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Le Cinque Terre's heroic winemakers

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

I want to share a story of a special place that I’m sure many of you have already visited. Paradoxically it was only my second time in Le Cinque Terre, a beautiful national park that encloses 5 villages on the Ligurian coast, just a few hours away from Florence. Pierre and I went 11 years ago but it turns out we remembered very little of it. Perhaps it was because we had just started dating and only had an eye for each other?!

The view from Riomaggiore

A second visit was surely overdue and since this year has been so void of tourists we thought it could be nice to pass by. I’ve long wanted to discover the wineries as the vintners are known for being heroic. Now that I’ve examined the extreme vineyards up close, I have so much admiration for these farmers that work on impossibly steep terraced hills - more than I could’ve ever imagined.

The never ending very steep stone stairs up to vineyards and over the mountain

Let’s just say that I’ve tried those hills on my own skin! Right after arriving in Riomaggiore (the first of the 5 towns you arrive at after a 10-minute train ride from La Spezia), I thought it would be fun to go for a hike to the next village, Manarola. The easy trail, Via dell’Amore (the love path), is closed and the alternative is a hike over the mountain that separates the two villages. How hard could it be?! I was excited thinking I would get to see vineyards. And yes, the views were fabulous but let me just say that my legs are still feeling it 5 days later!

The view once all those stairs were behind me
Manarola, the second village of Le Cinque Terre

The next morning we meet up with Heydi. He’s a local who’s decided to continue the traditions of the region’s viticulture. He tells me that today is the day they’ll start the “sgranatura” of the Sciacchetrà, a local dessert wine. I’m thrilled that something’s going on this late in the season. Heydi meets us downtown and we walk up (yikes!) to his car at the parking lot that's exclusive for the locals and he takes us to see a part of his vineyard.

Heydi Bonanini at his vineyard Possa
The crazy slopes of terraced vineyards worked by hand

Heydi explains that once upon a day the region had around 1500 hectares of vineyards. Today there are just around 100 left. Heydi takes care of around 5 hectares. The view from the vineyards is just spectacular, and the stone terraces are ridiculously steep. You certainly couldn’t work them if you suffered from heights (or if you're not fit - ahem!).

To get around the vineyards, small trains were built in the 1980’ies otherwise the grape growing would have been completely abandoned for the inconvenience.

A vineyard train in Le Cinque Terre
Oliver testing grapes left in the vineyard

The most common grapes in Le Cinque Terre are white (Vermentino, Albarola, Bosco). Consider that the time it takes to work a vineyard here is around 8 times longer that of a vineyard in another hilly region. Every drop is precious!

In August Heydi and his family carry grapes from the vineyard to the cellar through many alley staircases.

We come back to Riomaggiore and go down what feels like a thousand stairs and end up in an old cantina (cellar) where Heydi’s brother-in-law is peeling dried grapes off the stems. One by one. The cellar is full of trays carrying the grapes that have been drying since August. The larger bunches are hanging by the ceiling.

Grape bunches that have been drying for around 2 months

By tonight, Heydi says, this bucket will be half full. We’ll then press the grapes softly and to ensure that the pips aren’t crushed, the feet of a bambino are to be preferred. Lucky that Heydi has an 8-yr old son who has been doing this since he was 3.

Now I know what “sgranatura” refers to and I also understand why the Sciacchetrà wine is so delicious and precious.

The berries that look good, are put into the bucket (the rest is thrown out)
At the end of the day, the grapes in the bucket get pressed softly
Heydi and his 8-yr old son on Halloween evening
Sciacchetrà - absolutely fantastic dessert wine

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