Enjoying the raw beauty of Liguria is a breeze, but making wine here is no mean feat.
As with Cassis (spotlighted in last month’s piece on Domaine du Bagnol), Liguria produces scant quantities of wine that are dispensed of in large part by tourists who flock here to partake in the psychedelic gorgeousness of its seaside towns. Among all of Italy’s viticultural regions, only the Valle d’Aosta produces less volume. Vines here cling to breakneck-steep limestone slopes and vie for space with the region’s ubiquitous olive trees (which outnumber grapevines five to one), artichokes, aromatic herbs, and wild mushrooms. They plunge deeply into rocky, impoverished soils, often on terraces (built by the Liguri tribes in ancient times), aimed at the sun in worshipful fashion. These are vines that guzzle Mediterranean sunlight and bathe constantly in sea breezes, and the wines wrested from their fruit taste that way—easily among the most viscerally terroir-expressive white wines in all of Italy.
In another parallel to Cassis (or any number of Mediterranean viticultural zones, for that matter), much of the wine produced in Liguria is somewhat innocuous—good enough to wash down a bag of fried calamari or a plate of pesto, but nothing to stir the soul. (When you’re dining alfresco in Portofino or La Spezia, it’s the visuals that do most of the stirring.) However, there are a handful of growers here who strive to expand the realm of the possible.
Cue Pierluigi Lugano, owner and guiding spirit behind Enoteca Bisson, our long-time partner in this beautiful region. A gentle-voiced man sparing but precise in his words, Pierluigi is basketball-player-tall, lean and athletic, and his skin-tone ranges from very tan (in winter) to full-on burnt sienna (in the warmer months). He has the look of a man who spends as little time indoors as possible, and his restless nature and intense passion for his home region have indeed led him down some interesting roads since he founded Bisson in 1978. Notoriety has visited Pierluigi recently for his ambitious “Abissi” (“abyss” in English), a sparkling wine made from local varieties whose secondary fermentation occurs on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea itself—and which, frustratingly, the US FDA has banned us from importing for the foreseeable future. With the help of the Italian government, he is currently constructing a spectacular new winery at the foot of one of his Vermentino vineyards, every aspect of its design a nod to the wonders of Liguria and its bounty. And, through his network of small growers, he is working to preserve a handful of nearly extinct local grape varieties such as Çimixà and Bianchetta Genovese, thereby providing additional micro-lenses into the region’s great terroir beyond the ubiquitous Vermentino and Pigato.
It should be forbidden to write about Italian wine without also mentioning food, particularly in a region as distinctive in its cuisine as Liguria, and sure enough some of the most memorable meals in all of our years of travel have been at the table with Pierluigi. Inevitably arriving in Lugano’s hometown of Chiavari at a far later hour than we anticipated, we are nonetheless always corralled to some majestically situated venue or another—often opening up just for us, such is Pierluigi’s clout—and subjected to a fusillade of minimally prepared sea creatures mind-bending in their freshness and depth of flavor. Fresh seafood, of course, binds to these local whites with DNA-helix perfection, but too often Mediterranean wine is typecast as a fish partner with severely limited range elsewhere. What the best Ligurian wines want so desperately, in fact, are green things—pesto, after all, is one of the region’s most widely beloved native dishes, and there are herbs growing everywhere which always find their way into the food. Pierluigi’s wines, no matter the variety or the ripeness level, are always shot through with a vein of intense chlorophyll, one that echoes in both color and flavor. Fresh greens, sautéed greens, charred greens, heavily adorned greens; all will achieve synergistic nirvana with Bisson’s vivacious offerings. Think broadly when pairing these wines and you will be amply rewarded.
Operationally speaking, Pierluigi sources grapes from a small network of growers with whom he’s worked for many years, ensuring a consistency of quality and place of origin for each cuvée he produces. The wines are fermented and aged (at least, until the new facility is completed) in the rear of the charming wine and provisions shop he owns in downtown Chiavari—a low-key operation by any definition. While much of the wine in Liguria is produced in the most straightforward fashion possible, Pierluigi employs 48-72 hours of skin maceration for all of his white wines, lending them a bit of grip which accentuates tension and amplifies the wines’ terroir-given core of salty brine, but without contributing undue tannin or clunk. His are wines of intense personality but effortless balance, conveying Ligurian essence in as visceral of a manner as imaginable but absent the mark of the striving provocateur.
As we slough off the residue of winter and once again prepare ourselves for sunlight and fresh air, there are arguably no greater potables to help usher in the transition. Sure, everyone loves rosé (and for good reason), but Bisson’s wines arguably achieve a far greater profundity of expression than the vast majority of color-fixed, rushed-into-bottle, confected beverages that pass for rosé in 2018. Like all things worth their underlying labor, these are wines produced in painfully finite quantities, and we urge you to lay claim to some of Italy’s most characterful and satisfying white wines.
2016 Bisson Bianchetta Genovese “ü Pastine”
Pierluigi has long been committed to spotlighting obscure Ligurian grape varieties, making pure-varietal versions of minor players typically blended with better-known brethren or teetering on the brink of extinction. Jancis Robinson describes Bianchetta Genovese as “neutral” in profile—which sounds on the surface like a slight, but actually speaks to Bianchetta’s ability to serve as a pure delivery system for this unique terroir. While a bit less complex and layered than Vermentino, and lacking the authoritative viscosity of Çimixà, Bianchetta expresses the vein of intense limestone, sea brine, and sun-kissed green and yellow fruits that runs through all of Liguria’s wines—albeit on a slimmer and more straightforward frame than its cousins below. Think of it as the Pinot Blanc to Vermentino’s Riesling.
2016 Bisson Vermentino “Vignaerta” Portofino
Vermentino is perhaps the best-known of Ligurian grape varieties, planted as it is throughout the Mediterranean and into Tuscany as well. Ligurian examples of Vermentino tend to be less muscular than those of Sardinia, more viscerally salty and sea-marked than Tuscan versions, and possessing greater finesse than those from Corsica. At their best, as with Bisson’s formidably complex offerings, they combine graceful floral elements, a texture both ample and racy, and that deep core of salinity that establishes them as such full-throated orators of terroir. “Vignaerta” comes from a parcel on the steep slopes of the “Campegli” vineyard in the commune of Castiglione Chiavarese, and, like all of Pierluigi’s white wines, it spends several days in contact with its skins and is both fermented and aged on its fine lees in stainless steel. With its bright, green-tinged personality, its notes of yellow plum, fresh herbs, and kiwi, and its salty, lifted, ultra-clean finish, it is the racier counterpart to the “Intrigoso” below.
2016 Bisson Vermentino “Intrigoso” Portofino
The vines which comprise Pierluigi’s “Intrigoso” cuvée are older and lower-yielding than those of the “Vignaerta” above, planted on vertiginous terraces buffeted by intense Mediterranean sunshine. Though it is produced in an identical manner, “Intrigoso” is broader, thicker, and more brooding than “Vignaerta,” a tug-of-war of fruit density and triumphant acidity as narrated by salinity. This cuvée expresses a more profound and interwoven core of Ligurian minerality—if “Vignaerta” has received a generous sprinkle of sea salt, “Intrigoso” has spent several days fully immersed in a salt brine. Elements of fresh almonds, honey, and figs add bottom-end and power.
2016 Bisson Çimixà “L’Antico”
A true obscurity, indigenous Çimixà was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s when a local pastry chef sourced a mere 500 vines purported to be Çimixà and planted them together in a single plot. While the family resemblance is undeniable, Pierluigi’s “L’Antico” bottling stands apart from his others in its balance of elements and its texture. Its resplendent fruit is more viscous than the two Vermentino above, and though there is no shortage of salinity, it is the sumptuous mouthfeel of the Çimixà that grabs the attention first. Furthermore, while it is just as driven by minerality as its brethren, “L’Antico” is characterized more by chalk than by brine, and the wine overall possesses a greater sense of heft and solidity. We should count ourselves fortunate that such a characterful variety was saved from elimination and is produced in such a boldly delicious fashion as at Bisson.
2016 Bisson Ciliegiolo Golfo del Tigullio
More commonly associated with Tuscany, Ciliegiolo there is relegated to a bit part, its bright, light character handily overshadowed by Prince Sangiovese. A pure and pert cherry bomb, Ciliegiolo never yields much color, but, handled the way Pierluigi handles it, Ciliegiolo achieves unapologetic scrumptiousness. Receiving a brief four-to-five-day maceration, Bisson’s Ciliegiolo embraces rather than attempts to mask its inherent lightness, falling somewhere between a rosé and a light red. (All too often, rosé these days seeks that commercialized ultra-light color at all costs—using all sorts of cellar manipulation, and not even attempting to locate a sweet spot of extraction that balances friendliness and vinosity. It is our great hope that the market at large will evolve past this—but that’s a different topic for a different time…) What Pierluigi has created here is a wine that is both easygoing and expressive, juicy and red-fruited yet absent of intrusive structure or delusions of tannic grandeur. And, in its brightness and saltiness, in its range of application and its profound food-friendliness, it is very much a Ligurian wine.