Romagna winemakers aim for Tuscan quality

Cristina Geminiani of Fattoria Zerbine in Romagna, Italy, explains the traditional alberello method of training grape vines. The steep hillsides promote good drainage in the heavy clay soils only a few kilometers from the Adriatic Sea.

FAENZA, Italy — The dense humidity pressing against your skin and the heavy clay soils clinging to your shoes are part of everyday life in the Romagna region of northern Italy.

Separated only by a range of small hills from the Adriatic Sea, the area is known for its history of producing fine ceramics.

This picturesque town along the Via Emilia, the highway running northwest to southeast through the region between Emilia and Bologna, is home to the International Ceramics Museum, a collection of more than 3,500 pieces of art ranging from historic traditional to contemporary artists from around the world.

The heavy air and soils also are evident when you walk the vineyards around Bologna, where sangiovese is the main red grape and albana the leading white grape.

On a recent visit to Fattoria Zerbina, a winery less than 25 kilometers from the Adriatic, winemaker Cristina Geminiani issues each of the dozen or so visitors a pair of plastic pull-on shoe covers.

“It’s nice today but it’s been rainy,” said Cristina, granddaughter of Fattoria Zerbina founder Vincenzo Geminiani. “You’ll need these to keep your shoes clean when we walk in the vines.”

The light-brown clay is good because it holds moisture in an area that gets very little summer rain, Cristina said.

“The soil holds the moisture for the vines, even in the hottest times,” she said. She stood atop the round-shouldered hill where the winery is located, pointing out the 80 steep hectares of vines on which she raises sangiovese, albana and small amounts of trebbiano, cabernet sauvignon, Merlot and Riesling.

Having the moisture-holding soil is good, since grape growers cannot irrigate without special permission from the local winemakers group, the Consorzio Vini di Romagna.

It’s all part of the rules for the Sangiovese di Romagna DOC. In Italian wine regulations, DOC stands for Denominazione di origine controllata, the second-highest of the three levels of Italian wine.

“We irrigate maybe one year in 10, and then only up on the top, where the soils are bit different,” Cristina said. “And then it’s only the albana and it’s not to make the bunches larger but to retain the acidity.”

A meter or so under the clay is a shelf of fossil-rich limestone, which adds a hint of minerality to both red and white wines.

According to the DOC rules, red wines must be predominately sangiovese (85–100 percent) with the rest other varieties including Merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

Local lore says this is the historic home of sangiovese, first discovered by the Capuchin friars 500 years ago on Monte Giove (Mount Jupiter) near the hamlet of Rimini, a few kilometers to the east of where we stood.

“The history of sangiovese goes back 500 years but it’s been cultured only since 200 years ago,” Cristina told us.

This area is trying hard to increase its exposure and its reputation for making high-quality sangiovese, which for most people sangiovese usually means Tuscany and Chianti Classico.

What this group of writers heard repeated during our brief visit to Romagna was, “We’re as good as Tuscany.”

It’s an argument also heard across the United States when wine-growing areas find themselves trying to deal with Napa or Sonoma.

That’s not saying the winemakers in Romagna want or expect to be another Tuscany, although it would be nice to have the renown and demand the prices of Tuscan sangiovese.

In the last 15 years or so, local winemakers have taken some huge strides to raise the levels of their wines, which until recently were made for fast consumption.

“By February it was no good, but by then it had been drunk anyway,” one winemaker later told us.

It took courage to step away from traditional winemaking, Cristina said.

“The first ‘quality’ sangiovese was in the 1980s and my first harvest was in 1987,” she told us.

Before then, Fattoria Zerbina (the original farm had the name prior to Cristina’s grandfather starting the winery) was blending cabernet, Merlot and Syrah with all their sangiovese.

But Vincenzo Geminiani dreamed of making great wines from sangiovese and today the superiore riserva (aged at least two years) is 100 percent sangiovese.

The IGT (table wines) wines continue to be blends.

“We phased out the international grapes and went back to the indigenous sangiovese” for the riserva, said Cristina.

While both 1997 and 1998 are considered among the better vintages, the hot year and difficult vintage of 2003 holds a special place for her.

“It was very hot but the wines were very beautiful,” Cristina said. “It was a very difficult and challenging year for us but when it’s that difficult and the wines come out so well, you know the winemaker has done a good job.”

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