Raymond Blake discovers there is a world of wine in Emilia-Romagna
When it comes to food there’s hardly another Italian region as celebrated as Emilia-Romagna. The three ‘Ps’ reign supreme here: Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and, of course, pasta. Pasta in all its many manifestations: the classic shape is tortellino, filled with ricotta cheese and modelled, according to legend, on Venus’s navel. It is tagliatelle, however, that is best known, cut to an official standard width of eight millimetres, and used in patrician ragù alla Bolognese, rendered into plebeian ‘spag bol’ in this part of the world. A famous dish infamously mangled. (If you value your gastronome’s reputation don’t mention spaghetti when visiting Bologna.)
And to drink? The classic local accompaniment to ragù is a Sangiovese di Romagna, a wine style not very well known outside the region, mainly because of the historical dominance of Lambrusco in export markets. That, combined in recent years with the hegemony of the super Tuscans, which dominated consumers’ perception of Italian wine, resulted in less lavishly flavoured wines being shoved to the margins. At first, this was a negative but because of the under-the-radar nature of her wines Emilia-Romagna escaped the ‘beefing up’ that afflicted nearly all prestigious wine regions worldwide. New oak and high alcohol became the twin pillars upon which reputations were built, pillars that proved less substantial than at first they appeared. Today, freshness, vitality and lightness are prized, all attributes that the wines of Emilia-Romagna have in abundance.
The region itself stretches for some 200 kilometres inland from the Adriatic and covers an area of about 22,000 square kilometres. The hyphenated name dates from 1947, when the constituent regions were amalgamated into what is now one of Italy’s most prosperous provinces. It is a varied and complex land with a history that stretches back to Etruscan times, while its capital Bologna is home to the world’s oldest university. No wonder its wines have to fight for recognition.
They are as varied as the landscape, yet the characteristic lightness on the palate is common to most. In addition to Sangiovese and Lambrusco, Pignoletto makes some of Emilia-Romagna’s most distinctive wines, with a bright ping of acidity as their signature. This acidity lends itself to the production of sparkling wines but the well made still wines should not be forgotten. There’s also Malvasia from the Parma area and a legion of other, lesser-known varieties: Burson, Centesimino, Ortrugo, Rambela, Spergola… In truth, there is a world of wine in Emilia-Romagna and Bologna is one of the great cities of Europe. A visit is a must.
In the latter decades of the last century the winemakers of Emilia-Romagna famously administered themselves a shot in the foot on a par with Beaujolais Nouveau in France, in the sense that it raised the image while simultaneously destroying the reputation. In this case Lambrusco was the vinous villain, industrially produced and doctored into semi-sweet anonymity: harmless, fizzy and forgettable. I never, ever, thought I would find myself saying a kind word about Lambrusco yet the good stuff has softened my antipathy and made me like more than the frothing cherry-violet colour as it is poured. There’s a dry, dark cherry note in place of the saccharine goo of yore. Try the ‘Concerto’ from Medici Ermete, sibling wine of the Sangiovese (below) to see what I mean.
THREE TO TRY
Medici Ermete, Sangiovese Rubicone IGT 2016
Sangiovese in Emilia-Romagna makes ‘quieter’ wine than in its Tuscan heartland, nearby and to the south. There’s less edge to the flavour, the texture is softer and the finish attenuated. As such it makes for easier, less challenging drinking, light on the palate and light on the liver too, thanks to a modest hit of alcohol. This one is no exception, there’s balance and harmony rather than great depth or richness. As such it would make an appealing counterpoint to a classic ragù alla Bolognese.
La Stoppa, Trebbiolo Rosso 2014
If your tastes run to rich-textured wines plastered with oak (the make-up of the wine world) then you will need to ‘re-calibrate’ your palate before approaching this wine. Made from a 60:40 blend of Barbera and Bonarda by Elena Pantaleoni at her 50-hectare estate, this wine bounds out of the glass courtesy of a brisk, earthy and slightly pungent nose. There’s a tiny frizzante prickle on the palate and an appealing sauvage quality, along with more mainstream notes of sour cherries and perky tannins.
Villa Cialdini, Pignoletto Brut, Millesimato 2015
Pignoletto might well qualify as the forgotten white grape of Italy, though a visit to Emilia-Romagna would go a long way to rectifying that impression. The name probably comes from the shape of the bunch on the vine, which has the appearance of a pine cone or pigna. This version sports a bright gold colour, abundant mousse and a fruit ‘n’ floral nose. The palate is perky and fresh not deep or rich with a clean cut of acidity to keep things lively.