By Philip Sinsheimer
Photos by Philip Sinsheimer, Cesare Zucca
Cesare Zucca already related our fabulous trip to Romagna last June with its various highlights, where the warmth of the people rivaled the heat of the constant sun.
Today, the “vino-Phil” that I am will focus on the unsung grace of the wines of this region, overshadowed by Emilia, its twin sister to the West, which rolls on the fame of products as famous as Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico de Modena, Mortadella di Bologna and, for the wines, Lambrusco.
I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of it, as it seems to be exported pretty much everywhere. Quite an achievement for a rather peculiar red wine, both fizzy and often sweet. Clearly, not the best bottles are exported… I still need to sip a Lambrusco that I would actually want to drink.Regardless of quality, Lambrusco has acquired fame. But, can you tell me anything about wines from Romagna? Sorry? I can’t hear you… Well, my guess is: not so much. At least, that was my case before discovering this region with my own eyes and mouth! Before, I knew it only for the famous beach town of Rimini (birthplace of Federico Fellini and of beach umbrellas according to some, and the historic city of Ravenna, which served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire (from 402 to 476). But wines, no, “I was dry”, as we say in French, not a clue as to what to expect…
I didn’t have to wait long to be initiated. As soon as we arrived at the charming Fattoria Faggioli where we were hosted during our four-day press trip, we were offered a red wine which reflected perfectly the delicious home cooked pasta and the general atmosphere: no fuss, big heart, big flavor, frank and bold (photo). It was a Sangiovese which, I was told right away, was the most prized and celebrated red grape of Romagna. Everyone tends to associate the noble grape with Tuscany, the region immediately to the South, with its world-famous Chianti and Brunelo di Montalcino. Even though Sangiovese has not reached those level of notoriety in Romagna, the region can definitely boast of a deeply rooted wine culture. After a few glasses, an old saying came up, revealing the generosity of the Romagnolo people and their love of wine. If a stranger knocks at the door of someone in Emilia, he is offered a glass of water, in Romagna… a glass of wine!. This sense of hospitality connected to wine culture was perfectly exemplified during our visit of the medieval town of Bertinoro. The symbol of this perched little city is its 13th century column with twelve metal rings, named the “column of hospitality” photo). Each ring was associated to one of the local noble families and when a traveler arrived into town and tied his horse to one of the rings, he would automatically become a guest of the family associated to it We didn’t arrive on horses, but were just as warmly welcomed at the beautiful visitor center with an in-depth presentation of the local wines. This was my first encounter with Romagna’s most celebrated white wine: l’Albana, unique to this region. The 2016 “I Croppi” from Celli winery (photo) revealed a white unlike any other. Golden in color, the wine had a serious body and boasted 14° of alcohol. One of the distinctive tastes I noticed was a lingering ripe apple flavor and it felt like it had some tannins. It is actually sometimes called the red wine made in white and it can pair meat dishes as well, if not better than seafood. We tasted a local 100% Sangiovese, bold and rich with 14.5% alcohol, but my second thrill came with the second white wine we tasted: the 2016 San Pascasio, Romagna Pagadebit DOP (photo), from the Campodelsole winery. Unlike the Albana, this white had a vivacious acidity and a refreshing minerality. Aromas and flavors of exotic fruits and elderflower were delicious. I was wowed and seduced immediately. Pagadebit is made from the Bombino Bianco grape, which, unlike Albana, is not unique to Romagna. It can be found in central Italy all the way to Puglia, but it has definite terroir characteristics here in Romagna and must count for at least 85% of the grapes for the Pagadebit di Romagna DOC. The name is a story in itself. “Paga-debit” – literally “pays your debt” in Italian – comes from the grape’s reputation for being high yielding and a reliable crop for vineyard owners to grow, assuring that each vintage would enable them to pay off their debts. But the latest report regarding the 2017 vintage is rather alarming and almost puts in question the validity of the promising name. My source is Mauro Sirri, co-owner of the Celli winery in Bertinoro. In his 34 years of winemaking experience, he has never seen such precocious harvest, which started on the 8th of August, about 3 weeks before than usual, due to high temperature and scarce rainfall. So much for those who have doubts about global or local warming! The oldest vines, benefiting from deeper roots, reacted better, but the average yield still dropped by 50%, putting at risk the financial balance of wineries.
On the positive side, Albana seems to gain some appeal outside the borders of Romagna. On November 25th and 26th 2017, Bertinoro will host the first Albana Trophy to find the best expert of this wine in order to be its ambassador both nationally and internationally. I wish I could go, perhaps you can, I know you should! The little town will be having many events for the occasion. You just cannot miss having a meal at l’Osteria Cà de Bè with a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and fantastic food (still thinking about this rabbit…). The wine collection is also exceptional (photo du mec?) and I really liked the 2016 Albana “Neblina”, produced by Givana Madonia, which had a very pleasant acidity
After my initiation in Bertinoro, I was better armed to appreciate the following tastings of Romagnolo wines. The first one came soon after at the Cantina Poderi dal Nespoli (link? http://www.poderidalnespoli.com/en/), a winery established in 1929 about 16 miles to the South-West of Bertinoro, with a beautiful tasting room and a wide diversity of wines. There was of course various Sangiovese based reds and out of the lot, my favorite was the Prugneto, Romagna DOC, Sangiovese Superiore, made from 100 % Sangiovese grosso: a wine full of life with a bright ruby color, an intense bouquet of ripe red fruit which didn’t translate in the palate into anything jammy, allowing a certain freshness to shine through and soft tannins to carry notes of violet and plum. Yum!
But, once again, my focus was more on the whites. The Campodora, a 100% Albana showcased the typical golden yellow color of the grape and a rich smooth taste of stone fruit and acacia flowers. But what made it shine for me was this beautiful balance between ripeness and acidity. This freshness, I was told, was to be attributed to vines perched at a higher altitude and a careful picking of the grapes in the morning, before it got too hot. Their Pagadebit (blended with 15% of Sauvignon Blanc) was fresh and vivacious with a floral nose and a crisp finish. Besides those two established whites in Romagna, we had the chance to discover a third one, called Famoso, in reference to the name of the grape which it was made of exclusively. Ironically, this indigenous grape from Romagna has been rediscovered in the last ten years or so after a period of abandonment. Fame comes and goes I guess. And what a flamboyant come back this was in the glass with this 2016 vintage: totally charming white, light, with only 11.5° alcohol, but intense with its floral aromas, notes of tropical fruit, and a long, clean, lip smacking finish. Cesare and I fell in love with this rarity and decided to buy a few bottles to take home and share with others. In spite of its name, Famoso won’t be in the aisle of your supermarket anytime soon! Look for it at your specialty wine store, but better yet, plan a trip to Ravenna.
If you have the chance to go in the summer during the Festa Artusiana in Forlimpopoli, your will be able to discover the beautiful Casa Artusi (where you can take traditional cooking classes, as well as learn about one of the legends of Italian cookery in the name of Pellegrino Artusi whose monumental La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene was first printed in 1891 with 700 regional recipes. The whole town during these few days pays homage to the legendary food writer by putting certain of his recipes on the menu of established or ephemeral restaurants. Food stands abound and enable you to taste specialties from Romagna and elsewhere. Beverages are also part of the feast of course, from local microbrewery beers to local wines. One stand had me taste an Albana Passito, sweet and intense, beautifully balanced with just enough acidity to make you want to have another sip. This final tasting note still lingers in my mind and the unique wines of Romagna will have me go back again, that is for sure.