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Cliff vines and sea cellars: Italy wine region clings on

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

From the vineyards clinging to seaside cliffs to a unique cellar of bubbly wine stored on the seabed, the off the beaten track wine region of Liguria in northern Italy offers an array of spectacular sights.

But as he plucked grapes from his terraced vineyard at the end of harvest, Cesare Scorza said the traditions are in danger because of the higher cost of farming on 60-degree slopes and keeping stone walls intact.

Grape pickers made their way through the vineyard as if suspended between sky and sea, walking up and down wooden ladders and across along the walls.

The crates of juicy grapes are carried up the slopes on a special lift driven like a tractor along a monorail track -- one of dozens in this region.

"This type of farming is expensive," said Scorza, who has two hectares (five acres) in Manarola, a colourful clifftop village in the Cinque Terre National Park.

"The labourers cost more than in the valley and you are always having to repair the walls. There aren't many young people with a passion for this!"

Despite the difficulties of cultivation, Liguria was for centuries a flourishing wine region that supplied wealthy merchants in the nearby port of Genoa.

Mass transport eventually made wine from other regions like Piedmont or Tuscany much more competitive but fans say the sea breeze gives the Ligurian wines a distinctive taste that cannot be found elsewhere.

Ligurian producers have also managed to find an upmarket niche for the most prized products of the steep-slope vineyards like Sciacchetra, a dessert wine that can sell for upwards of 70 euros ($90) a bottle.

'At risk of extinction'

One particularly imaginative local grower has even invented what he calls the "Wine of the Abyss".

Pierluigi Lugano, a former art history teacher, stores thousands of bottles of his wine at the bottom of the sea near the glamorous seaside town of Portofino -- and the unusual idea is proving wildly popular.

Lugano said the inspiration came from his interest in marine archaeology and the recovery of Roman amphoras from shipwrecks that still contained remains of wine or olive oil that had been preserved by the sea water.

"The darkness and constant temperature of 15 degrees are valuable and there are also conditions that you do not have in a normal cellar like the external pressure on the bottles which helps the perlage," Lugano said, referring to the bubbles created in the wine.

The twisting of the bottles to produce sparkling wine -- a process known as remuage -- occurs naturally due to sea currents and the absence of oxygen ensures a hermetic seal to help the wine mature, he said.

Bottles are stored in large cages on the seabed at a depth of 60 metres (197 feet) and Lugano even uses an actual shipwreck -- a 100-year-old yacht that once belonged to the Rotshchild banking family.

When they are brought out, the bottles are covered in molluscs and other sea life -- a distinctive characteristic that has helped attract customers.

"They look like something out of science fiction," he said.

Lugano started out in 2010 with 6,500 bottles under the sea, which has now increased to 15,000 bottles -- more than 10 percent of his annual production.

He now plans to expand further after this harvest.

It is a labour of love for Lugano, who said he hoped this type of initiative could help save seaside vineyards like his that are "at risk of extinction".

"The vineyard terraces have been gradually abandoned, older generations have not been replaced by younger ones. But I believe in recovery!" he said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130927/cliff-vines-and-sea-cellars-italy-wine-region-clings