Legends of the Cinque Terre
A winemaking hotspot? The rugged coastline of the Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site (photo: Mike Albrecht)
It used to be rather different. You went somewhere on holiday, one evening drank what seemed to be an unassuming wine in a simple restaurant, and found it delicious. You scoured the local shops and found a few more bottles to bring home. A few weeks later, you opened a couple when friends came round, having primed them about this rather special but completely unknown wine you had come across in the Auvergne, or Puglia, or the hinterland of Barcelona — wherever. Without exception, it now tasted completely filthy.
Of course it is hard for a bottle of supermarket retsina opened in a solitary bedsit during the gloom of a February evening to compete with the bottle of apparently the same wine you drank with friends in Poros overlooking the harbour after a day’s sailing.There are so many factors that can throw a transient magic over wine consumed while relaxing abroad with friends and family.
Holiday wine is still, I find, one of the most reliable sources of disappointment — but not quite in the same way. Now it tends to be disappointing when you drink it on holiday, to the point where you never discover whether it would be equally or even more disappointing at home because there seems no point in putting yourself to the trouble of bringing any back. Today it is easy to find delicious, surprising, beautifully-made wine from all over the world in Britain. There are literally dozens of well-run, independent wine merchants with excellent websites and tempting lists who will deliver to your door the following day. This is an excellent state of affairs, but it can make holiday drinking a bit dull. You go away, perhaps to an area renowned for its wine, but despite your best efforts can find nothing that pleases. Are the locals keeping all the good stuff for themselves? Or is it rather that some areas which used to be renowned for their wine have been left behind in the global wine race?
The Cinque Terre, just south-east of Genoa, is a case in point. A wonderful place to go walking (provided you are lucky enough to pick a time when the rest of the world has not also decided to go there), glorious coastal views, charming small towns perched on cliffs tumbling down into the Tyrrhenian sea, comfortable idiosyncratic hotels, delicious fish to eat, and — so at least those of literary education have been led to believe — superlative wines. Hear the extravagant praise of the humanist and geographer Giacomo Bracelli, the Notary and Chancellor of the Republic of Genoa, who wrote in 1448:
There are five castles on the coast, all more or less at the same distance from each other: Monterosso, Vulnetia, which the common people now call Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore — famous, not only in Italy but among the Gauls and Britons for the nobility of their wine. The spectacle offered by these localities is well worth the sight. In some parts the mountains stoop sweetly down, while in others they are so steep that even the birds have trouble flying up their sides; the earth being so stony, they do not detain water but are covered in vines so slim and fragile-looking as to seem more like ivy plants than vines. And yet from these you obtain wine fit for the tables of a king.