Over a cool glass of bright, juicy, peppery Rossese, I phoned Paolo Ruffino, who carries the flag for the Punta Crena estate after more than five hundred continuous years of familial wine production along the idyllic Ligurian coast. What, I asked, makes a great Rossese?
For Rossese, there are two important factors. First is location: Rossese must be planted at least 200 meters above sea level, and it needs plenty of sun to ripen properly. Second, it must grow in soil of very low fertility. The variety is highly productive, and it requires poor soils to restrict yields and make interesting wines.
The Ruffinos planted top-quality Rossese clones from Dolceacqua in their Isasco vineyard, where terraced slopes of terra rossa (red clay) overlook the Mediterranean perched at 240 meters elevation. All the care, attentiveness, and backbreaking labor required to farm this site result in one of the most joyful and lighthearted reds you will encounter. Taking a sip is akin to crunching into a just-ripe cherry tomato, its nectar bursting onto the palate with sweet, spicy, piquant goodness. Serve it when you would normally open a white but feel like drinking a red.
The vineyards of Punta Crena (which is named for a large promontory jutting into the sea at the edge of the village) are all within 1200 meters of the water and enjoy sea breezes that help keep the grapes healthy and happy. The Ruffino family are proud to work almost exclusively with local varietals, but they dont have much company. As a result, several of Punta Crenas wines are one of a kind: the Mataòssu and Cruvin are entirely unique, and the Barbarossa is the only one produced in Italy. They believe that their only job after the harvest is simply to avoid ruining their lovely fruit as it turns to wine. These are light, fun wines with no pretension.
A long, crescent-shaped sliver of mountainous coastline ranging from the French border in the west to that of Tuscany in the east, Liguria is a region of unrivaled Mediterranean charm. This applies not only to its colorful seaside villages and carefree, welcoming people, but also to the wines it produces—crisp whites and light reds designed to be quaffed with locally caught seafood.
Viticulture has thrived along these coastal hillsides since Etruscan times. Ancient stone terraces line the steep slopes all along the Riviera, many abandoned while others still host olive trees, lemon trees, and of course, the vine. What Liguria lacks in acreage, it makes up for in diversity and originality: home to numerous indigenous grape varieties, it produces wines of infectious local character.
The hallmarks of Ligurian wines are fragrant aromatics and lively freshness. Whites from grapes like Vermentino and Pigato capture the pervasive flavors of wild herbs and citrus with a sea-breeze salinity, while the rare reds from Rossese, among others, have a brightness of flavor that allows them to complement dishes from the sea or land—served with a slight chill, of course.
While Kermit’s history in the region is relatively recent, Liguria has rapidly become one of his favorite places to visit. It’s hard to blame him—enjoying a crisp, perfumed white with a platter of fried sea critters on the Mediterranean is definitely not the worst part of the job.
I want you to realize once and for all: Even the winemaker does not know what aging is going to do to a new vintage; Robert Parker does not know; I do not know. We all make educated (hopefully) guesses about what the future will bring, but guesses they are. And one of the pleasures of a wine cellar is the opportunity it provides for you to witness the evolution of your various selections. Living wines have ups and downs just as people do, periods of glory and dog days, too. If wine did not remind me of real life, I would not care about it so much.
Inspiring Thirst, page 171
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