Emilia-Romagna: Opposite Ends of the Spectrum


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.

Beyond Romagna

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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