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How Italy’s ancient coastal wines are seeing a resurgence

Up and down Italy’s dramatic coastline, vintners are reclaiming the age-old growing practices of their ancestors – often in geologically extreme conditions – to produce a range of extraordinary-tasting wines. 

Tramonti is a town and comune in the province of Salerno in the Campania region of south-western Italy. 

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci
By Julia Buckley
Published 5 Aug 2022, 06:04 BST

In the Lattari Mountains, high above the Amalfi Coast, is an Alice in Wonderland landscape of what look like upended tree roots, interlacing to make a great spider’s web in the sky.

Get nearer and you’ll see they’re vines – but not just any vines. Here in Tramonti, they’re more like trees, with trunks for stems and branches the thickness of arms, entwined in centuries-old embraces. They’re as gnarled as olive trees and provide the shade of a forest. They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and there’s a reason for that – their extreme location meant that they escaped the plague that wiped out most of Europe’s vines in the 1800s.

“When the phylloxera arrived, it couldn’t kill Tramonti’s vines,” says Gaetano Bove, striding through his vineyard. Phylloxera is a microscopic pest, which arrived from America and attacks at the root. But here, they couldn’t get a hold. “Look at this one,” he says of a monumental, centuries-old vine striking a ballet-like pose. “It’s a work of art.” Today, his cooperative, Tenuta San Francesco, makes È Iss – a wine from these Tintore grapes, indigenous to Tramonti.

The reason those vines survived? The pumice-filled soil, impenetrable to the phylloxera. The source of that soil was Vesuvius, 13 miles northwest, whose regular eruptions layered the soil with volcanic minerals. Italy’s dramatic coastlines aren’t the easiest places to plant vines, but that hasn’t stopped the locals planting them for thousands of years, producing some of the most exciting wines around.

Take Etna, for example. On its vertiginous eastern slope, overlooking the Ionian Sea, Seby Costanzo rakes his hand through the ash-rich soil, steadying himself lest he topples off the mountainside. Forged by volcanoes, Etna wines are seeing a surge in popularity, but Seby's seaside settingis just as crucial. The sea breezes imparts a unique taste to the unusually flavourful, minerally red at Cantina di Nessuno, the vineyard he founded 10 years ago in a bid to connect with the land before retirement.

Cliffside vineyards are often dubbed ‘heroic’ wines because of the effort it takes to manually work them. Up north in Liguria, you can see why. For centuries, the near-sheer cliffs of the Cinque Terre were terraced with vineyards, hemmed by dry-stone walls – even Boccaccio name-dropped the local white wine in his 14th-century book, Decameron.

But then came industrialisation. Ligurians preferred working in the factories of nearby La Spezia to the back-breaking vineyards. “It wasn’t worth doing all the work,” says Simone Bonanni, inspecting his vines on the cliffside high above Riomaggiore.

In 2015, Simone and his friend Luca Pagliari replanted two abandoned vineyards, growing the indigenous varietals Bosco and Albarola to make their Finis Terrae wine. They’re part of a wine renaissance in the Cinque Terre, as locals realise the heritage they stand to lose, and start to cultivate vines once more.

“Nobody’s doing it for the money – we’re doing it to respect our ancestors who shaped the mountains for centuries,” says Simone. “We can’t let centuries of work fall into complete disrepair.”

Four hundred miles south, Gaetano thinks along the same lines. “Tramonti is the Pompeii of wine,” he says. “This is a living museum – and we’re doing this [work] to preserve it.”

Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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