Photo: Dolceacqua (Liguria)

Sometimes life can take unexpected turns and shake you completely and you can’t have any influence on it. I have many such experiences. Like most of you, I am sitting at home now due to the corona-virus. I can’t visit any place unless it’s a supermarket or pharmacy. The only thing is that I am locked up far away from any social contact, so it is lonely here. It is living like a hermit but not voluntarily. I have much experience with situations where life takes an unexpected turn. Let me share one experience with you:

Many years ago, when I was researching in Piemonte, I decided to drive to Liguria and visit Dolceacqua. It was August and very hot. Even the Italian family of my agriturismo was suffering the heat. I took the highway to the south. At that moment I did not know yet that the day would take a different turn.
Vermentino is one of my preferred white wines. They can be wonderful, with some herbal or fine fruit perfumes and a taste that is not too dominant but so elegant and slightly mineral with a long finish! I guided my old Citroen through the turns of the Turin-Savona highway in the Ligurian Alps. At some places, it looks like Italian spaghetti, especially at one place where the highway makes a pirouette, partly inside and partly around a mountain. Italian engineers are very skilled and I cannot deny my admiration for that. And even in the steepest corners, some Alfa was passing with great speed. But I laughed at them because I was soon going to enjoy the delights of Liguria. Dolceacqua is a beautiful small village in the Val Nervia, not far from Ventimiglia. It has a medieval bridge with a view on the steep vineyards around. And there I will have a delicious Vermentino! I am getting thirsty.
Along the coast runs the via Aurelia. This highway with endless kilometers of turns, tunnels, and bridges is the only transit route through Liguria from France to Tuscany. I was not the only one. The highway was filled with a long and slow-moving traffic jam. Thousands of cars, all on the same road. It was hot, so I opened the windows but that didn’t help much. The asphalt was returning the heat and the driving cars didn’t make it better. Although driving was not the right term, it looked more like a procession of snails. Sometimes we even reached fifty kilometers/hour, but later we slowed down or stopped completely and then it drove on.
The slopes around were barren and dead with occasional olive trees. So many of them are never harvested because nobody wants to do it. And if someone might get the idea to do it: also that is impossible because it is forbidden. Italy is sometimes a crazy country.
Soon I would be in Dolceacqua and taste the wines with a fascinating panorama across the sea. And maybe we will eat also cappon magro, that famous, rare dish from Liguria. I thought of that delicious Ligurian olive oil from Taggiasca olives. A delight, one of the best in Italy. This part of Liguria is called ‘Liguria di ponente‘ as opposed to the east which is ‘Levante‘ because the ‘Ponente’ side sees the sun coming up, the other part sees the sunset. I made a count: it took me an hour and a half to get from Savona to Albenga. It means I will not be in time for lunch. My plan is getting ruined! But things would go worse.
Photo: steep vineyard terraces in Liguria

I had made an appointment with a company in Dolceacqua, situated high on the steep slopes with panoramas of incredible beauty. They also produce this rare variety, Pigato, a local clone of Vermentino. Pigato is a little stronger than Vermentino, with more body. Later I visited the family and fell in love with the area. Liguria has a unique charm. I still have a high estimation for all those Ligurian families who work heroically on their steep hills, dotted with terraces. They don’t earn much money. Often they continue because they own the land of their family. And sometimes they have a hard time surviving. Modern consumers should appreciate these people who work so hard for a small income. Logically, their wines are not cheap: they have to work for a tiny quantity of wine and that has its cost. But these wines are authentic and far from the industrial stuff which is on many shelves. Or should the wine production of Liguria disappear? It might be the ultimate consequence of the attitude of the modern consumers. Modern consumerism is breaking down centuries-old patterns which have been build up with much effort and skill and with care for the land.

Now the highway runs into the mountains with some tunnels. The long traffic jam continues, many kilometers long. I am sweating like a beast, just like the Italian family in a FIAT left of me and a Dutch family in a Peugeot in front. The pace is extremely slow. How annoying that I can’t call my relations to tell them about my delay. With this speed, I will not arrive before the evening! At least if my car stays working because it is old and not prepared for staying in the heat. I need to drive faster to cool the motor. I should control the water level regularly but I don’t do it because I don’t want to lose my place in the traffic. But this should not last too long.
We drive into the next tunnel. This one is a bit longer, two kilometers it says. And again, the traffic comes to a standstill. The highway consists of two separate carriageways, in opposite directions, each with its bridges and tunnels. What is this? Thousands of people are suffering the heat. Children get bored and start crying. And one should not get a heart attack here, because there would not be a sufficient rescue service. I start longing for that glass of Vermentino!
But one thing I noted: before entering the tunnel I saw that there was hardly any traffic on the other side of the highway. Which is strange. But I did not think about it.
I had advanced some hundred meters into the tunnel and we are standing still. Before and after me long rows of cars, for many kilometers. I think of Dolceacqua, that place with an ancient history. Its Rossese was loved by Napoleon and Rossese di Dolceacqua is a DOC.
It takes now five minutes and we are still standing. Then, to my great surprise, I see a few cars driving in the distance, but backward! A large van is moving backward. He is now standing diagonal on the road. What is this? In Italy, you can experience everything, but I had never seen anything like this before! It makes no sense. The tunnel is two kilometers long and is completely full of cars.
Far ahead of me I see someone getting out. Are they crazy? The van is standing in a strange position. And someone else gets out, and more persons. They are right. It is cool in the tunnel, cooler than outside and I get out of the car too. I look forward and backward: long rows of cars.
‘Fuoco!’ calls someone. I look forward, but I don’t see anything. A few people have walked out of the tunnel. Fire? Nothing to see, but more people are coming. A woman with her baby in her arms leaves the tunnel, crying. A father with two children, more people. A stream of people is coming. Is there a fire in the tunnel? A few cars are still trying to maneuver backward. Do they want to escape the fire? I don’t understand. Because I don’t see any fire either, but very slowly a slightly burning smell comes through. An older Italian says ‘Fuoco! un camione!’
So there is fire! A truck has caught fire. This was the last thing I wanted to experience on this day! A tunnel of two kilometers long, full of cars, and a truck is on fire! This is a potential mega-disaster, it makes me think of the big fires in the Gotthard and Mont Blanc tunnels. Two mega-disasters with many casualties. And now this could be a new disaster of the same dimension? NO! I do not want to believe it!

People are walking past my car, men, women, a few young people are running with fear on their faces. Someone supports his older father. An elderly woman walks out of the tunnel as quickly as possible.
As I walk out of the tunnel, I notice that behind us still, many cars are trying to drive forward. It makes no sense. The tunnel is blocked and we need another solution. It is chaos. I decide to indicate to the cars that it makes no sense. Standing in the middle of the highway, just outside the tunnel, I make some gesture to all cars behind us to make them stop moving. And, indeed, cars are now standing still and waiting. In the meantime, there are still people walking out of the tunnel. Outside the tunnel, some grown-up men are standing and crying. Something must be going on over there.
A woman with a baby in her arms comes out of the tunnel, exhausted, crying. It is only now that I notice that black smoke is coming from the other tunnel. It is increasing. There is no traffic anymore coming from the opposite side, only smoke.
A massive crowd is now standing on our side near the entrance of the tunnel. A few men are still crying. Other people are sitting on the guard rail. Others are talking or try to make a call on their cellphone. It is clear that many of them are shocked, or stressed, or both. And it is very hot, the sun shines on the stones and the asphalt. At least my car can cool down a little now.
The smoke from the opposite tunnel becomes heavier but I don’t understand how this is possible: if there is a problem in our tunnel, how can the smoke then come out of the other tunnel? How is this possible? I know that Italy knows many surprises but this one is really strange. Until today nobody has ever explained this to me.
A siren sounds in the distance. An ambulance is coming from Albenga on our road, trying to pass the long rows of cars. It seems not quite efficient because the other side of the highway is empty: it could move quickly on that side. Cars are slowly moving aside. I gesture to the people next to me that we have to put our car aside. They understand and we walk back into the tunnel and put our car aside. But not everyone has understood this and I wonder how the ambulance should get on further. Extremely slowly the ambulance comes forward and drives past us with the sirens at the highest volume.
The crowd is watching the smoke, many people are emotional. Some Dutch people are on the way from Tuscany to France. They swear a little and hope that they can continue quickly to their holiday address. Their planning is completely confused, and a Dutchman is not happy when such a thing happens. The Italians stand together, give each other some water or wine and wait for what is happening. Some children are walking up the hill. Every culture has its way to react to setbacks. Italians are different than the Dutch.
And still, people are coming out of the tunnel. They had to walk almost two kilometers. A few are coughing. Do they have breathing problems? Is there anyway smoke in our tunnel? I still don’t see any smoke coming from our tunnel.
I look around. I start to walk a little away from the tunnel entrance along the long line of cars and make some pictures of the smoke coming out of the other tunnel. What should you do? Slowly I realize that me too I was impressed. Emotional is not the right word. But somewhat tense, that yes. Why do I always have to experience this kind of thing?
Many people are sitting down next to their car. Most drivers have switched off their cars, others keep the engine running for the airco. Our energy has to be wasted, whether it’s summer or winter, it doesn’t matter, it has to be. And, some car comes out of the other, smoking tunnel. I still don’t get it. I walk back to the beginning of the tunnel and talk with some Italians. They are from Genoa and are quite impressed with the event. There is a huge crowd standing. There is a connection to the other part of the highway, but it is closed and nobody seems to open it. There is no coordination, no rescue team, no police are arriving for at least two hours. Thousands of cars, stranded in the glowing heat. Tourists, international travelers, Italian families, older people. And nobody can leave.
After some time the ambulance returns and drives the opposite way, again moving slowly through the many thousands of cars. Imagine there was somebody seriously hurt! In that case, they might open the barrier to the other side and they can hurry to the hospital! There are two or three people in it, so apparently, there were injuries. It is a sign that something is going on at the front of the tunnel. But I still have to guess what it might be. From this side, we can see nothing. It is quite bizarre to see the ambulance slowly moving between the rows of cars where the other road would be easy to open. Probably there is no life-threatening situation.
We have been standing there for three hours, many thousand people along the long rows of cars and finally the staff of the Italian highway opened the plateau to the other side. Strangely many thousands of people were left there in the heat, with no rescue services, no service at all, no police to coordinate the situation. Nothing. This is a major highway, the only possible route for all international traffic to pass Liguria. It is in the mountains, a wild area, no way to walk away to some town or the coast. But now, as if they feel the hurry, the staff is opening the crash barriers very fast and the police starts to regulate the traffic. One by one all cars from the tunnel can leave the place through the plateau to the highway in the opposite direction. Happy to leave this inferno. I drive backward for some hundred meters and turn the car onto the highway towards Albenga. Happy that I can leave. Away from the heat, the chaos, the smoke.
I did not understand everything that happened, especially the fire from one tunnel, coming out of the other tunnel. But it also looks as if there was not much coordination of the emergency services and they are not well organized. At least they started very late and we did not see any police for three hours. There was no good communication either: in a situation like this, it can make the difference between life and death and the ambulance had to struggle through kilometers of traffic jams from Albenga instead of taking the free road.
Once in Albenga, I take the local road to Savona. Suddenly there is no plan at all. It is not possible to reach Dolceacqua now, because the normal roads will be terribly full today. I tell my relations that we have to postpone our meeting. But their answer is very relaxed. ‘There will be another time!’ I like this. Also, this is typically Italian: they have this kind of relaxed way to accept life and the many uncomfortable situations of life. And they can handle it. I admire the Italians for this.
But what about Vermentino? Well, yes, close to Albenga I found a small company and I tasted their Vermentino. Finally, fresh Vermentino!! Never it tasted better! I love this wine. Cristal clear, elegant, not too heavy, and so fine smooth finish with a light mineral accent. A lovely wine.
But one thing I know for sure: I will never again take the highway in Italy on a Saturday in August. That lesson I have learned. In the evening the fire is on the TV: there are a few persons with breathing problems but not too serious. That’s all. Only that smoke! There was no explanation about it. How is it possible that a car in our tunnel catches fire and the smoke comes out from the other tunnel? In Italy, you can experience a lot, but it is not always possible to understand everything. And he Italians know this. And life sometimes takes another turn than you expect.

Are you interested in some good Vermentino or Pigato? Try one of these (this is just a small selection and not complete):
– Maria Donata Bianchi, family company with old vineyards high above Diano Marina. Wines of great elegance and drinkability.
Lupi, an old wine trading house, seated in the beautiful town of Pieve di Teco. Great Pigato, especially Pigato Vignamare is worth seeking out.
Ramoino, small producer from Sarola near Imperia with a good, typical Vermentino.
Berry and Berry, owned by passionate oenologue and consultant Alex Berriolo. He has small quantities from his old vineyards of 25-50 years and these are remarkable wines.
Terre Bianche, producer of refined Vermentino and Pigato
Poggio dei Gorleri, good Vermentino
Biovio, good Vermentino and Pigato
Bruna, makes excellent Pigato in the Val d’Arroscia
Maccario Dringenberg, makes good Vermentino
Laura Aschero, makes good Vermentino
Rocche del Gatto, where Fausto de Andreis makes very long-aging and solid Vermentino and Pigato
In Pornassio area:

Eredi Guglierame, small, historical winery owned by the brothers Agostino and Raffaele Guglierame. Good Ormeasco di Pornassio.
Fontanacota, created by Marina Berta in 2001 with vineyards partly near Imperia and partly in the area of Pornassio.
Cascina Nirasca, owned by two young winemakers who wanted to create their own experience in the area of Pornassio.

Paul Balke, 4 April 2020