High on Cinque Terre

A native son’s heroic efforts in Italy’s mythic coastal vineyards
High on Cinque Terre
Bonanini atop his vineyards with his monorail transporter for navigating the Cinque Terre cliff sides (Robert Camuto)
Jul 27, 2015

Samuele Heydi Bonanini is a rare type—a young Cinque Terre native willing to work the hard, vertiginous vineyard terraces near his home.

Standing on Possaitara, the Mediterranean seaside cliff into which his family's farm is cut, Bonanini, 37, remembers the entire landscape once covered with grapevines. By the 1990s, it was all but abandoned.

Over the last 20 years, Bonanini has fought to reverse the trend as a way "to honor my grandparents." He has restored about 5 acres—the maximum he believes one person can cultivate in the Cinque Terre, an enclave of five ancient fishing villages between sea and mountains on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

"My father cut down my grandparents' vineyard to plant fruit trees. Then I cut down the fruit trees to plant vines," says Bonanini, a strapping man with short-cropped hair, a goatee and the easy smile of someone who starts some days fishing at dawn off the rocks below.

"When you come here, you don't come to work," says Bonanini, drinking in one of the world's most stunning coastal views. "You come to be well."

Still, the amount of work here is daunting. His vines cling to the cliff in dozens of tiny plots connected by a narrow winding trail marked with warning signs. Bonanini, who cultivates the schist and sand soils organically, uses a small monorail system typical of the area: A gas-fueled cart attached to low steel rails hauls vineyard materials and harvested grapes from the hardest-to-reach terraces.

For nearly a decade, Bonanini sold his grapes to the local cooperative. Then in 2004, he met Barolo winemaker Elio Altare, who had purchased and resurrected his own plots of Cinque Terre vineyards.

Altare recalls that the first time he saw Bonanini, the younger man was dangling from a cliff at the end of a rope to rebuild part of a broken terrace wall. "I was touched by the work he did and the love he had for the land," says Altare. "He was the first to do this full time."

The veteran vintner encouraged Bonanini to make his own wine and helped him produce his first 500 bottles in Altare's cellar in Riomaggiore. Three years later, Bonanini set up his own small winery in town, where he now produces about 800 cases under his Possa label.

Both an experimentalist and a traditionalist, Bonanini says, "Elio taught me to try everything. He taught me that if you don't try, you'll never know where you're going."

His saline, mineral-laced Cinque Terre white bends the rules of the local appellation, which call for a blend of austere Bosco with softer Albarola. Bonanini replaces Albarola with Rossese Bianco, a high-acid, mineral grape with similarities to Bosco that had neared extinction because of its low yields.

"To me, Rossese Bianco is the best grape of our area," he says. "I believe it is the grape that produced the mythic Cinque Terre wines of the past."

After fermenting the must in steel tanks with several days of skin contact, Bonanini ages about half the wine for his white blend in small barrels, most made for balsamic vinegar production in Modena from woods historically used by local farmers: acacia, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, pear and oak.

He also makes a red table wine from the Canaiolo and Bonamico varieties and a pair of sweet wines in the passito style, from dried grapes, including a traditional white Cinque Terre Sciacchetrà DOC bottling and a red called La Rinascita.

Cinque Terre's signature whites are not easy drinkers. Bonanini's wines—like Altare's—can be as dry as licking a sea shell. "It's a bit different from normal wines," he says. "You won't find any fruitiness."

Nonetheless, in recent years, Bonanini has developed a passionate following among Italian, French and Japanese wine lovers, some of whom compare his wines to Rieslings. In the U.S., Bonanini's wines are stocked by a single, small Oregon-based importer and sold by one retailer, E & R Wine Shop in Portland.

Yet Bonanini won't be toning down his wines to be more marketable. He says he plans to increase Rossese Bianco in his white wine to 50 percent and isn't worried about appellation officials declassifying the result.

"I use the grapes of the Cinque Terre to make wine as it was always made," he says. "No one can say it's not Cinque Terre."

Italy

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