According to tradition, this strange name is a fusion of the words sciac (‘press it’) and trai (‘leave it’) in the dialect of Eastern Liguria, indicating the manner of production of this truly unique straw wine. However, scholars have suggested more arcane etymologies for this word, such as shekar, the Armenian word for a wine offered to a deity, or sakkar (‘saccharose’, or sugary).
It is in fact likely that the ancient Middle Eastern practice of drying the finest grapes and pressing them into a straw wine was spread by the Greeks throughout the Mediterranean region, perhaps even to the Cinque Terre. The nectar that was extracted in this manner was considered a gift from the gods, and simultaneously, a gift fit for the gods. Unaware of these Classical references, the inhabitants of the five towns used to call this wine Refursà (‘fortified’ by the drying process).
A charming local tradition of old was to set aside flasks of this wine when a baby was born, to be opened at his or her wedding. It was only at the end of the 19th century that this wine acquired the name of Sciacchetrà, thanks to the great Florentine Impressionist Telemaco Signorini, who perfectly described it in the following words: “The finest grapes, dried in the sun, yield a fortified wine called Sciacchetrà, which is the name they use for a wine that is as strong as marsala -- a true liqueur, to be served in small glasses, exquisite in taste, the color of the most brilliant gold.”
It was not until 1973, however, that this ancient and exclusive wine of the Cinque Terre was finally awarded the appellation of DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or ‘Controlled Designation of Origin’).
Sciacchetrà is crafted by drying three specific grape varieties: bosco (80%), vermentino (15%), and albarola (5%). Bosco, the classic grape of the Cinque Terre, loves the sun and the reflected glare of the sun on the sea. It is considered “a white grape with the soul of a red”, and as its name (meaning ‘woods’) suggests, it has a hint of the wild in its taste. Vermentino, common throughout the northwest Mediterranean, has been cultivated here for centuries. When fully ripe, it develops fruity and floral aromas.
Albarola thrives in the mid-altitudes. A member of the trebbiano family, it is widespread throughout the Eastern Riviera, where it is commonly known as bianchetta genovese (‘little Genoese white’).
It grows in small bunches of compact fruits, with a fragrant aroma that imparts elegance to the wine. The making of Sciacchetrà begins at harvest time with the first selection, a rigorous sorting process. The very ripest bunches of grapes are carefully laid down, with no overlap, in wooden crates that are then stacked in a drying room. Here, in the dark, the grapes are left to throw off their moisture -- a process that is entirely unforced, apart from the occasional need to open or close a window in order to maintain a balanced level of humidity.
The grapes remain in the drying room for about two months (a figure that varies from year to year), during which time the crates are opened periodically to retard the growth of mildew and to examine their progress. The second and final selection takes place at the end of this drying period, when the finest individual grapes are plucked, one by one, from each bunch. The selection is done entirely by hand, and after that the selected grapes are crushed, once again by hand, and allowed to ferment. The first stage of fermentation, with maceration of the skins, lasts for about eight days. Then, during the racking process, the skins are separated from the must. Fermentation is allowed to continue until it ends on its own, having achieved a natural balance of sugars and alcohol. Finally, the wine is refined for another eighteen months, passing from wood to steel according to the exigencies of the vintage.
All of this work results in a truly emotional experience.