a caldo, caldo, caldo. Heat and humidity hang over the hills and sea this morning as they have for some weeks now. I am in my Ligurian rhythm of walking down to the shore for a swim before the sun begins baking the scoglie. I then climb back up the shady forest path for a cool shower and a light lunch, staying as still as possible during the heavy afternoon. The evening brings with it the pleasure of dining with friends and sipping a glass or two of cold white wine.
Last week, David Downie and Alison Harris joined me for dinner at the apartment where I am staying above the Panificio Maccarini in San Rocco di Camogli on the north side of the Portofino peninsula. He’s a food and wine writer and she’s a photographer whose show, “Chiaroscuro,” just ended in Genoa. On a terrace overlooking the sea we enjoyed a simple meal of prosciutto e melone with some focaccia from the panificio downstairs.
A crisp Vermentino was the perfect wine pairing. It’s uncomplicated with a nice acidity that cleans the palate, an ideal “summer white” for an aperitivo or with salads and light seafood dishes.
Probably the most typical Ligurian grape variety, vermentino is grown throughout Liguria, as well Tuscany’s Marema, Corsica, and Sardinia. Its close cousin from the Piedmont is known as Favorita. The best vermentino comes from Colli Di Luni, a hilly DOC region near the Tuscan border. My favorite producers include Ottaliano Lambruschi, Santa Catarina, and Lunae.
The next day, longtime friends Bo and Julie Manson arrived from California. For dinner, Julie chopped up some of the bright red tomatoes from the market in Camogli, dropped them in a pan with onions and olive oil, and served them over spaghettini with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese. We opened a bottle of Bianchetta Genovese, the simplest of the Liguria whites. It comes from the nearby Golfo di Tigullio and is neither structured nor complicated.
A few days later, I had dinner with more friends at “Da Mirin,” San Rocco’s trattoria, run by Alessandro Bosio and Elena Trovati. Elena grew up in Milan and for years help high-powered jobs in Silicon Valley and London. But she never forgot the Ligurian coast, where she once spent many summers, or her first love, Alessandro. Ten years ago, she returned to marry Alessandro and live in San Rocco.
We ordered my favorite meal: a first course of foccacette (crisply fried, paper thin foccaccia stuffed with warm, runny gorgonzola) followed by a second course of baked fish, this time one called (in the Genovese dialect) “the big-eyed fish.”
Alessandro suggested a DOC white from the Cinque Terre, made with vermentino, bosco and albarola grapes. Cinque Terre DOC wine is slightly more complex than pure vermentino but remains fresh and clean. The grapes are grown on terraced vineyards that are precipitously steep: It’s called la vinicoltura eroica (“heroic winemaking,” with all the grapes gathered by hand in difficult conditions). La Polenza and Forlini Capellini are two excellent producers.
The other day, panifici owners Anna and Italo Maccarini, taking a day off from bread-making, invited me to a late lunch at Punta Chiappa, the tiny fishing village across the bay from Camogli, accessible only by foot or by ferry.
After a lovely swim, we walked up steep, narrow steps to the restaurant, “Da Drin,” run by Anna’s cousins. The restaurant and the lovely, shaded garden alongside, command a panoramic view over the rocky coastline and the sea. We shared a bowl of mussels and a huge platter of fritto misto: all kinds of lightly fried seafood including anchovies, shrimp, calamari, tiny octopi, small mackerel and other small, local fish.
The Maccarini’s favorite summer white is Pigato, made from 100 percent pigato grapes, considered the only true vitigno autoctono, or native grape, of Liguria. It hails from Roman times.
The name pigato derives from the word pigau in Genovese dialect, meaning spotted or freckled because the grapes have small freckles on them. It’s a fresh summer white, more complex than vermentino with a hint of summer fruit, especially peaches.
Pigato comes from the area around the town of Albenga, almost at the French border. The hills are steep, the grapes gathered by hand, and many of the vineyards abut the sea, giving the wine a bit of a salty or mineral flavor.
Among the more outstanding pigatos are Bruna’s single vineyard “cru” U Baccan, (which loosely means “the overseer” or “the big guy” in dialect) and BioVio’s organic, non-filtered “Bon In Da Bon” “cru” di Bastia D’Albenga.
The end of my seaside vacation doesn’t mean an end to drinking whites. Instead, I’ll turn my attention to other regions, including Campania and Lazio, which furnish Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Est! Est! Est!
I’ll also look to Sicily, whose excellent Etna DOCs come from carricante and cattarati grapes, yielding a dry and fresh wine with a distinct mineral note from the volcanic soil. Ciro’ Biondi produces a “cru,” Gurna, made by hand from 45-year old Etna vines, while neighboring Benanti produces the heralded Pietramarina.
— Most of these wines run between €10-15 a bottle with the exception of the crus, such as U Baccan, which are in the €20-25 range.