that the yield is lower. Between a lower yield and the back-breaking manual labor in the terraced fields above the Mediterranean here, you don’t end up with a lot of wine. Hence the prices and the reticence to cough it up to people deemed unworthy.
But while farmers aren’t splashing me with Sciachetrà, there is still a miraculous advantage to living in a place where people – everyday, average people – make everyday, average wine: they’re excited to share it with you. From the construction worker to the baker to the traffic cop, everyone here seems to have a plot of land dedicated to grapevines, and though some of them sell their grapes to the local cooperative, others prefer to make the wine themselves. The results are not exactly high-class stuff, but it is good honest wine the way god and nature and the Mediterranean climate always meant it to be.
And if you get to sneak a peak in some of the old cellars, you may find some surprises. Wooden casks of enormous proportions (I’m talking 7-8 feet high), old photos of women in headscarves stomping the grapes with their feet, holes in the sidewalks that open onto underground ramps so as to slide the grape bunches directly into the cellar, wine bottles with no tops that use just a few drops of olive oil to seal out the air.
Ah wine. As Rabelais said, “O wine stewards, you workers of miracles, creators of new life-forms … drink – oh, it’s good – and it’s good for you.”
Check out these real winemakers for a treat if you’re in the Cinque Terre:
www.cantinacinqueterre.com – the growers’ cooperative in the Nat’l Park.
www.vinbun.it – the loving project of Luciano Capellini