Most tourists visiting Italy tend to think of Emilia-Romagna as a single region. Legally it has been a homogenous political territory since 1945, when Romagna was joined with the four Duchys of Emilia. In reality, and as any resident of the area will be quick to tell you, it is still two separate regions, with very different cultures, lifestyles, cuisine and wine.
Emilia-Romagna is often referred to as the breadbasket of Italy, and this description relates to the iconic food products of Emilia---Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and the other-worldly balsamico of Modena. Visitors observe these products being made, stroll through the outdoor food market in Bologna, and return home with the confidence that they've seen the region in depth. They also come back with the conviction that Lambrusco is the beginning and end of the area's wine production, and that it's world-famous food ingredients are dragged down by pedestrian, fizzy vin ordinaire.
No mention of Romagna and its cuisine would be complete without an account of Pellegrino Artusi. This legendary chronicler of the Italian table was born in Forlimpopoli in 1820. He moved to Tuscany, made his fortune in the textile business, and began collating classic recipes from all parts of the country. His collection of 790 dishes was published in 1891 as Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Supposedly, Artusi had to pay for the first edition himself; by the time of his death in 1911, over 200,000 copies were in print. Today, the book is the most widely read volume in Italy (actually, it is second only to Pinocchio in popularity), and is known to the public simply as the Artusi.
Artusi himself was not a chef, and his recipes came from home cooks in different regions of the country. They were tried and refined by his own household help. Visitors to Forlimpopoli today can visit Casa Artusi, a complex which sprawls over a full city block, encompassing a cooking school, a first-class restaurant, and a library devoted to the works of Artusi but also containing many culinary classics of the 19th century.
The wine of Romagna is the biggest suprise, particularly after travelling though Emilia and being served Lambrusco at every meal. The signature white wine is Albana di Romagna, the first white in the country to be awarded DOCG status. Made in dry, off-dry and passito versions, it is full-bodied, floral in aromas and nutty in texture, filled with flavors of apricots and peaches offset by bracing acidity. The key red wine grape is Sangiovese, but it differs in style from the version produced in Tuscany. Sangiovese di Romagna is generally softer and gentler than Sangiovese di Toscana, but has the potential in the right hands to become a formidable wine, with generous fruit flavors resting on a broad tannin structure, capable of soaring to impressive heights as easily as its Tuscan neighbor.
The story in Romagna is similar to many other emerging wine regions. In the past, production was dominated by large cooperatives, which turned out local wine in bulk. Today, many small estates are dotting the landscape, producing quality wine with the help of outside investors. These investors may be people who have made fortunes in a variety of industries, but they are generally from Romagna, and have chosen to keep their commercial interests close to home. In this way, the region is being regenerated from within.
Visitors have resources to help them find their way around. There are nearly 8,000 wineries in the Consorzio Vini di Romagna, with 70% of the area's vineyards planted to Sangiovese. The top estates belong to Romagna Terra del Sangiovese (www.romagnaterradelsangiovese.it), which organizes itineraries in the four main wine-producing territories (Faenza, Forli-Cesena, Colli di Imola and Rimini). No trip to Emilia-Romagna would be complete without a stop at the Enoteca Regionale (www.enotecaemiliaromagna.it), located in a restored castle in the Medieval hilltop town of Dozza. In the basement of the Enoteca, there is a cellar which stocks 800 labels on a rotating basis, along with a wine bar where you can sample recommended selections.
For me, the highlight of my winery tour of Romagna was the visit to Castellucio, located on a hilltop in Modigliana. Run by the talented winemaker Claudio Fiore, this was one of the first properties in the area to become known for producing a quality product. Vinification is traditional, with everything done by hand, and the wines are both arresting and impressive. The Fiore family also makes another label from a separate, nearby estate called Balia di Zola.
Ronco del Re, IGT Forli, 2004 ($38)
This was the first wine Claudio opened for us, making an offhanded comment about how it might be interesting to try a local expression of Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was absolutely riveting. The fine-grained nose had hints of lemon and grapefruit along with gunflint, spring flowers and petrol. It was ripe and intense on entry, with remarkable acidity for a four year-old Sauvignon Blanc; intense, focussed citrus flavors were underlined by layers of minerals in the midpalate, and the powerful palate imprint was followed by long echoes of grapefruit on the finish. It was amazingly complex, striking and singular. A-
Massicone, IGT Forli, 2003 ($30)
A 50/50 blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet. Light, bright purple. The nose is supple and approachable, with aromas of blackberry and cedar mixed with fresh herbs. The wine is nicely balanced in the mouth, with good acidity punching up the ripe berry flavors. Finishes with herbal notes and pleasantly tart red fruits. B
Balitore, Sangiovese di Romagna DOC, Balia di Zola, 2007 ($15)
100% Sangiovese. Saturated, inky purple. The nose is high-strung and herbal, with powerful scents of anise and tarragon. The wine is herbal in the mouth as well, with powdery tannins and charming flavors of ripe, dark berries. The fruit persists on the finish, through the echoes of tannin and crushed fresh herbs. A wine for food, and an impressive entry-level offering. B
Redinoce IGT, Balia di Zola, 2006 ($25)
Bright, sparkling purple. The nose is powerfully herbal, with an underlining of fresh-mown grass. In the mouth, the wine is light and forward, almost crisp, with poised flavors of cherry, blueberry and red plum. The tannins are poised as well, and all the elements of the wine are balanced and integrated. Finishes with layers of ripe, sweet fruit wrapped in a fine herbal mist. B+
At the winery of San Valentino, located in Rimini a few kilometers from the Mediterranean, I sampled a range of concentrated and elegant red wines crafted by Roberto Mascarin. These included Scabi 2007 and Terra di Covignano 2005 (Sangiovese di Romagna), as well as wines labelled Rosso Rubicone IGT: Eclissi di Soli 2007 (a 50/50 blend of Sangiovese and Syrah), the spectacular Luna Nuova 2005 (a 60/40 blend of Sangiovese and Merlot), Syrah IGT 2004 and Montepulciano IGT 2004 (both 100% varietal). These wines have become cult favorites in some of the top restaurants in California and Manhattan, and it's easy to see why.
Of wines available in the U.S., there were two other outstanding finds:
Tre Monti "Thea," Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva, 2005 ($40)
Bright purple center, crimson rim. The nose reveals whiffs of fresh herbs, anise and smoke. The wine is rope and sweet on entry, with excellent balancing acidity; the texture is pure, and shows considerable balance between fruit, oak and tannin. Finishes with tart plum flavors and lingering, mouthwatering acidity. A wine of elegance and breed. B+
Tenuta La Viola "Il Colombarone," Sangiovese di Romagna, 2005 ($40)
Saturated, deep purple. Fragrant, floral nose with overtones of menthol, anise and truffle. In the mouth, the wine is powerful and full-bodied on entry; for all the earthiness on the nose, the mouthfeel is graceful nd seamless. Finishes with truffle notes and echoes of rich, concentrated dark berries. A-