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‘House Red’ No Longer

When I first worked in the wine trade, more years ago than I care to remember, Sangiovese di Romagna was what cheerful Italian trattorie in London bought as their house wine, in 1- or 2-liter bottles. Consequently, a recent visit to the small town of Faenza, at the heart of the DOC of Sangiovese di Romagna, demonstrated just how dramatically quality has improved in recent years.

Sangiovese, the grape variety of central Italy, reaches near perfection in Tuscany along with the great classics, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. But it is also the principal red grape variety of neighboring Romagna, and grows as far afield as Veneto and Campania.

The DOC of Sangiovese di Romagna stretches from the hills east of Bologna as far as the seaside resort of Rimini, a distance of a little more than 62 miles or 100 kilometers, with a variety of micro-zones. The wines of Rimini have a maritime saltiness, while those around Forli are more structured and tannic, and those near Faenza and Bertinoro are more mineral.

Infused with the sea’s salty tang

A visit to the estate of Viola outside the village of Bertinoro with its owner, Stefano Gabellini, provided my first insight into the characteristics of Sangiovese in Romagna, whose flavors are quite different from those of Tuscany. Stefano explained that the proximity of the sea, only 15 miles (25 kilometers) away, has a considerable impact on flavor. The vineyards benefit from the constant sea breezes, and the difference between the day and nighttime temperatures is much less than you would find in the vineyards of Chianti Classico. Altitudes are lower too, 360 feet (110 meters) as opposed to vineyards as high as 400 meters to 500 meters (1,312 feet to 1,640 feet) in the heart of Tuscany.

Sangiovese di Romagna has the ripe cherry fruit that is the hallmark of sangiovese, but it lacks the firm astringency and backbone of chianti or brunello. The DOC has a Superiore category for wines that come from better vineyards and hillside sites. The additional mention of riserva entails two years of aging, one in barrel or vat — wisely, oak is not mandatory, for sangiovese does not like too much new wood — and as well as a year in bottle in the cellar. La Viola’s Oddone, Sangiovese di Romagna, Superiore, had some lovely supple cherry fruit, and not a hint of oak. Il Colombarone Superiore was more substantial with an edge of tannin, as part of the wine had been aged in oak for six months, and Pethra Honorii Superiore riserva was more firmly oaky and structured.

The following day, a tasting at the fabulous porcelain museum of Faenza allowed for more discoveries of Sangiovese di Romagna. I was particularly taken with the wines of Fattoria Zerbina, ranging from simple Ceregio with ripe cherry fruit to Pietramora Superior riserva, made only in the best vintages, such as 2007. It is a selection of the best grapes, with depth and balance, and ageing potential.

Discovering albana’s delights

But Romagna is not only sangiovese. There are examples of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, blended with sangiovese, but for my taste buds, these have a softening effect, taking away the intrinsic Italian flavor of sangiovese. Much more exciting were examples of other Italian varieties, notably Albana di Romagna, which prides itself on being Italy’s first white DOCG — a stricter category than DOC.

Now I can understand why albana deserves this accolade. It is a wonderfully versatile grape variety, making fresh, pithy, dry wine, but best of all, wonderful passito dessert wines made from semi-dried grapes. The grapes can be dried either on the vine or in the cellar, for two or three weeks, and the juice is usually fermented in vat and aged in barrel. Zerbina makes three different sweet albana; the first, arrocco, has noble rot, and the pickers may go through the vineyard as many as seven to 14 times. It was intensely honeyed and unctuous, with roasted notes of botrytis. Scacco matto comes from even more carefully selected grapes and is deliciously unctuous, while AR is a riserva passito and even more concentrated, with 140 grams (4.9 ounces) of residual sugar per liter. Here there is no wood aging, and the wine is very smooth and richly concentrated — and delicious.

And then there were grape varieties that I had never heard of. We drank a sparkling wine with a hint of raspberry perfume, made from the centesimino grape. The white variety bianchino faentino also featured in a Colli di Faenza, not to mention burson, negretto longanesi, and pagadebit, as well as the more common trebbiano di Romagna, and the inevitable chardonnay.

It is always a good feeling to leave a tasting with the enthusiasm of new discoveries. I enjoyed the wines from Tre Monti, San Valentino, Villa Venti and Ferrucci, with their flavors of ripe cherries and rounded fruit. Less appealing were wines where the oak treatment was excessive and where the addition of cabernet and merlot had tempered the Italian flavor of sangiovese. It is a uniquely Italian grape variety, and that is how it should be.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: Vineyards in Italy.
Credit: Courtesy of Gheusis

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.