It is perhaps Italy’s oldest family of grapes, but Reunite tarnished its image
By Frank Cipparone
In a nation that has pride in its cuisine, no region is more noted for its agricultural products and culinary traditions than Emilia-Romagna. Prosciutto di Parma and artisanal Balsamica di Modena. Culatello from Zibello and the pancetta of Piacenza. Borgataro’s unique mushrooms and Altelo’s asparagus. Even Coppia, a bread made in Faenza, is among 35 staples stamped with a DOP ( Denominazione Origine Protetta) or IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) label similar to the classifications for wine.
With such abundance, it’s surprising that the region’s wines are an afterthought. Though there are 21 DOC-classified wines, the only one familiar to most consumers here and abroad is Lambrusco. Fizzy, light-hearted and easy to drink, it served as the go-to Italian wine of the 1970s. Giant co-op Riunite did for Emilia-Romagna what Bolla did for Italian wine in general — create a recognizable, affordable and readily available brand. Lambrusco’s opportunity to be considered a serious grape took a hit. Winemakers and writers scoffed and wrote it off as soda pop with bubbles.
That was unfortunate, since Lambrusco may be Italy’s oldest family of grapes, cultivated by the Etruscans in the pre-Roman era. Though all Lambruscos share familial traits, there may exist as many as a dozen distinctive types, each bringing forth subtle differences in the wines made from them. The problem is that they are commonly lumped together, which misses the point. For example, Lambrusco Grasparossa and Lambrusco Marani or any of the others are separate grapes. All of them can be produced secco, semi-secco, dolce (rarely), or rosato.
Compounding the region’s spotty reputation is the fact that its two DOCG wines are relatively unknown. Even Italians treat Albana di Romagna with indifference. Frankly, Albana is a bland and unremarkable grape, which is why so few producers bother with it. Only when it is done in the passito style do its natural aromas and flavors develop.
The other DOCG is Colli Bolognese Pignoletto, a white grape that was confused with Pinot Bianco and Riesling as well as, strangely, Pignolo, a red grape of Friuli. It is typically light, softly textured and has mildly tart flavors of citrus and golden apples. The best examples come from towns near Bologna such as San Pietro and Reno, and Rimini where it is called Rebula, which has led to its being misidentified as Ribolla Gialla of Friuli!
One of the more interesting wines is Gutturnio, a blend of Barbera and Bonarda, the local name for Croatina and not the same as Bonarda from Piedmont. Exclusive to the hills near Piacenza, it is funky and offbeat, a wine for adventurous palates.
No one argues that Sangiovese isn’t Italy’s most prolific and important cultivar. On either side of the Apennines, farmers claim it as their own, citing linguistic references as “proof’ of Sangiovese’s origins. What isn’t up for debate are its ancient roots in both Emilia and Tuscany, or that it thrives in the hills of Romagna, where the wines are noticeably different than Chianti, Brunello or any of their Tuscan cousins. Even within Romagna, as the geography and climate changes so too do the characteristics of the grape. Those grown in the lowlands near the Adriatic are fruitier and savory. Higher altitudes yield Sangiovese that is more aromatic and densely tannic.
On the plains of Faenza a few producers are committed to propagating obscure local grapes that illuminate the history of winemaking in Romagna. Though not many have heard of Famoso, Centesimino or Burson, winemakers like Claudio Ancarini and Leone Castro are determined not to let them fade away. Burson, also known as Longanesi, and Centesimino are red wines of great depth and character that remained in Lambrusco’s shadow far too long.