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A New Star from Indispensable Italy
By Michael Franz
Mar 15, 2011
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If you love wine with food, you know already that Italian reds are indispensable at the table--whether or not the table is set with Italian food.  No other country can rival Italy for sheer numbers of reds that combine freshness with complexity.  Similarly, far more Italian reds combine relatively light weight with strongly expressive aroma and flavor, and these two combinations make Italian reds supremely versatile and delightful with food.  As a result, I regard it as major news when an Italian region starts producing excellent reds in serious numbers, and that is exactly what has happened recently in the northeastern region of Romagna.

If this seems implausible to you, I can understand your skepticism.  The Romagna is better known in outside of Italy as a part of the conjoined region of Emilia-Romagna, which is far more famous for its food than its wine.  Proscuitto di Parma and Parmagiano Reggiano are among perhaps Italy’s most famous food exports, and the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna is widely regarded as the finest in the entire country--which is saying something.  However, the wine most closely associated with Emilia-Romagna is from Emilia, namely, Lambrusco, which can be pleasant enough under the right circumstances but is never confused for a great wine--or even a serious one.

To the degree that most of the world is aware of the Romagna for exports at all, the region is know for Ferraris or Ducati motorcycles rather than wine.  Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that almost everywhere in northern Italy makes at least some wine that is quite good, and that is now definitely true of the Romagna.

Indeed, there’s more than one good wine made in the Romagna.  Albana is a quality white grape that can make interesting dry wine and very interesting dessert wine when the grapes are affected by botrytis or dried passito-style prior to fermentation.  Usual suspects like Cabernet and Merlot can also be found in the region, and growing conditions in the area can produce excellent wines from them, albeit ones that seem vaguely international rather than locally distinctive.  This being Italy--the country with more than twice as many indigenous wine grapes as any other--there are plenty of other curiosities as well, some of which may emerge in future decades as more than mere curiosities.

For now, though, the star that is clearly rising in the firmament of Romagna is Sangiovese.

But Sangiovese is from Tuscany, right?  Well, yes, but Tuscany is adjacent to the Romagna, and a portion of present-day Romagna was actually Tuscan until boundaries were re-drawn by Mussolini less than a century ago.  Sangiovese has been grown in the Romagna since time immemorial, and though the somewhat warmer climate conjures something rather different from the variety than what it usually produces in Tuscany, the resulting wines can be terrific in their own style, especially when their exuberant fruitiness is turned in a more serious direction by time and aeration in oak barrels.

To be sure, simply made, early-released Sangiovese di Romagna can be a dangerously delicious quaffing wine or a good partner for many foods--especially lightly spicy ones.  But the grape is really best from this area when its juicy primary fruit is settled down with ageing time and firmed up with some oak.  If you really want to learn how good Sangiovese can be in this part of Italy, the wine you should seek is Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva.

At this point you might be thinking, “Well, duh, of course it would be a Riserva that would be the showcase rendition for any grape and region.  However, that is not the case, as Riserva renditions of Italian wines are not intrinsically superior to regular renditions, and that is true whether we’re talking Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico, or Brunello di Montalcino. 

Sure, sometimes Riserva renditions of these wines are better.  However, when this is true it is often because the best fruit from a particular growing season was vectored toward a Riserva bottling, or because some producers only make Riserva wines in particularly strong vintages.  For virtually all of Italy’s top wines, the additional ageing time and oak exposure involved in making Riserva renditions may make the resulting wine better, but even more often it isn’t likely to do so.

By contrast, my experience suggests that Riserva treatment routinely makes Sangiovese di Romagna a better wine, by which I mean a wine that is more balanced and complete. 

Whereas oak can imperil the balance of leaner Sangiovese from Tuscany, it seems to lend focus and coherence to the riper, richer, more overt fruit that this vine variety produces in the Romagna’s warmer climate.

As you’ll see from the following reviews, I think very highly of the best of these wines, and I found many that clearly merited excellent scores.  Believe it or not, I was actually quite conservative when scoring them, and in every instance in which my notes showed two numbers, I’ve always indicated the lower of the two here.  Until the wines become better known--and easier to sell--they will likely require some effort to find, but they are absolutely worth the effort.

Recommended wines are listed below in order of preference, with alphabetical ordering employed for wines receiving the same score:

Giovanna Madonia “Ombroso” 2007:  Rich, concentrated, long, and completely convincing, this is tender in texture but not lacking for structure, with abundant fruit accented by interesting savory notes.  92

Tre Monti “Thea” 2008:  This is a very showy wine, with lots of fancy French oak in the aromas and flavors but plenty of ripe fruit to achieve excellent balance.  Complex and very serious, this can be enjoyed now, though it will improve for up to a decade.  92

Podere Vecciano “D’Enio” 2007:  An opulent, even flamboyant wine with very ripe fruit (15% alcohol indicated) that is framed by lots of spicy, smoky, vanilla-scented oak.  This was grown and made with some audacity, and it paid off.  92

Fattoria Zerbina “Pietramora” 2008:  The fruit is soft and supple but adequately structured with tannin and subtle wood, which lends nice spice notes that trail into the finish, which is balanced and persistent.  Complex, beautifully balanced, and built to enjoy soon or well into the future.  92

Stefano Ferrucci “Domus Caia” 2008:  This is muscular but not at all hard or forbidding, with lots of oak that never seems to impinge on the dark berry fruit or turn harsh in the finish.  Interesting accents of leather and spices.  91

San Valentino “Terra di Covignano” 2008:  Very ripe fruit provides deep, layered, lasting flavors without seeming at all grapey or obvious.  The oak is restrained but appealingly spicy.  91

Tre Monti “Petrignone” 2008:  An excellent wine showing very expressive fruit as well as oak that is subtle but sneaky--in the sense that it is so well integrated that it can be discerned as a distinct flavor element only with some searching.  Delicious and very well made.  91

TreRè “Violeo” 2006:  This wine from 2006 is still very fresh and even primary-seeming in fruit character, which is remarkable given the production procedure and the time that has passed since it was vinified.  It is big and intense, with impressive concentration and depth that overwhelms the wood and shows great persistence and depth of flavor.  91

Uve delle Mura “TrePastori” 2007:  My tasting note begins with, “Wow,” which is not the sort of word that I typically write in the midst of an extended tasting.  It is big and ripe and very close to the line of being over-ripe, but stays on the right side and proves completely convincing when re-tasted.  91

Fattoria Zerbina “Pietramora” 2007:   Complex and savory and layered, with lots of little subtleties and exceptional integration, this wine makes me worry that I’ve scored it too low due to its restraint amidst other more overt wines.  91

Campo del Sole “Vertice” 2006:  A delicious wine, this is rich and very ripe, with deep flavors and very satisfying density.  It shows some development, but certainly isn’t tiring after four years, and there’s plenty of focus and grip in the finish to suggest that it can become even better during the next couple of years.  90

Celli “Le Grillaie” 2007:  This shows impressive aromatic complexity and lots of flavorful fruit, with balanced oak and tannin firming up the finish without any astringency.  90

Costa Archi “Monte Brullo” 2007:  This is quite oaky, but the wood notes are appealing and clearly enhance the wine, as the soft, ripe fruit benefits from the framing, with smoke and spice notes offering pleasant counterpoints to the black cherry notes.  90

Francesconi Paolo “Le Iadi” 2007:  This was ripe and weighty enough to make me reach for the bottle to check the alcohol level (15%), but I could not fault the wine on account of being hot or imbalanced in any way.  The ripe fruit soaks up the oak, which shows faintly around the edges, lending welcome spice notes and tannins.  90

Gallegati “Corallo Nero” 2007:  There’s plenty of oak showing in this wine, and yet it still manages to seem pure and natural in fruit profile, which is quite impressive.  Expressive and yet restrained, this is the result of an exceptional winemaking performance.  90

Poderi Morini “Nonno Rico” 2007:  Interesting at every turn, this shows aromas of vanilla and spices followed by deep, lasting flavors.  90

Fattoria Paradiso “Vigna Delle Lepri” 2007:  This wine was conspicuously delicate and tender, with less ripeness and weight than the norm for this category, and yet it was still very impressive for its intricacy and balance.  90

TreRè “Armarcord d’Un Ross” 2008:   The DOC regulations for this category mandate that Sangiovese comprise 85% of any wine, and this toes the line with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Cab portion shows prominently, and had I tasted the wine blind, I’d likely have guessed Bolgheri rather than Romagna.  Rich, authoritative and masculine, this is very serious stuff.  90

Tenuta la Viola “P. Honorii” 2008:  Very effectively balanced, this shows soft, sweet fruit firmed up by fine-grained tannin that provides focus without drying the finish.  Subtle secondary aromas are beginning to emerge, and this will only get better during the next five years.  90

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Comments or questions?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com