The hilltop town of Castelnuovo Magra sits in the most southerly part of Liguria and such is the serpentine drawing of the border here that the town is almost completely encircled by Tuscany.
It’s a pleasant little town today, sitting defiantly on an imposing ridge line with its restored tower, Turris Magna, facing off against the more imposing Malaspina castle a couple of miles to the north in Tuscany.
The tower here was once graced by Dante in his role as Procurator or agent of the powerful Malaspina dynasty when he negotiated a peace treaty in 1306, the Pace di Castelnuovo, between his employer and the belligerent Bishop of Luni, both of whom skirmished constantly over the right to collect local tolls.
Even on a late February morning when bathed in sunshine and protected from the cold northerly wind, this makes for a great area to visit, but no doubt even better in June when Castelnuovo hosts the annual Benvenuto Vermentino festival to showcase the local Vermentino producers. Despite this area having a relatively small acreage under vine, in our opinion Colli di Luni is the finest location for Vermentino in all of Italy.
The winery’s namesake, Ottaviano, is a Tuscan from nearby Carrara and his son Fabio, who for several decades now has been running the business, is unhesitatingly Ligurian. But though the actual border may be important in terms of regional jurisdiction, it matters little to the people along this coastline who share a common heritage and outlook and as Fabio noted, Tuscany as an identity starts at Viareggio not here.
At 92 years old Ottaviano is living proof of the old saying about the people of this area - “duro come il marmo” - and it is particularly apt in Ottaviano’s case because he spent all of his youth and more, for 30 years, working as a cavatore and in just about every other role in the nearby marble quarries of Fantiscritti. As he put it, it was not out of choice, “we were share croppers but the war left us nothing, a burned out house and great need to work”.
Even today the marble quarries are a hard place to work as we observed in person on our visit to Fantiscritti and Colonnata last year so I can only imagine the working conditions over 70 years ago when the barely adult Ottaviano started there. But it was simply a means to an end for Ottaviano and in the mid 1970s he found his true calling.
It was always in Ottaviano’s nature to be a farmer and his love for the land manifested itself even at 5 years old through the pride he took in his orticino (small vegetable plot). For many years after the war he witnessed the abandonment of much of the land on these hills, something that is hard to imagine today when you see what magic the Vermentino grape can produce in your wine glass from these same slopes.
Thirty years after the war, fueled by his desire to create something worthwhile from the land, he took the money he’d saved from the quarries and went scouting for the perfect location, in the hills naturally.
When you see it today it’s hard to picture the Costa Marina vineyard as Ottaviano saw it almost 50 years ago because at that time it was nothing more than an overgrown and neglected hillside that was partly forest. But he knew instinctively that this was a site worth rescuing and replanting, no easy task given the steep slopes and all the trees with their roots sunk deep into the land.
Now of course it’s easy to recognize how ideal these 5 acres are; situated at an elevation of 700 feet they face south west into the hot afternoon sun, open to the cleansing sea breezes and with views over Castelnuovo Magra and the Luni plain. I envy the Costa Marina vines because I could quite happily live on the same spot myself.
Anyone who has spent time on the Ligurian coast can appreciate the constant human effort required to keep the soil where it needs to be in the face of winter rainstorms pounding the steep hillsides and that is why Ottaviano has scant regard for laissez-faire ecologists whose mantra is to leave everything alone and let nature take its course; it’s quite obvious that untamed nature would make short work of most of the terraced vineyards of the Ligurian coastline.
After he acquired this piece of land all of Ottaviano’s time was devoted to the vineyard. In contrast to his time in the quarries this was both his work and his passion as he explained to us:
"Per far l’agricoltura bisogna essere appassionati"
Ottaviano was one of the first producers making high quality Vermentino along this stretch of coastline before the Colli di Luni DOC was established in 1989. And one of the first also whose wine found favor in overseas markets. The ‘Colli’ in Colli di Luni refers to the hills and Ottaviano is equally forthright in his views about where Vermentino should be grown and where it shouldn’t.
For him it belongs in the hills in poor soil, where the ever present breeze keeps the grapes free of disease and it has no place being on the flat land in the Magra river valley. A similar story it seems as with the Garganega grape in Veneto which also should have stayed on the hills above the town of Soave.
Below Castelnuovo Magra we saw lots of vines on the flood plain so just as with Soave it’s important to know your wine producer and where his vineyards are located. The weather patterns are also quite dissimilar between the valley floor and the hills and we noticed the difference straight away when Fabio drove us up to the Costa Marina vineyard from his winery lower down.
History too can often be your guide because the flat land by the sea was dangerous for many centuries because of diseases like malaria so most of the old towns like Castelnuovo Magra and Fosdinovo are up in the hills. The ‘Luni’ part of Colli di Luni refers to the old Roman port for transporting the marble from the quarries to Rome.
Today it is just an archeological site which includes a well preserved Roman amphitheater, surprisingly sitting all alone in the middle of open fields with just a small fence around it. And with the marble quarries also came recognition of the wine; Pliny the Elder wrote in the middle of the first century A.D. that “the wine of Luna wins the gold among those of Etruria“ though who knows if it was Vermentino that he was talking about all those centuries ago.
Fabio has managed the winery for a few decades now, having reluctantly given up thoughts of a military career at the end of his mandatory service period. Perhaps his path was already set after studying agriculture and with his father’s legacy to be built on.
And build on it Fabio certainly has because Ottaviano Lambruschi is the very first name recommended by no less an authority than Ian D’Agata when he wrote the chapter on Vermentino in his book 'Native Wine Grapes of Italy'. High praise indeed and from other sources too as the wall in his cellar attests, covered as it is with awards and accolades from many different wine publications over the years.
Fabio planted a new vineyard in 2009 that was given the name Il Maggiore because it’s slightly higher up than the Costa Marina location and there is also a third vineyard adjacent to the winery on the lower slopes, making a total of about 15 acres under vine.
Meanwhile the original vineyard was replanted in recent years and current production from all of them runs at about 40,000 bottles today, all of which sell out every year without fail and the complaint in the US is that virtually their entire country allocation ends up in restaurants leaving retailers with little or none. So if you see it by chance on a restaurant wine list, grab it and then order food to match, rather than the other way round.
The Lambruschi family owns an additional 15 acres, some of which are woodland and others dedicated to olive trees from which they produce an olive oil that we included in our tasting notes below.
Fabio is an orthodox winemaker who doesn’t take unnecessary risks. With the benefit of 35 years of experience and possessing limited acreage I would guess he probably understands his vines and vineyards as well as any winemaker could. He knows what they are capable of producing and doesn’t need to tinker with the process or push the final result. He’s not inhibited by rigid philosophical doctrines and when he sensed that in these times of global warming his vines might need some drip irrigation, he simply installed it.
We meet winemakers who refuse to employ any irrigation and I’ve never understood why the subject engenders such doctrinaire opposition when the climate is clearly changing; equally, on the subject of sulfites, Fabio adds a small but sensible amount at the bottling stage that is well below legal limits but how else will his wine travel all the way to California or Australia in perfect condition? We've heard stories of very low sulfite wines arriving spoiled in distant destinations so sometimes the overly fanatical natural wine movement has only itself to blame for its somewhat mixed reputation.
In the vineyard Fabio won’t apply any treatments after the fruit has set but instead will rely on lotta integrata (ie. integrated pest management by a variety of completely benign and natural interventions like pheromone diffusers, natural predators and sterile insect release). The more we talk to responsible vineyard owners who are not formally certified as organic the more we realize that some of the flexibility allowed by the organic protocols can actually be less ‘organic’ than many winemakers would like, especially with regard to the use of copper sulfate applications.
Ottaviano interjected at this point with one of his usual candid and illuminating observations that sometimes when the government lavishes funds on organically certified winemakers the money gets put to use building a swimming pool for the winemaker’s wife! His real point being that there is very little control over many of the funds disbursed or laws enacted in this area. At 92 years of age Ottaviano has seen it all and knows all too well the often capricious way that government and regulation intersect with the wine business.
Fabio’s goal is simply to make clean, precise wines that reflect the terroir and the characteristics of the Vermentino grape and so everything in the cellar is kept simple and traditional. Fermentation and aging take place in stainless steel at controlled temperatures with no grape skins involved in the maceration and no malolactic conversion in order to preserve the freshness and vibrancy of the wines. Contact with the lees is normally limited to one month and in Fabio's case the cellar really is a cellar because it's a compact, gleamingly clean workplace that is located directly under the house.
Fabio’s daughter Ylenia, who like her father is a qualified sommelier, also works in the family business today so there are three generations actively involved and it's hard to believe that Ylenia could do any better than having Ottaviano and Fabio sharing with her their 80 years of combined experience.
We finished our visiting by asking Fabio a couple of questions that winemakers always seem to have interesting answers to:
1. Favorite Italian wine from outside your area?
Franciacorta spumante was Fabio's reply and he added that in fact he would love to make a Vermentino spumante but there are some constraints, space in the cellar being just one of them.
2. Favorite Italian dish?
Branzino all'isolana was his response, so that went straight onto my list.
Vermentino Il Casale 2021 - Colli di Luni DOC (13.5% alcohol)
Enhancing the white flowers and honeysuckle on the nose there's a certain richness to the aroma that belies the fresh vibrancy that arrives on the palate. Notes of granny smith apple as well as fuller and fleshier kaiser pear are balanced with a refreshing crunchy acidity that makes this ideal as an aperitif or food wine. With a touch of almonds on the long finish there is everything here that I like about Colli di Vermentino wines. A steal at 11 euros.
Vermentino Costa Marina 2021 - Colli di Luni DOC (14% alcohol)
This has a slightly deeper color in the glass with a full and quite concentrated nose of very ripe stone fruits as well as apple and pear. It's still quite taut like a coiled spring but already just 6 months after the harvest it's showing extremely well on the palate with real intensity of flavor. Notes of wet stones and minerals are contained within a chewy slightly viscous texture and there's a backbone of delicious acidity that keeps it all very pure and precise. This is a very special wine and perhaps the best expression of Colli di Luni Vermentino that we've ever had the pleasure of drinking. It's nice to have such wonderful wine only a 40 minute drive away from our home and at 15 euros it represents tremendous value.
Maniero 2021 - Liguria di Levante IGT (14% alcohol)
(50% Sangiovese, 25% Merlot, 25% Canaiolo)
This is a blend that works very well that we haven't come across before. Canaiolo has always paired well with Sangiovese in Tuscany and was 20% of Ricasoli's original Chianti formula back in 1872. Merlot performs a similar task in softening the Sangiovese so with the two of them being 50% of the blend here, Fabio has produced an immediately approachable wine with delicate and well-integrated tannins and unobtrusive acidity.
It's a fresh, vibrant wine with cherry notes and a lovely softness to it that makes me think it would also be an ideal summer red wine served slightly chilled. Good value at 11 euros if you can find some because only about 2,000 bottles are produced annually.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This oil is very fresh at the start, mild on the palate and slightly peppery on the finish. It has quite a mellow nose with notes of scarola (endive) followed by a flavor of fresh olives that becomes slightly nutty with notes of walnuts and pine nuts. It finishes with a pleasant bitterness.