Italy's Food and Wine Epicenter: Emilia-Romagna 


It was in culinary school, while studying the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, that I had my very first wine-pairing epiphany. I placed a glass of Sangiovese next to a plate of pasta topped with a hearty ragù. Suddenly, the wine took on a sweeter fruit profile, its acids balanced against the richness of the meat, and the sauce itself seemed to gain in robust flavors. It was absolute perfection, and the beginning of a long yet fruitful journey that continues to this day. 

Emilia-Romagna is important for an aspiring chef to study, not just because it is a mecca for food and wine lovers across all of Italy and the world, but also because the cuisine that most Americans associate with Italian food originated here. Granted, that has changed as the regional preparations of Italy have become much more popular and accessible even outside of fine dining establishments. However, if you go back to the 1970s through the 1990s in the United States, Italian food was pasta, rich tomato sauces, ragù, lasagna and just about any kind of fried breaded meat “parmigiana,” which referred not to the cheese layered on top but to the style of the city of Parma.

The Olmatello vineyard of La Berta, used to create their Sangiovese Superiore and Riserva Solano.

The fact is that it’s incredibly important to consider food when talking about the wines and culture of Emilia-Romagna. This region's prosperity is the result of a love of fine foods and the desire to eat, drink and live well, but also its success in exporting this experience around the globe. Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, aceto balsamico and every shape of dried pasta imaginable are expertly produced here and find their way into the kitchens of both home chefs and top restaurants. But it’s not just exports; foodies flock to the region to enjoy its diverse array of salsiccia and formaggio, not to mention pasta, which is a serious business in Emilia-Romagna. The making of pasta fresca is more like an art form, combining only three to four simple ingredients (wheat flour, egg, salt and water) with meticulous care. This pasta can be filled with a variety of cheeses, meats, pumpkin or (a Romagna favorite) chestnuts, to create ravioli, tortellini, tortelli and lasagne. Now top your pasta with a rich Bolognese sauce or ragù. Are you hungry yet? I know I am, but the big question is: what is the perfect wine to pair with all of these rich and hearty foods? That’s easy: Lambrusco. 

Let’s first establish that the Lambrusco that comes to most people’s minds when thinking about the category isn’t a traditional Lambrusco. The sweet and sticky versions that were popularized in the 1970s and 1980s do still exist, but there is also a diverse range of Lambrusco, from Secco (dry) to Amabile (semisweet) and, of course, Dolce (sweet). Each of these categories finds a perfect pairing in the restaurants and delicatessens of Emilia. Apart from the oceans of Lambrusco created for tourists and for export around the world (Emilia-Romagna is the third-largest wine-producing region after Puglia and Veneto), there are producers who are looking back to the traditional forms of Lambrusco, created through secondary fermentation in bottle (metodo classico), not in a mega-sized winery full of giant steel vats where the wines are done entirely in steel.

The vineyards that produce Lambrusco grow in alluvial soils that cover the vast plains of Emilia, north of Reggio and Modena. Within those vineyards, we find a number of distinct varieties: Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco Salamino, Lambrusco di Sorbara and Lambrusco Grasparossa. Some generalizations can be made about these varieties. Marani and Sorbara create lighter and more delicate, elegant expressions, often looking more pink than red. Grasparossa delivers a fuller-bodied wine, while Salamino finds a happy balance between richness and delicacy. Maestri provides a deep expression, packed full of fruit, and has a robust, purplish-red color. The average conversation about fine wine tends to lean toward the Romagna portion of Emilia-Romagna; however, there are some truly exciting expressions coming from Emilia. 

Lambrusco is one of the most diverse food-pairing wines produced, with styles ranging from sweet to bone-dry, yet all energetic and aiming to please.

The Bigger Picture

When looking beyond Lambrusco and the many culinary treasures that the region produces, we find ourselves in a truly unique part of Italy. Emilia-Romagna is very much split between its cuisines and cultures, and most people in the region consider themselves to be either Emilian or Romagnan. The region as a whole spans nearly the entire northern Italian peninsula, with only a small swath of Liguria cutting it off from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Tuscany can be found to the southwest and Marche to the southeast, but Emilia-Romagna is much better defined by the Apennine Mountains, primarily to the south, and the Po River, running along its northern borders. The flat plains that produce Lambrusco yield the bulk of the region’s wine; however, when seeking something more serious, we can look to the Colli Piacentini, or Hills of Piacenza, to the northwest, bordering Lombardia within Emilia, and the burgeoning subzones of the Romagna DOC to the southeast within Romagna. It is here in Romagna where things change drastically. Along the Adriatic Sea, vineyards follow along the gentle hills of the region and steadily gain in elevation as they approach the Apennines in the south.

While the production of fine wine has yet to be proven here on a large scale, there are a small number of wineries turning out examples that show just how much potential exists within the region. Bologna, the region’s capital, located in Romagna, marks the point where Sangiovese is planted above all other red varieties, and the focus on that variety continues east and south toward the Adriatic Sea. Compared to the Sangiovese of Tuscany, here we find a plumper, rounder and fruitier expression with softer tannins, but that’s not to say that serious wines are not being produced. The problem is that without a properly defining DOC, all the average consumer has to go on is the overarching classification of Sangiovese di Romagna. Yet few people realize that within this DOC is a category of subzones with more strict regulations that can help you understand what to expect from each bottle of wine. For instance, a wine from a subzone such as Modigliana, Predappio or Oriolo must be at least 95% Sangiovese, while a Sangiovese di Romagna, Romagna Superiore or Romagna Sottozona or Riserva need only be 85%. A good comparison here would be if a consumer had no experience with Chianti Classico and expected a wine from Castelnuovo Berardenga to be similar to one from Lamole. Nor would they realize that a “village” wine could potentially be more important than a Riserva, yet that’s exactly what we find in Romagna. In the end, even though Sangiovese has thrived here for as long as it has in Tuscany, this region is still in its infancy. However, as long as producers such as Castelluccio, Chiara Condello and Noelia Ricci have the passion to pursue the creation of great wines, their work will only draw further attention, and possibly more like-minded individuals, to the region. Simply stated, the Sangiovese produced at the foothills of the Apennines in Romagna is positioned to be the region's claim to fame; it just hasn’t happened yet.

Sangiovese in the Romagna vineyards of Tre Monti.

Staying focused on Romagna, we also find a small number of white varieties. The most infamous is Albana – infamous because there are very few serious examples of it, and yet Albana di Romagna was the first white variety to receive DOCG status in 1987. There are a number of producers trying to make more serious expressions from the variety, but few are truly succeeding. While dry versions can often be quite simple, Albana is capable of making highly enjoyable, sweet-styled passito wines. I was also happy to find an Albana in Anfora during these recent tastings that really impressed me. Producers to look for include Ancarani, Podere La Berta and Tre Monti. For the curious wine lover, you’ll also encounter white wines made from Trebbiano and Pagadebit in the hills of Romagna. 

As for the Emilia section of Emilia-Romagna, on nearly the opposite side of the region, the pursuit of fine wine continues in the DOC of Colli Piacentini and even more so within the smaller Gutturnio DOC. It’s here that we find one of Emilia’s best-known experimental producers, La Stoppa, as well as Castello di Luzzano, one of its most dependable. This area shares its borders with Oltrepò Pavese in the region of Lombardia to the north. It is within the Gutturnio DOC that we find Barbera (55–70%) blended with Bonarda (otherwise known as Croatina). The larger and broader Colli Piacentini DOC allows a much more expanded list of varieties and blending options, mixing Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Croatina and Pinot Nero, as well as white varieties including Chardonnay, Malvasia Aromatica di Candia, Marsanne, Moscato, Ortrugo, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Trebbiano. There are many unique experiences and great values to be found – just not enough producers looking to take things to the next level.

The undulating hills of Petrignone in Forlì, between Castrocaro and Predappio.

The Most Recent Vintages

The 2020 vintage will be remembered for its warm and excessively dry conditions. The lack of water and higher-than-average temperatures in the spring brought about an early bud break but also irregular flowering. Within the Lambrusco-growing areas, emergency irrigation was necessary in some cases as the summer continued to be quite warm and dry. The hillier areas of Romagna benefited from the large diurnal shifts that provided cool summer nights, extending the growing season and allowing for full phenolic maturity. Producers are very happy with the outcome of the vintage, and from what I’ve been tasting, they have good reason to be. So far, we are only seeing the fresh-styled reds and whites entering the market; these are sun-kissed yet high-energy wines that will provide a lot of balanced pleasure upon release.  

The 2019 vintage is a bit of a mixed bag for the region as a whole. In Romagna, a cold winter with only light precipitation gave way to a mild spring. Rain was abundant in April and May, which, along with cool temperatures, resulted in a late bud break and uneven flowering. The summer months brought much drier conditions and warmth, but without any excessive heat spikes. Romagna enjoyed mild conditions through the fall, as well as the usual moderating effects of the Apennines and the nearby Adriatic coast. In the end, the harvest began about 10 days later than average, and production was down. However, the northwestern parts of Emilia were more heavily influenced during the spring by excessive rains that seriously affected budding and flowering and, combined with the warm summer months and hail events, caused rot among the vines in many locations. As a result, production was seriously decreased. While opinions of the 2019s are generally good, the wines often show warm-vintage characteristics, and some reveal a lack of balance.

The Sangiovese of Romagna continues to improve in quality, especially throughout the regions' sub-zones.

The 2018 vintage provides a happy surprise in comparison to the challenges that many other parts of Italy suffered through. It started with a cold winter with a good amount of precipitation. The spring remained cool and rainy, but not in excess, making for a healthy start to the season. One Romagna producer even told me that he felt the summer was like a return to “normal” after the many warmer vintages the region has experienced. The moderate temperatures of the summer were balanced by rains in late August and early September, which resulted in a long and even season with healthy fruit on the vines at harvest. While the 2018s are less powerful and concentrated than the 2019s and 2020s, they are instead lively and characterful, delivering brilliant acidity and fresh aromatics. It will be an interesting vintage to follow. 

Drought characterizes the excessively warm and dry 2017 growing season. The winter was mild with above-average temperatures. This prompted an early budding, by about 10 days, which was then followed by unseasonably cold weather and sudden frosts in the spring. The dry weather continued through July, as temperatures also rose above average, continuing on this trend through August. Some areas reported harvesting up to three weeks early, and production was down by as much as 40%. Many of the wines show the difficulties of the year in their concentration and immature tannins. For the most part, they are better enjoyed sooner rather than later.

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