Some of the world’s great cheeses, pastas and charcuterie are produced in this region, known as Italy’s breadbasket. What’s new are the vibrant and flavorful wines.
In the past, when I told people that I loved Emilia-Romagna, they assumed that I was talking about my Italian girlfriend. Twenty years ago, even the most in-the-know Italophiles only had a vague sense of this region and the many treasures it harbors. Foremost among these is its glorious cuisine, which is the richest and most complex in Italy.
Situated in northern Italy, with its eastern border on the Adriatic sea, the region of Emilia-Romagna includes nine provinces, divided into two sectors. In the west, in Emilia, are the provinces of Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena. In the east, in Romagna, are Ferrara, Forli, Ravenna and Rimini. Bologna straddles the two and is the region’s capital.
To understand this region’s cuisine, it is necessary to list some of the native products that any cook on the States has within reach. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is the first solid food a baby in this region is fed. It comes in 75-pound wheels and has been made by hand in the same manner for 700 years. It is unmistakably nutty and fragrant. It is delicious to eat on its own-it will melt in your mouth—or you can grate it over pastas or vegetables.
Every two years the town of Dozza holds a murals contest, and artists from all over the country converge to decorate the city’s walls.
The animal of choice in Emilia-Romagna is the pig. Italians will tell you that the pig is like the music of Verdi—nothing goes to waste. Indeed, the pig gives its all to make charcuterie that is unrivaled anywhere in the world for delectability. Most famous is the silken prosciutto di Parma, the exquisite air-cured ham. Bologna loves its mortadella, a delicate sausage studded with pistachio slivers and eaten either in slices or chunks. Modena favors zampone, stuffed pig’s trotter (feet) that is boiled and served at New Year’s with lentils. Ferrara likes salama al sugo, a very soft sausage that crumbles when cooked and is served with mashed potatoes.
Eggs and abundant flour make the sheets of fresh pasta for which the region has no rival. When cut, these become tagliatelle that will be tossed in ragù, a delicate meat sauce sweetened with carrot and softened with milk. Tortellini, cappelletti and tortelloni are pastas of various sizes that embrace such fillings as prosciutto, mortadella, ricotta and chard, or pumpkin with candied fruit.
The region also has gorgeous fruits and vegetables. And of course it has grapes. Emilia-Romagna grows a great quantity of them—and up until recently, quantity was prized far more than quality. Traditionally, the people of the region preferred their wines young and frisky rather than mature and complex. In this regard, they went against the wisdom that big, complex food called for big, complex wines. Here, instead, a fruity and lightly acidic wine was thought to complement rich food because it contrasted with it.
Fruit and vegetables are abundant in the markets of Bologna
But in the past 10 years, there have been subtle changes on both the food and wine fronts. For one: As the food is getting lighter, in accord with heart-healthy dining, the wines are getting bigger. The other great change is a movement toward excellence. In the early 1970s, when I began exploring the wines, I found them direct and uncomplicated, pleasing to drink but not world-class like those from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Piedmont and Tuscany. The most famous red was the very agreeable Lambrusco, which bore precious little resemblance to the soft drink-like wine that flooded the American market at the time. The Lambrusco the Italians enjoy has an agreeable dry, grapey flavor and often (but not always) a light sparkle. Some high-quality Lambrusco from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena is now arriving in North America, and this wine merits reconsideration as a companion to food. With its remarkable ability to enhance the flavor of pork and cut the fattiness that can accumulate in the mouth, it is the perfect wine to go with the region’s charcuterie.
|Another important red is Sangiovese, which used to be vinified as a beverino (a light, inconsequential table wine). Now the grape is as exalted here as it is in Tuscany, and more than ever Sangiovese made in Romagna has come to resemble Chianti Classico and even some Super Tuscans in terms of structure, power and complexity. It pairs well with fresh pastas, beef, veal, game and hearty cheeses, and could easily be the wine of choice for an entire meal of foods from the region.|
Less well-known are Bonarda and Gutturnio, reds from the province of Piacenza. These grapes grow in profusion near the banks of the nearby Po, Italy’s largest river. Bonarda is like a less fruity Beaujolais, and does not age well. It pairs with cold cuts, vegetable soups (especially those incorporating beans) and many meats. Gutturnio is made either as a still wine, or with a slight sparkle. It has gained more acceptance recently because it has a structure that allows it to pair with either light or more substantial dishes.
Emilia, the western half of the region, is known for its purplish-red and slightly sparkling Lambrusco, both sweet and dry. The Lambrusco enjoyed in its home region is of a better quality than is generally available elsewhere, and is a far cry from the cheap, sweet and fizzy beverage known here in the U.S. A DOC wine that can be either red or rosé, Lambrusco is produced around the cities of Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia. One of the best Lambruscos comes from the village of Sorbara. The DOC requirements vary according to the area in which the wine is produced.
Savvy Emilians are beginning to send some of the better producers’ wines our way. One to look for is Concerto by Ermete Medici. It has all the qualities of this variety that make it ideal to accompany food: deep red color, good acidity and pleasing berry flavors.
To the east of Emilia, in Romagna, the favored wine grape is Sangiovese. For the DOC Sangiovese di Romagna, the grapes are vinified alone or in combination with up to 15 percent of other red varieties of the region. One of the finest wines of this type is the Fattoria Paradiso 1997 Vigna Lepri Sangiovese di Romagna. Made from Sangiovese Grosso, it has a violet fragrance with intense, spicy fruit. The flavor is dry with a pleasant, slightly bitter finish. Other good producers of Sangiovese di Romagna are San Patrignano and La Macolina.
Fattoria Paradiso is also the exclusive producer of Barbarossa, a dry red with an aroma of faded roses and violets. The vines for this wine were found growing in a disused vineyard that was destined for replanting. It is named for the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who spent time in this region.
Albano di Romagna was Italy’s first white wine to be awarded the DOCG designation in 1987. Produced from the grape of the same name, it comes in four different types, though usually only the secco (dry) and passito (richly sweet) is found in this country. Tre Monte Albana Vigna della Rocca produces a secco with hints of peaches, plums and almonds.
Fattoria Zabrina produces passito called Scacco Matto made with several clonal selections of botrytized bunches. The wine is hard to find, but well worth seeking out for its ripe fruit flavors with hinds of almonds and honey, and a good acid balance for a dessert wine. Umberto Cesari is a very large producer who manages to combine quality and quantity. His Albana di Romagna Passito is widely available.
Another white wine from the region is Pignoletto from Vallona. It is made from 90 percent Pignoletto, a local white grape, and 10 percent Riesling, fermented in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation. The wine is dry, fresh and delicate with good acidity and a hint of almond.
Throughout Emilia-Romagna, wine producers have been experimenting with clonal selection, foreign varietals, better vineyard management and the latest equipment and technology. Expert enologists such as Franco Bernabe, Riccardo Cotarella and Umberto Fiore are at the forefront of these changes.
One of the “new-style” wines is Drei Dona Tenuta La Palazzo. Made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is well balanced, powerful and elegant and will keep for many years. Stoppa from producer La Stoppa in the Colli Piacentini area is another new-style wine. Aged two years in barriques, it has the flavors of black cherries and berries. La Stoppa also makes Alfeo from 100 percent Pinot Noir and Macchiona, made with 50 percent each Barbera and Bonarda, a more traditional wine of this area.
These same varietals are used to make Romeo, a Gutturnio Colli Piacentini by Castello di Luzzano. The grapes are fermented in glass-lined cement vats, then aged one year in oak casks and one year in the bottle. The finished wine is ruby-red with hints of wood and dried fruit aromas.
Although Sauvignon Blanc and a delicate Malvasia are made in small quantities near Parma, the region’s two most important whites are Albana and Trebbiano. Albana used to be a by-the-glass, seldom-bottled wine that was served indiscriminately all over Romagna with fish, vegetables and meats, with little regard for an appropriate pairing with food. It was there and you drank it. Once dusky and bracing, Albana is now notable for its suave finesse. On the dry side, it is wonderful with poultry, fish, vegetables and savory baked goods. A small percentage of the grapes is reserved to dry out to make an excellent passito dessert wine, ideal for meditative sipping after a grand meal.
As a wine for drinking, Trebbiano is less impressive than Albana. It is pleasing, and pairs well with fish and seafood but its first, best destiny is as the base for aceto balsamico tradizionale, the genuine balsamic vinegar made in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Do not confuse this with mass-market balsamic vinegar, which is often no more than wine vinegar colored with caramel and other substances. The genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale is made of Trebbiano grape must and aged for at least five years in barrels made of various woods. It is an elixir—just a few drops will enliven most anything, including the recipes below.
It is a fortunate time for anyone who wishes to discover Emilia-Romagna. Except for the area along the Adriatic shore, mass tourism has not done the damage that has so altered Venice and Tuscany. And the wines can now be enjoyed with pride. But if a trip is not in your itinerary, try some of the wines paired with the following recipes. Close your eyes, and you’re there.
For more recipes from Emilia-Romagna, pick up this month’s issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.