Elio Altare has been up since dawn, working in a vineyard rooted on terraces about 600 feet above deep-blue Mediterranean waters.
Altare, the legendary Barolo winemaker, officially retired nine years ago. But at 65, he still works in his vineyards and finds time for the love of his later life: making small amounts of white wine in the rugged—and once endangered—vineyards of the Cinque Terre on Italy's Ligurian coast.
"I have a very big problem: I love this job," says Altare, tying up new vine growth as a few of his also-retired cousins hoe away weeds and repair drystone walls. "I can't stop. I work 12 hours a day. I am a very stupid man."
This year marks Altare's 50th vintage, and the eighth for his Campogrande wine label in the Cinque Terre.
A small trim man with a receding gray hairline, a toothy smile and the energy of a vineyard swallow, Altare bought about 1 acre of land here 15 years ago, after it had been abandoned for decades. "I want to work not for money, but emotion," he says. "I am a dreamer."
The Cinque Terre—a string of five fishing villages connected by mountain paths—is a national park, UNESCO World Heritage site and destination for millions of backpacking tourists.
But the difficult coastal vineyards, which once covered more than 3,000 acres, dwindled to about 200 acres as locals found more profit working elsewhere or renting out rooms to tourists. Most Cinque Terre wines are now produced by part-timers or retirees and are sold in tourist restaurants.
"I saw this region was abandoned like the Langhe was 50 years ago," Altare says, "and I thought, 'What can I do to help?'"
Altare recruited friends and winemakers from the Piedmont region to travel 160 miles southeast to help resurrect his steep coastal vineyard, located more than a half-mile along a narrow path below the nearest road. He paid them with lunch. Most, he says with a laugh, never returned.
Altare's dream was to repeat the success of Barolo in the 1980s in building up the quality (and price) of local wines. In his younger days, Altare led Barolo modernists in lowering vineyard yields, shunning modern fertilizers and pesticides, and embracing French winemaking techniques. His father disowned him after Altare famously took a chainsaw to the family's old oak casks to make room for French barriques.
In 2004, Altare teamed with a young student who wanted to learn winemaking from him in Cinque Terre. Altare taught him his painstaking methods, but his protégé quit after three years to help run a local restaurant, and the project folded. "Young people don't want to work with their hands," Altare complains. "But in this job you must have great grapes if you want to make great wine."
He continued on. Beginning with the 2008 vintage, Altare partnered with a friend, 67-year-old local guesthouse owner Antonio Bonanni, to create Campogrande with a combined 5 acres of vineyards. Their plan is for Bonanni's nephew to join them after finishing his enology studies next year.
Though Altare has passed leadership of the Elio Altare estate to his daughter Silvia, he is eager to mentor others. "I will take my years of experience to the cemetery with me," he says. "I want to pass this experience on."
Cinque Terre dry whites are made from Bosco, the acidic variety preferred by Altare, blended with one or both of two easier-drinking, lighter varieties: Albarola and Vermentino. The wines are marked by a surprising saltiness, brought to the local schistic-sandy soils and grapes by fierce southern winds that splash salt spray over the hills.
"Only 20 percent of people love this wine," Altare says. "This means they are wines of character."
Altare works in a tiny cellar in quaint Riomaggiore, using only native yeasts, and lets his white grapes begin fermentation on their skins for a few days. His wines are uncompromising—dominated by austere Bosco, picked early to preserve its tautness. They are as dry as parched stone, briny and loaded with mineral and wild herb scents. His "Cinqueterre" is fermented in steel, and his smaller-production, higher-end, mellower "Telémaco" (not yet available in the United States) fermented on the lees in oak barriques. Both are cellared in bottle at least two to three years before release. He also makes a small quantity of red with local varieties and a tiny amount of sweet wine.
Altare says he doesn't promote the wines. The partners sell only half the annual production, totaling about 500 cases. He cellars the other half in La Morra, believing the wines will peak some years down the road.
"This is a game for me," says Altare. It is lunchtime, and he is scrutinizing a glass of his wine in a Riomaggiore seafood restaurant looking over the tiny old fishing port. "In the beginning I wasn't sure. I didn't have the experience. Now after seven vintages, I am starting to be sure."
Coming July 27 … Cinque Terre, Part 2: Altare's favorite local producer