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Bisson, Liguria: making native grapes shine


The Bisson vineyards and winery in Sestri Levante

I’m not sure why we let six years pass between out first visit to the Bisson retail store in Chiavari and our recent trip to the Bisson vineyard and winery operations in nearby Sestri Levante because we remember being very impressed with the wines all those years ago. It must be because there are twenty regions in Italy and all of them produce wine so there are endless discoveries to be made as we travel around the country.

Be that as it may, time has not dulled our memory of Pierluigi Lugano’s pioneering wines and the exigencies of this section of our website coupled with our complementary series of travel articles on the Riviera di Levante finally prompted us to pay a more extensive visit.


As we refine the criteria by which we select wines to write about and wineries to visit, one of the most important for us is the use of indigenous and traditional grape varieties because not only does this seem to frequently coincide with more interesting wines that we like to drink ourselves, but invariably it reveals a winemaker with more passion and a more complete understanding of their craft than most.


It is adventurous winemakers like Pierluigi Lugano that give you confidence that the future of Italy’s lesser known indigenous varietals are in good hands. Fortunately he is not alone in his quest to coax wonderful wines from grape varieties that have centuries of history behind them but fell out of fashion, often to the point of near extinction. The story of the Pecorino grape in Abruzzo and Le Marche is another example of the rediscovery of an ancient grape and the dedication of a very small group of inspired winemakers to resuscitate it. The Pecorino story began 40 years ago at the same time as Pierluigi Lugano was establishing himself in Liguria with his own set of ambitious goals and challenges.


Inside the Bisson winery in Sestri Levante

For Pierluigi and his fellow pioneers it’s not enough to be of an adventurous and romantic disposition with the goal of saving ancient varietals, however noble that might be, because at the end of the day they all run commercial enterprises and have to prove every year that the resulting wines are good enough to hold their own in a very competitive international market place.

This generally means that winemakers like Pierluigi have to be better at what they do, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, because there is generally a fundamental reason why these grape varieties started to disappear and it usually has to do with them being more difficult to grow or having lower yields, or being more susceptible to diseases or some other inherent problem. It takes a lot of knowledge, skill and experience to be both a pioneer and commercially successful because the price sensitive consumer reaching for a bottle on a shelf doesn’t know or care about the winemaker's challenges.


The outside terrace and vineyards of the Bisson winery in Sestri Levante

Some people are born to make wine and Pierluigi Lugano is clearly one of them. I can’t remember what fascinated me as a six year old boy but I certainly wasn’t secretly making wine in my bedroom as Pierluigi was, from grapes given to him for helping out in a friend’s family vineyard. It probably wasn’t the best wine he’s ever made but that peculiar curiosity of the six year old Pierluigi back in the mid 1950s set his destiny in motion. The old Jesuit saying "give me a child till he is seven years old and I will show you the man" was off by a year for Pierluigi, but proved true nonetheless.

While wine was clearly a passion for him from a very tender age, he also developed other interests which were to shape the future of his wines in an unexpected way. He became a professor in the Arts and developed a lifelong fascination for history and the sea, as befits a Ligurian who is rarely out of sight of the sea. Winemakers have something in common with artists and that is a restless mind and a need to constantly improve and innovate. In Pierluigi's words the key to success in winemaking is "a combination of vision and decisiveness". This led to a brilliant idea which, like many strokes of genius, seems obvious but only after someone else has thought of it.



The idea was both intuitive and also the result of a perfectly logical thought process twenty years ago as he was considering how to begin making a high quality spumante and thinking about the cellar space that it would require for the lengthy ageing process. As he ruminated over the problem, his reflection on the various shipwrecks that had been discovered over the years in Mediterranean waters with perfectly preserved Roman amphora containers was his lightbulb moment (the images above are from a 2,000 year old shipwreck carrying thousands of amphora, discovered in Greek waters).


Why not mature all the spumante under the sea? A crazy idea perhaps, but at a depth of about 200 feet the environment is actually perfect. There’s a constant temperature of about 15 degrees centigrade, the same semi-darkness as a cellar as well as currents that would gently rock the bottles, stirring the sediments and thereby enriching the wine with heightened aroma and structure. A pressure of 7 bar would create a perfect balance between the pressure in the bottles and the outside pressure at that depth, and the absence of oxygen would avoid any loss of pressure.

It may sound like a gimmick and there are certainly plenty of those in the wine world but in fact Pierluigi was absolutely correct in his assessment of the attributes of using the Ligurian sea as his cellar. The hard part was actually getting it done in practice, with all of the various studies, permissions, certifications and just the pure logistics necessary to realize his idea.


Several years later in November 2010 the first 6,500 bottles emerged from the deep and the unique sparkling wine Abissi was born and with it came one other surprise.

After two years under water the bottles had all become decorated with natural encrustations, colonized by the myriad creatures looking to attach themselves to a good hiding place. The subsequent disgorgement that takes place with any sparkling wine made by the champagne method provided the perfect proof of a lack of contamination because the pressure in the bottle would not still be present on returning to the surface if the bottle cap had been compromised in any way. Prior to sale the exterior of the bottle is cleaned but as much of the natural decoration of the sea as possible is retained, making every single bottle unique.


bottle of 2016 Bisson Abissi spumante

Since 2014 the Abissi project has been entrusted to the crystal clear waters of the Bay of Silence of Sestri Levante and this extraordinary spumante has now become the flagship of the entire production of Bisson wines. As Pierluigi Lugano himself says, it is an enormous “source of Ligurian and indeed Italian enological pride”.


Bisson makes three different types of Abissi spumante, two are a blend of the local grapes of Bianchetta Genovese, Vermentino and Pigato and the third is a rosato using a combination of Ciliegiolo and Granaccia.

At the winery we tasted the 2017 Abissi and it really is a fabulous sparkling wine with a richness and depth of flavor that we found quite remarkable and the color also. At 42 euros in Italy this is very fairly priced for a wine of this quality which could certainly hold its own, and might even outshine, any vintage Champagne of a similar age. The final result proves that this is not a gimmick at all and the bottles themselves are really quite beautiful. It would make a great and very unique present for a wine lover.


Bay of Silence Sestri Levante
Somewhere out there in la Baia del Silenzio, unbeknownst to the crowd, is the underwater Bisson cellar

While the Abissi perhaps now grabs much of the attention because it's such an interesting story, there are a total of 22 wines in the entire Bisson portfolio consisting of 8 whites, 6 red, 1 rosato, 2 vino passito wines, 3 Abissi and oddly two from Veneto that carry the Bisson label. A Glera frizzante IGT wine and a Prosecco DOC. These are both sourced from a good friend of Pierluigi who has a small parcel of land in the best part of the Prosecco zone, the Valdobbiadene district.


With much of Bisson's fame derived these days from the Abissi spumante story, it's important to remember that Pierluigi was making wine here for 32 years before the first bottle of Abissi returned to dry land and his mission to capture all of the potential of the native wines of Liguria continues unabated today in his 43rd year of operations. And every important decision continues to be taken by him personally.


Pierluigi Lugano in the cellar at Bisson with Elena

We booked our tour and tasting as regular tourists not expecting that the 73 year old owner of a large successful business, that produces 120,000 bottles each year and exports many of them around the world, would take an hour out of a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon in June to personally tell us his story. I'm not sure that I would have done the same in his shoes and my experience of places like Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County is that there would be no chance of that happening in similar circumstances in either of those places.

This is one of the truly rewarding aspects of visiting wineries in Italy and rarely do we fail to see the owner on site and actively engaged in their business whatever the day of the week it happens to be and rarely are they unavailable at the very least to answer our questions.


bottles of Bisson Abissi spumante in the cellar in Sestri Levante

Furthermore, at the end of our tour with Pierluigi he left us in the capable hands of his sommelier for the wine tasting. This is also a level above the usual experience in the US where your only point of contact with a winery is typically the intern pouring the wine and their knowledge base is far below that of a sommelier. Perhaps it's a cultural thing but these interactions make a huge difference to the quality and enjoyment of a winery visit and I have nothing but good things to say about winemakers in Italy, whatever nationality they might be.

thermal shock equipment in the Bisson cellar in Sestri Levante

We put our time with Pierluigi to good use. He uses stainless steel exclusively for the white wines and mostly for the red wines. He prevents malolactic conversion for all the white wines by keeping the temperature low and he employs a 'thermal shock' at the very start of the vinification process.

This has two purposes. First, to prevent any undesirable microbial activity ie. to eliminate the possibility of any of the natural microbes or bacteria in the vineyard producing any off flavors in the wine. Second, to capture and preserve the minerality in the grape skins which he believes comes directly from the salty sea air that is ever present in his vineyards. He takes the temperature down to almost freezing (sometimes from as high as 30 degrees centigrade at harvest) through special equipment (photo above) and an important benefit of doing this is that he is able to reduce the amount of sulfites that the wine requires.

Sulfites are perhaps the next big challenge for wine producers because even organic and biodynamic certified wines are permitted to use very small amounts of sulfites. It is hard to produce reliably clean and stable wines without any sulfites at all, but any reduction can only be a good thing.



Tasting Notes:

As Bisson's wines are mostly white and include several different wines using Vermentino and Pigato it's worth mentioning that scientists today believe that these two grapes are in fact exactly the same, based on their DNA, and are simply different clonal varieties. Winemakers mostly disagree and Pierluigi is one of those that sees a real difference in how these grapes behave in the vineyard. He maintains that Vermentino adapts to different sites and reflects that in the changing acidity and structure of the finished wine. Pigato doesn't and its acidity profile stays relatively constant.

Another general point worth making here is that fridge temperature is too cold for these wines. Many of them have delicate aromas and flavors and either cellar temperature or 20 minutes outside the fridge is the only way to appreciate them properly.


Bianco Trevigne 2019 - Colline del Genovesato Bianco IGT (12% alcohol)

Bianchetta Genovese, Vermentino, Pigato

Muted nose of melon and a little orange peel. This is a restrained and slightly austere wine with quite a dry slightly bitter finish that we find very appealing on a hot summer's evening. Mineral notes of slate and flint are also present but everything is quite subtle; it doesn't try to be loud or brash. Just solid well made wine, perfect for midweek and at 7.50 euros you can't really go wrong.


six different bottles of Bisson white wine at tasting

Pigato 2019 - Colline del Genovesato Bianco IGT (12.5% alcohol)

Pigato

Describing wine as having minerality is now an overused expression so to explain the concept better it's a little like the old saying derived from the utterance of a US Supreme Court judge in 1964 when deliberating on a case involving pornography. The judge declined to attempt to define it for the court and simply said that "I know it when I see it".

Minerality in wine is a bit like that. Easier to recognize than to describe and you will see terms like 'slate' or 'wet stones' or 'sapidity' often used to convey the impression of minerality.

This pigato wine definitely has it. There's an ethereal quality that lies beneath the refreshing acidity, though the acidity here is actually quite muted and not the dominant feature. Delicious wine and good value at 11 euros.


Bianchetta ü Pastine 2020 - Portofino DOC (12.5% alcohol)

Bianchetta Genovese

Elsewhere this grape is more commonly known as Albarola but there isn't in fact much elsewhere because its cultivation barely reaches down to the Tuscany border. It typically produces high acid wines to be drunk straight away and Bisson's location in the hills around Sestri Levante is the perfect environment in which to grow it. If you've followed our previous wine articles then you'll know that there is some formidable competition for white wines at this price point in Italy of just under 10 euros.

There is a lovely nose here, full of minerals and herbs, in particular basil and sage. In the mouth there's plenty of citrus and fresh, zippy acidity with a slightly bitter finish. It's delicate and refined but it's definitely not light or inconsequential. We really like this but there are a lot of foreign palates out there that will need re-educating before this becomes a crowd pleaser because anyone weaned on very fruity wines with lots of tropical flavors will find this the exact opposite. Very much our sort of wine and a perfect match for Pesto Genovese. At 9.30 euros this is excellent value.


Vermentino Vignaerta 2019 - Portofino DOC (12.5% alcohol)

Vermentino

Vermentino does particularly well in poor soil with good sunny exposure, which could almost be the definition of the Ligurian coastline east of Genoa.

This is the type of Vermentino that we both prefer. Some white fruits on the nose but quite restrained and no tropical scents. Followed by good acidity and a slightly steely profile with some minerality in the background. It's subtle and balanced but there's also some thickness to this wine texturally unlike for example the northern Italian white wines which are so popular these days. An ideal summer white wine that will match up very well with many lighter seasonal dinners. Another tremendous value at 10 euros in Italy.


Vermentino Intrigoso 2018 - Portofino DOC (13% alcohol)

Vermentino

This is such a different expression of Vermentino that it will have you siding with the winemakers that it can't possibly be the same grape as Pigato. The Intrigoso is a very oily and unctuous wine that you would normally associate with a white wine after malolactic, but as Pierluigi doesn't do that, in this case it's all down to the concentration of the juice and the extensive lees contact.

There's real intensity here of ripe fruit together with a mineral spine and just enough acidity to hold it all together. The richness of flavor makes you think that there will be some sweetness at the end, but not at all. It's bone dry with a slightly bitter finish of almonds that stops the wine from being cloying. This is a distinctive wine for sure and one to try if you want to understand the full range of the Vermentino grape made by someone at the top of his game.

This is a real food wine and worth trying if only to expand your knowledge of what this grape is capable of. Very fairly priced at 13.40 euros


Çimixà L'Antico 2019 - Portofino DOC (13% alcohol)

Çimixà

The minerality here jumps right out of the glass and is reminiscent of wet slate roofs in the rain in North Wales, something more profound than just wet stones or iodine. In the mouth there is a wave of salinity making it seem slightly sour but at the same time incredibly refreshing. Lots of personality here and a long finish. It's a medium full wine without the viscosity of the Intrigoso so for us a much more versatile summer wine and not expensive at around 12 euros. It's a slightly austere wine and the flavor profile is quite subtle so it should not be served too cold.


Bisson bottles of ciliegiolo, granaccia, Glera frizzante and Prosecco

Ciliegiolo 2020 - Portofino DOC (12% alcohol)

Ciliegiolo

Nowhere on the label is this described as a rosato but it doesn't really matter what you call it. It's made from 100% Ciliegiolo, which is one of the famous blending grapes of Chianti. When grown in Liguria there is enough acidity in the grape to keep it very fresh, which is not always the case with this varietal in purezza.

This is a stunning bright scarlet color with a heady scent of strawberries and raspberries which carry though on the palate but with the essential acidity to keep everything in check and no hint of sweetness at all. The perfect lunchtime wine or pre-dinner aperitivo that to look at could be mistaken for a Campari.

(Note: the Italian word for cherry is ciliegia so ciliegiolo is the diminutive version, but though it may contribute to the sour cherry notes in a Chianti, in Liguria its flavor contribution is much more strawberry than cherry. Bisson's labeling differences above between ciliegiolo and ciliegiolo rubino are stylistic more than technical as they are both the same grape).


Ciliegiolo Rubino 2019 - Colline del Genovesato Rosso IGT (12.5% alcohol)

Ciliegiolo

This is the sort of light picnic wine that you can chill and then when you open it with friends it disappears quickly. And that's because it's just a flat out really good 7.50 euro wine from a grape that's underused in purezza but produces juicy, crisp and very fruity wines that taste like mildly alcoholic strawberries. No tannin here and quite low acidity so this one is definitely a crowd pleaser. This is a lunchtime wine if you need something red and light or a dinner wine in the middle of a hot Italian summer with a simple chicken or pasta dish. In the article on Pascale Francesca I commented in the Vermentino Nero tasting note that I can't survive the entire Italian summer on white wine alone and this wine too is a lovely summer red wine that will go well with lots of dishes.


Granaccia 2018 - Colline del Genovesato Rosso IGT (13.5% alcohol)

Granaccia

The sole red wine in the lineup was a disappointment for me. It came across as a little 'hot' and alcoholic with prune like flavors and a bit of a musty smell. Personally I'm not a fan either of the Cannonau wines from Sardinia that are also Grenache wines and I'm not sure why they don't translate well from the excellent southern Rhone examples.

Elena on the other hand quite liked it. She found it more redolent of Maraschino cherries than prunes and to her it came across as a much fresher wine than she was expecting with enough acidity to keep it balanced.

At 17 euros in Italy it was the most expensive in this line up and not the best value for either of us.

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Glera Vino Frizzante - Marca Trevigiana IGT (11% alcohol)

Glera

This is a Prosecco sparkling wine that cannot be called Prosecco (declassified in other words) because it has a metal crown cap instead of a cork and thus falls foul of the detailed regulations. But this typically pedantic approach by the authorities benefits the knowledgeable consumer because the price is much lower as a result. It's a well made wine, perfect as an aperitivo. It's completely dry with crisp refreshing acidity and notes of apple and pear. A bargain at 6 euros in Italy.


Prosecco Spumante Brut - Prosecco DOC (11% alcohol)

Glera

Only 1 euro more expensive than the Glera Frizzante this is a much more interesting wine and we would pick this one every time. There's quite a full nose of crisp fresh apples and a dry pleasantly acidic flavor. The bubbles are soft and unobtrusive and there's enough here to go with a light summer dish but it's excellent on its own. Who says cheap Prosecco can't be good? But there's a reason why it's so good, because as with the Glera Frizzante, it's from the very best part of the Prosecco zone, the Valdobbiadene.