Opposite Ends of the Spectrum
BY ERIC GUIDO | MARCH 16, 2023
It is hard to think of another region in Italy that appears as
fragmented as Emilia-Romagna. Even Friuli-Venezia Giulia, with its diverse mix
of cultures from Italian to Slavic and Austrian and borders that have changed
multiple times in the past 100 years, still feels more unified. In
Emilia-Romagna, food, culture and landscapes change drastically from east to
west. This makes sense, considering it spans the entire northern Italian
peninsula, with only a small swath of Liguria cutting it off from the
Tyrrhenian Sea. The Apennine Mountains define its borders to the south and the
Po River to the north. In the northwest, the Colli Piacentini, or Hills of Piacenza,
share their borders with Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardia. Colli Piacentini is also
home to the Gutturnio DOC, where we find Barbera blended with Bonarda
(otherwise known as Croatina). From there, the vast plains north of Reggio and
Modena, which produce Lambrusco, make up the bulk of Emilia’s wine production.
Things transform drastically, moving east and south from the city of Bologna.
Here we are in the foothills of the Apennines, with the Adriatic Sea only miles
away, where alluvial soils change to a mix of clay, sandstone and rock.
Elevations rise, and a combination of continental and Mediterranean influence
creates the perfect environment for Romagna Sangiovese.
Looking out across Modigliana toward the Apennines and Tuscany.
Trial and Tribulations of Romagna Sangiovese
Top producers of Romagna Sangiovese are starting to receive
the attention they deserve. A small group of wineries has recently entered international
markets with wines from superior terroirs, expert winemaking and the willingness
to show the wines. They have placed Romagna back on the Italian wine map. Hopefully,
other wineries in the region will realize their land's potential through the accomplishments
of their neighbors and catch up.
Wineries from Romagna display such a disparity of quality
from portfolio to portfolio. For many years, most producers were set in their
ways and settled for the status quo, making passable wines using antiquated
methods in the vineyards and cellars. Often, there wasn’t a proper focus on the
health of the vines and soils, instead producers choose to “fix” wines in the cellar
or cover up inferior fruit with new oak. Add to this a reluctance to travel and
explore what the best winemakers are attaining outside Italy. Lastly, there’s
the learning curve of dealing with global warming. It will take time, practice,
effort and sacrifice for the region to succeed.
The Sangiovese of Romagna is very different from its Tuscan
counterpart. It’s rounder and fruitier, with an herbal spiciness that sets it
apart. This is not just the result of terroir but often of different clones.
The Sangiovese of Romagna (or Sangioveto dal Cannello Piccolo, which originated
in Predappio) is distinguished by its smaller bunches and berries, thicker
skins and dark, almost black color.
Putting the location of Romagna’s wine-producing regions
into context helps to understand why Sangiovese thrives here. While standing at
a high lookout point off the side of a mountain road, Francesco Bordini of
Villa Papiano pointed out across the valleys that formed Modigliana and said,
“Do you see that ridge? That’s Tuscany.” We stood there staring deeply into the
Apennine mountains, yet it was easy to visualize the Tuscan landscape on the
opposite side. The prized vineyards of Romagna Sangiovese are positioned across
a series of valleys and foothills that run across the spine of the Apennines,
with Tuscany to its south and west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. Elevations
can drastically change here, ranging from as low as 100 meters up to 600
meters. The soil further sets it apart. The sea that covered most of the region
in ancient times receded, leaving a mix of marine sediments, referred to in
Romagna as spungone. It’s a porous calcareous sandstone inlaid with
seashells, coral and petrified marine life. In some vineyards, these large
stones lay at the top of clay and sand soil.
The wild vineyards of Tre Monti in Imola.
By creating UGAs/subzones and establishing the importance of
place, Romagna is already ahead of the game. Stricter regulations were a giant
move in the right direction for the entire region. The larger categories of
Romagna Sangiovese, Romagna Superiore or Romagna Sottozona or Riserva dictate
that a wine need only be 85% Sangiovese. However, to use a place name (or
subzone) on the label, the wine must be at least 95% Sangiovese and all from
hillside vineyards within the zone. As a result, we can compare the differences
between a Modigliana Romagna Sangiovese and a Predappio Romagna Sangiovese. These
variances in terroir are very distinguished, which is only sometimes the case
in other regions.
While Sangiovese has taken center stage throughout Romagna, there
are also white varieties that are worth checking out. Albana and Pagadebit
(Bombino Bianco) are both traditional standouts. Albana excels as a dessert
passito, and in some cases, in a dry style. Even though Albana di Romagna was
the first white variety to receive DOCG status in 1987, the quality of the
wines is drastically producer-dependent. I’ve tasted many examples of Albana
and Pagadebit that come across as simple quaffers. For readers interested in
experiencing Albana in its finest forms, look to Ancarani, Ca’ di Sopra, Villa
Papiano, Podere La Berta and especially Tre Monti. As for Pagadebit, Podere La
Berta has worked to champion the style.
Spungone is a porous calcareous sandstone inlaid with seashells, coral and petrified marine life.
Emilia-Romagna ranks as the third-largest wine-producing
region in Italy, following Puglia and Veneto, which can mainly be attributed to
its long-standing dominance in the Lambrusco category. This wine is one of
the most underrated in Italy today. Granted, I'm not speaking of the ocean of
mass-produced Lambrusco that hails from the alluvial plains of the Po Valley
and is made in large industrial wineries. Instead, the Emilia portion of the
region has a lot to offer wine lovers. Emilia is experiencing a surge in
high-quality Lambrusco produced in styles from Secco (dry) to Amabile
(semisweet) and Dolce (sweet). These are artisanal products made in much
smaller batches or created using Metodo Classico (Champenois Method).
Moreover, they are some of the best food-pairing wines on
earth, which makes sense, considering that Emilia could be considered the food
capital of Italy. (Check out more in my article: Italy's
Food and Wine Epicenter: Emilia-Romagna, November 2021.) Ultimately, these
are deeply characterful wines that provide a broad spectrum of sensations and experiences.
Lambrusco is a blend of several varieties that yield a
unique wine. In the vineyards around Modena, we find Lambrusco di Sorbara and
Lambrusco Grasparossa, two distinctly different grapes. Lambrusco di Sorbara gives
a lighter color wine (think Rosé) with high acid and floral perfumes, while
Lambrusco Grasparossa is a deep purple in color and tannic. When produced in a
Secco (dry) style, it can create an extremely serious wine that could even
stand up to a plate of seared meat. Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Marani grow closer to Reggio Emilia. Lambrusco
Salamino is one of the most balanced, mixing vivid fruit and florals with a
firm spike of tannins and the acidity to balance. Meanwhile, Lambrusco Marani
is very light and delicate in the glass, a gorgeous wine to sip absent-mindedly
while engrossed in conversation. Lastly, Lambrusco Maestri, the darkest and
most fruit-forward of all, is more prominent closer to the city of Parma.
In the end, these are wines that are worth seeking out. I
can attest to being happily surprised on many occasions by the more serious
styles of modern-day Lambrusco.
Looking out across the vineyards of Predappio.
Difficulties Abounded in 2021
In 2021, winemakers had to battle drought, frost and extreme
heat, small berries, thick skins, and very low yields. Tasting the young 2021s
at this stage is both exciting but also confusing. They are dark and extract-rich
wines with sapid minerality, yet have good acidity and tannins that generally
feel perfectly ripe. How these wines will age over time is the question we will
all be asking ourselves for years to come.
The story of the 2021 vintage starts in 2020, as the region
received more precipitation in December than it had since 1961, yet this helped
to add water reserves for the year to come. The winter months that followed
were mild but also very dry, giving way to an early start to the season.
Unfortunately, storms plagued the region, with snow and frost from late March
into early April. In the more mountainous areas such as Modigliana, some
producers reported losing as much as half of their crop as a result.
Temperatures balanced out through the rest of April into May, yet under cloudy
skies and still with dry conditions. The lack of sun and mild temperatures
slowed the vegetative process, which seemed to put the year back on track. That
is until June arrived and, with it, a steady dry heat that lasted well into
August. Luckily, there weren’t any drastic heat spikes, and diurnal shifts
helped retain acidity. However, coupled with the year's drought conditions, the
harvest was anticipated by as much as ten days, revealing small berries, thick
skins and very little juice.
It will be fascinating to follow the 2021s, as many of the
whites and reds I’ve tasted from bottle and barrel have maintained amazing
energy and noticeable mineral character, despite the heat of the vintage.
Vittorio Navacchia of the Tre Monti winery in Imola went as far as to say that
2021 may be “one of the best vintages of the last decade for Albana wines.” His
logic makes sense, considering that Albana is a variety that often suffers from
overproduction, and in 2021 nature drastically reduced yields.
I tasted all of the wines for this article while visiting
producers in Romagna in the Summer of 2022 and at our offices in New York City
in the Fall of 2022.
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