I’ve always loved to travel. The allure is multifaceted. First off there’s the thrill of seeing exotic destinations, like the Egyptian pyramids or the Acropolis in Athens. There’s also the excitement in seeing an iconic landmark in person. I still remember the first time I laid eyes on the Eiffel Tower. Or gazed upon the canals of Venice. Or stood in awe at the majesty of the Grand Canyon. In my youth, the idea was to visit as many famous sites as possible as quickly as possible. Now that I’m older, my priorities have shifted and I’m more interested in soaking up the ambiance of a particular region rather than seeing a specific attraction. And a big part of the ambiance for me, is eating the local food and drinking the local wine.
And no region is more appealing to me than the Riviera. The weather. The food. The wine. And most of all the lifestyle. The “La Vita bella” state of mind. The idea is not just to see wonderful and beautiful things, but to experience the Riviera like a native. While I love going to all the major tourist destinations (Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo, St Tropez, Sanremo), what I really enjoy is finding some uncrowded off-the-beaten-path discovery that I can call my own. Something that you’re not going to find in the traditional guidebooks. Some place that even Rick Steves hasn’t touted as a hidden European gem. Dolceacqua in Italy is just such a discovery.
Dolceacqua is a small town located in the region of Liguria of Italy, not far from the French border and about 9 miles north of Ventimiglia and the Mediterranean. Like many of the villages of this region, Dolceacqua was built as a perched village with a castle and ancient walls surrounding the village to protect the town from invaders. While there are some B&Bs and a few artisan shops in the tunnel-like streets of the fortified city, it basically looks much like it did 500 years ago. Unspoiled, untouristy and undiscovered. There’s none of that Epcot Center artificiality and commercialization that you sometimes experience as old towns are modernized to meet the demands of modern tourism. I imagine it’s what Eze was like before becoming a shopping mecca for cruise ships, or what St. Tropez was like before Roger Vadim made Brigitte Bardot a star when he filmed “. . . And God Created Woman” there.
Dolceacqua has many charms and the well-preserved medieval city is without parallel. There is the romance of the ruined Doria castle which still stands guard over the town, a beautiful 15th Century church renovated in the Baroque style, a picturesque bridge over the Nervia River imortalized by Claude Monet and numerous excellent restaurants. Of which my favorite is Ristorante A Viassa on via Liberazione 13. The restaurant specializes in local cuisine and has a wonderful selection of local wines, of which the Rossese di Dolceacqua is the most famous. Rossese di Dolceacqua (also called Tibouren in Provence) is a red grape from the Ligurian region of Northern Italy. It produces a wine that is light and fruity with an earthy quality. Rossese is generally regarded as being rustic and primitive.
Though it’s been a few years, I vividly remember every aspect of my first dining experience at A Viassa. After an exceptional meal of Brandacium (a local tapenade made from salt cod), Risotto al Coniglio (Rabbit risotto cooked with Rossese wine) and Il gelato di Michette (a take on a local dessert with a storied past), I asked the proprietor where I could buy some of the wines that I had sampled during my meal. He said that there was an Enoteca around the corner that had an excellent selection. Instead of just giving me directions, he personally walked me over. Unfortunately it was still closed for the usual mid-day lunch break. But no problem, the proprietor of the restaurant banged on the door of the shop until a head popped out of the window in the floor above the shop. “Aprite! Uno dei miei clienti è un americano che vuole comprare vino locale!” In a few minutes he came downstairs and opened the door for me. Using my fractured Italian I told him that I was interested in buying a selection of Rossese. One of the bottles he recommended was the Rossese from Antonio Perrino Testalonga, probably the most famous and one of the oldest producers of this small denomination. While most Rossese are meant for immediate consumption, there is a complexity to these wines that make you want to hold on to them for a few years and see how they develop. Unfortunately, I have been unable to do this. These wines are so delicious that I always end up drinking every last bottle before heading home!
I quickly became hooked on this wine. This became my signature drink while visiting the Riviera. Now every time I’m in the South of France, I journey back to the Middle Ages with a return to Dolceacqua. After a late morning cappuccino at Bar L’Angolo, a promenade in the old town and my obligatory lunch at A Viassa, I stop at the Entoeca Re to stock up on some Rossese to enjoy in my rental apartment across the border in Menton. My personal wine from my secret destination. Imagine my surprise when I did one of the wine education classes offered periodically at Channing Daughters Winery in the Hamptons AVA of Long Island when a wine from Dolceacqua was included in the “Off the Beaten Track” wine class. And not just any wine from Dolceacqua, but that exact same Rossese from Antonio Perrino Testalonga that I’ve been drinking for all these years.
But instead of feeling upset that my secret was revealed, I felt honored that for once I was on the cutting edge of something. A small production wine from a tiny village in the hills of Liguria that I’ve been drinking for years was now being discussed by winemaker Christopher Tracy and “wine guru” Larry Perrine. While I enjoy drinking wine, have visited numerous vineyards around the world and have been a promoter and unofficial ambassador of local wines for 30 years, I’m far from an authority on the subject. There are so many wines and so much to learn. But here, at this particular time for this particular wine, I was the expert. Been there. Drank that. Even bought the tee-shirt! So, of course I had to jump into the discussion and do an impromptu dissertation of the charms of Dolceacqua and its wine.
The wine education classes offered at Channing Daughters are not only a chance to enjoy a delightful evening of great wines and fascinating conversation, but it’s also an opportunity to expand your horizons and try something new. So, the next time you see that your favorite winery is doing a wine class, don’t hesitate to sign up. You never know when you’re going to meet up with an old friend!