Lost Among the Vineyards – Italy’s Cinque Terre
As a wine traveler, I have tasted wines throughout the world, from renowned destinations like Bordeaux, Rioja and Napa, to the local, statewide vineyards across the Midwestern United States; and while the quality and wine profiles differ vastly, the resulting conversations, experiences and memories are equally treasured.
However, only one place has rendered this writer and gregarious traveler without words — Italy’s Cinque Terre. In fact, I only wrote a few short lines in my travel journal from a balcony overlooking the vines with a glass of crisp Cinqueterre wine sitting nearby:
I don’t know what to say. I am utterly in love. More in love than anywhere, ever. So much, it pains me…I never want to leave.
As I sat on that balcony, with the setting sun still warm on my face and a coastal breeze bewitching me with the scent of the sea below, a familiarity stirred deep within my soul. I suddenly saw myself, decades past, waking up with a cup of coffee as I looked out over the village and laced my hiking shoes. I’d spend the day traversing the terraced vineyards overlooking the Ligurian Sea, stopping to chat with other travelers along the way. I’d then find a shady respite from which to read or write, and my evenings among friends in the cafes. As the day came to an end, I would succumb to a peaceful sleep, lulled by the gentle clanging of dishes and rustling silverware, and the last of the church bells singing their prayers. The scenes, all imaginary, were nearly tangible.
Until that day, I could not have dreamt of a place both so utterly picturesque and endearingly humble. The Cinque Terre is not a showy seaside destination where people come to see and be seen; rather it’s a beguiling and intimate coastal respite for anyone with a love of the sea, the outdoors and, of course, wine.
Five Villages “Cinque Terre”
The Cinque Terre, in Italy’s province of La Spezia, Liguria, is a group of five small, fishing villages along the coast of the Ligurian Sea: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
North of Tuscany and part of the Italian Riviera, the pastel-colored, stone villages are home to only about 5,000 people, and are nestled on the rocky, vineyard-lined cliffs and coasts of the Apennine mountain range. With Riomaggiore to the southeast and Monterosso al Mare to the northwest, the five villages are connected via narrow, harrowing roads; efficient, local trains; seasonal, coastal ferries; and stunning, well-traversed hiking trails.
The coastline, villages and hillsides are part of the Cinque Terre National Park and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each of the five villages are centuries old and brimming with quaint cafes, trattorias, enotecas, harbors and dramatic vistas.
Riomaggiore is the southern-most of the five communities. Climbing up from the sea, it is best known for its Via dell’ Amore (Lover’s Path) walking path to Manarola, which unfortunately, is closed for the time being. However, the village remains accessible via train, car and ferry. The train runs through town, with iconic coastal views to one side of the tracks and the bustling little village to the other. The main street, Via Colombo, is a steep climb brimming with shops, cafes and restaurants and from which many carruggi (narrow lanes and alleys) run throughout the town.
Winetraveler Recommendation: Spend an afternoon at the seaside self-service restaurant and wine bar, A Pie de Ma, for a flight of Cinque Terre wines, a cheese plate and unbeatable terrace views.
Often described as one of the most beautiful villages of Italy, Manarola is another seaside village dotted with fishing boats, colorful houses, and boasting incredible views from its piazzas and terraces. Believed to be the oldest of the five villages, Roman writings depicted the high-quality wine produced in the terraced hills above the village. Most renowned, is the sweet Sciacchetrà wine found only in the Cinque Terre.
Winetraveler Recommendation: Make reservations for dinner at Trattoria dal Billy – a worthwhile splurge on local specialties.
Corniglia is the only village without direct seaside access, and a steep 377-step climb from the train to the village (a shuttle bus runs up as well). The quiet village sits atop a steep cliff, nestled among the vineyards. It is the mid-way point on the hike from Vernazza and Manarola, and on a clear day offers extensive views up and down the coast. A wine lover’s paradise, Corniglia is surrounded by hand-worked vineyards, which grow the grapes used in the local place-named Cinqueterre wines.
Winetraveler Recommendation: While the region is predominately known for its white wines, make sure to try the house red at Enoteca Il Pirun and feast on a delectable seafood risotto at sunset at family-owned Cecio.
The mountainous hike between Corniglia and Vernazza is a stunning way to enter this seaside village, often regarded as the most-picturesque. The trail emerges above the town, offering the best vantage point from which to photograph the pastel-colored buildings connected by descending carruggi and clothes-filled wash lines. The path winds its way down into town, which like the other villages is closed to car traffic, but unlike the others, offers the only natural port. The main street, Via Roma, winds through town and is adorned with numerous shops, eateries and features views of the terraced vineyards high-above.
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Winetraveler Recommendation: After an early morning hike, stop at Il Pirata delle 5 Terre for a delightful Italian breakfast. The owners are happy to chat and make recommendations on dish selection. Just don’t ask for eggs! (Note the proud sign prominently displayed in the café states: “We do not serve eggs!!! Please, don’t ask. This is Italy! Eat our food!)
Monterosso Al Mare
Monterosso is the largest and western-most of the five villages and the most commercial. It offers ease of accessibility for drivers (as well as plenty of parking), numerous trains and buses and has the most hotels in the region. It is also the only village in the Cinque Terre with a true public beach strewn with colorful umbrellas and sunbathers. At the north-end of the beach is the famed statue, Il Gigante. Originally built in 1910, the 45-foot piece of decorative art depicts Neptune holding waves at bay. Allied bombs from World War II and rough weather have left Il Gigante battered and without arms, but he remains a symbol of Monterosso.
Winetraveler Recommendation: Pack a picnic lunch of local meats, cheeses, fresh-made breads, and a local wine, and enjoy an afternoon at the beach following a long morning hike.
Vines and Views – The Wines of Cinque Terre
Hiking the trails in the Cinque Terre will wind you along craggy coastal rocks, through lush forests, in and out of quaint, colorful villages, and into painstakingly cultivated vineyards. Several of the trails will directly walk you through the steep hillside vineyards, terraced up and down the face of the mountain, while below lies the vibrant Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean. It is a view every wine lover will appreciate, not only for its obvious beauty, but also for the difficulty with which the vines are maintained and harvested by hand.
Wine production in the region can be traced back to Roman times and although historically producing wine as a basic commodity, the region has developed a reputation for quality white wines for which a DOC was granted in 1973. Today, the region is best known for two white wines, Cinqueterre and Sciacchetrà.
This crisp, dry white is found throughout the five villages and typically produced from two to three grape varieties: bosco, albarola and sometimes, vermentino. The wines are known for their herbal freshness and citrus flavors. Depending on the winemaker, some wines will also present with a lively minerality. Cinqueterre wines are best enjoyed with the local seafood, focaccia or simply on their own.
This is the only region in the world to find this sweet, white wine made from the best grapes, grown closest to the sea. The harvested grapes are dried in the sun for at least 40 days to concentrate the sugars and grape essence, and then fermented slowly. The result is an amber-colored, sweet wine with flavors of honey, dried apricot and hazelnut. Served with dessert or strong cheeses, Sciacchetrà is a unique Cinque Terre gem.
Although known more for the dramatic views and iconic architecture than outstanding wines, the Cinque Terre wines are a perfect reflection of the coastal terroir, the simplicity of life in the small seaside villages, and the long-standing family tradition of winemaking. Every bottle of Cinqueterre and Sciacchetrà wines is the product of a time-honored, unique and complex cultivation process, incapsulating the essence of family, tradition, hard labor, and love of the land. Fortunately for the wine traveler, they are also fantastically refreshing post-hike and unmatched with local seafood dishes.
The Cinque Terre region is an ideal wine traveler destination – perfect for couples, families, friends or individuals in search of a place of astounding natural beauty, quaint local charm, scenic walks, and delicious food and wine. However, the true gift of the region is the enigmatic effect it has on time, people and place. As you sit with a glass of wine overlooking the sea, you can’t help but feel as though this total sensory experience has taken you to the only place where this beauty, pace of life and intimacy can ever exist.