Emilia-Romagna is a strange region. Made up of two entities that have little in common historically and, wine-wise, stylistically. Emilia is affluent, metropolitan and flat while Romagna is hilly, rural and very provincial. (I once blogged on the wines of Comacchio that unite the two worlds). Actually they do have a bit in common: both are totally unknown to the wider public. Although Emilia belongs to Europe’s richest regions, it has totally failed to promote its local wines, and the bulk of the production is the fizzy red Lambrusco that nobody takes very seriously (a pity). Although Romagna produces four times more wines than Emilia, its image is pretty much the same. Supermarket shelves might be full of Rubicone Sangiovese and Trebbiano but up the quality ladder the region’s situation is roughly that of a third-world country.
I actually have a lot of sympathy for Sangiovese di Romagna. I like its bittersweet fruitiness and its medium-bodied vinosity, its savoury, meaty twist and high acidity that make it such a great food wine. Traditional Romagna Sangiovese, chunky, rustic and honest, aged for a year or two in giant botti oak casks, is the epitome of the Italian trattoria wine, served in a carafe and drunk from tumblers to wash down its hearty lasagnes and polentas and mushrooms and stews and boiled meat, and I enjoy it for these two qualities: drinkability and straightforwardness.
But Romagna is slowly killing its own wines. It’s almost impossible these days to find a wine that would fit the above description. It’s a paradox that being located further north and lacking the famous terroirs of Tuscany such as Chianti and Montalcino, Romagna is today making wines that are heavier, oakier, and more alcoholic. At a time when Tuscany is slowly rethinking its approach to Sangiovese and embracing more approachable, juicy styles (though admittedly Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and, partly, Brunello remain stuck with the Parkerized style of old), Romagna insists on going in the opposite direction. We’ve come to the point when a winery’s basic Sangiovese is often 14% alc. and punishingly tannic in need of a few years of bottle age to soften. With a lack of drinkability at the entry level I have little hope for Romagna currently to make any inroad on international markets.
I visited Romagna last spring to attend the Vini ad Arte tasting event to find out whether the above grim picture might be improving. Held at the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza (where apart from Sangiovese I admired some fascinating Japanese tea pottery; displayed in this post are the Museum’s leading exhibits form the 16th through the 20th century), the undoubtedly well-organised Vini ad Arte gathers the region’s 35 finest producers, and was well-attended by an apparently happy public. Yet many wines were difficult to drink and those inky, oily, tannic, overconcentrated Sangioveses rarely invited another glass. Even established estates such as Calonga, Stefano Ferrucci or Drei Donà failed to thrill. A notable exception was Fattoria Zerbina – a regional classic with much better balance than elsewhere and plenty of that uncomplicated drinkability I’m missing in the basic Sangioveses: 500 and Ceregio. And San Patrignano, a winery operated within a dynamic private drug rehab centre that’s been consistently improving of late and offers a range of very well-gauged white and red wines with little oak and plenty of drinkability. The irony is that San Patrignano’s consultant is Riccardo Cotarella, the founding father of the high-extract high-oak high-alcohol style of Italian wine.
Another problem of Romagna is the lack of institutional support. A day after Vini ad Arte our group of journos was driven to the lovely medieval fortress of Dozza for a ‘seminar’ on Sangiovese, held by the local wine authorities. The region currently hosts 9 appellations of controlled origin so in an effort to make it clearer Sangiovese di Romagna will be renamed Romagna Sangiovese. How exactly this is going to encourage the foreign consumer to choose a Romagna Sangiovese instead of a Mendoza Malbec on the shelf is left for you to imagine. If however you’re dying to learn the intricacies of the local terroir there are good news for you: the rebranding will be accompanied by five new subzones added to the DOC: Predappio, Bertinoro, Faenza, Imola, and Alto Riminese. Questions as to how the Consorzio plans to increase visibility and brand awareness of Romagna were met with stupor. Apparently there’s some promotion planned in China and other ‘emerging markets’. A few weeks later in Poland I attended one of those promotional events where six Sangioveses were served blind and we were then asked to say whether they stood any chance on the Polish market. But consumers are buying on price and brand and I still don’t see any coherent strategy of Romagna producers on these two points.
I don’t want to sound too negative. There are plenty of good and very good wines in this large region, including mineral salty Albana from the likes of Giovanni Madonia, the curious indigenous Centesimino grape (the best I’ve tasted comes from Poderi Morini) or explorative biodynamic wines such as those of Fondo San Giuseppe. But Romagna’s wine industry isn’t exactly driving a Ferrari at the moment. It will take a forward-looking proactive marketing vision and a lot of work to put the region firmly on the world wine map. The former I find lacking, but without it, Romagna will remain what it is today: a provincial region blindly following yesterday’s fashion.
My trip to Romagna and Tuscany including flights, accommodation and wine tasting programme was sponsored jointly by the consorzios of Chianti, Vino Nobile, Brunello di Montalcino and Sangiovese di Romagna.