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ITALY: Romagna Rising

Published:  23 July, 2008

When it's time for bottling, Enrico Drei Don wheels his lovingly restored Fiat 500 out of his family's winery and the rented bottling line is rolled in to take its place. As passionate a student of cars as he is of wine in all its dimensions, he is able to illuminate the inner workings of a carburettor with the same ease as he does the geopolitical boundaries of his native Emilia-Romagna, and in near-flawless English.

This combination of passion and pragmatism extends to much of the way he manages his family's estate, Drei Don-La Palazza, which has recently undergone a thorough restructuring of the vineyards following painstaking soil studies.

Drei Don, who is the head of the Association of Young Italian Wine Entrepreneurs (AGIVI), a network of 18- to 40-year-old entrepreneurs or directors of private wine-producing and bottling companies based exclusively within Italy', is clearly exceptionally focused, but his passion and orientation towards detail might also be considered typical of the spirit of the Romagnoli, the innovative, driven, hospitable inhabitants of Romagna, the 8,000sq km south-eastern area of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. David Navacchia, of Tre Monti, a fellow producer and friend of Drei Don, has his own take on this work-hard-play-hard spirit, quoting a traditional Romagnolo saying. Any weary traveller approaching Romagna who asks for a drink will be given water,' he says. It is only when he is given wine that he can be sure he has arrived!'

Emilia-Romagna, however notable its quantitative wine output, has a poor reputation for quality, which is why the members of Convito di Romagna (, of which Drei Don and Tre Monti are among the seven founding wineries, are keen to emphasise what makes their Romagna estates distinct. On the face of it, it is a bold enterprise: the wineries total only 240 hectares (ha); most have no plans for expansion; and they face the challenge of telling the wine world not only who they are - premium producers with a clear focus - but also who they are not - churners of the banal plonk for which Emilia-Romagna is infamous. But in a country notorious not only for the confusion of its wine offer but also the messages about its offer, the Convito offers a template of how regions and subregions could make Italy's offer more intelligible, at least at the premium end. The wines are very good to excellent, offer excellent value for money, exhibit a clear sense of terroir while also being clearly presented in terms of appellation and variety, and do not over-exaggerate the merits of their Bordeaux blends or other top wines. Although many are relatively new to winemaking, their makers are savvy at networking (past and present UK importers include Enotria, Les Caves de Pyrene, John Armit, Fortnum and Mason, and Liberty), have invested significantly and intelligently in soil studies and consultants (Riccardo Cotarella donates his services to San Patrignano), and are more interested in their grapes than in spinning garagiste glamour. As David Navacchia puts it, pretentiousness is not in our DNA', an attitude that was borne out in a visit to Romagna last month.

Mission possible

The consortium began in 2001, when Andrea Muccioli, of the remarkable drug rehabilitation community-cum-wine estate San Patrignano, asked Cristina Geminiani of Fattoria Zerbina and Enrico Drei Don to combine resources to promote what they regard as their chief asset: Romagnan Sangiovese. Stefano Ferrucci, who died earlier this year, joined a year later, and the rest of the wineries - Calonga, San Patrignano, San Valentino and Tre Monti - between 2003 and 2004. The mutual respect and passion for our native land of Romagna brought us together in what was, at first, a non-profit association,' explains Cristina Geminiani, the Convito's current president. But since 2004 it has become a consortium to all intents and purposes. Its activities are primarily to promote our wines, our Sangiovese and our beautiful hills, both within Italy and abroad.'

Members of the Convito have varying interpretations of what the Convito's message is, but these are not at odds. Sangiovese is clearly the main focus, but promotions encompass indigenous varieties and Bordeaux-variety blends. We don't want to be like the Taliban,' says Drei Don. We do not want to impose a style.' Drei Don is confident about the open brief because he feels that, despite myriad subtle variations, there are consistent terroir-derived characteristics exhibited across the Convito wines.

Even yellowtail for the price is good, but our future is to make wines with terroir,' he explains. If you want to stay on the market you have to have a very clear idea of what you want to do. In the past, people have made mistakes by expanding and taking wines from different places. You can produce 50,000 bottles and the wine can be good, but where did the grapes come from?'

This is, of course, a de rigeur mantra of the premium winery the world over, though the Convito wineries, all family-run enterprises, really do want to keep their respective wineries in the family, obviating expansion. Can Drei Don be more specific? The subliminal message of the Convito is: "If you are looking for Sangiovese, put your eyes on the other side of the Appenines and you can find good things,"' says Drei Don. I don't want to say better, but better in some ways - a true expression of Sangiovese.'

Drei Don is, of course, referring to Tuscany, of which region two top wine-growing areas - Chianti and Montalcino - are under a two-hour drive from his estate. One senses, with Drei Don as with all the members of the Convito, that the comparison with Tuscany is complicated - necessary in some regards but to be downplayed in others. Tuscany has pioneered a path to foreign markets that has made the Convito's journey easier, especially in relation to Sangiovese and Bordeaux-style blends, but the region's producers have also made expensive mistakes that the Convito has been able to avoid and wants to distance itself from, particularly with over-pricing and over-touting Bordeaux blends. As in many parts of Italy, the mish-mash of vino-geo-political dividing lines has also left an ambiguous legacy. Rocca delle Caminate, the former summer residence of Zio Benito', otherwise known as Benito Mussolini, can be seen from La Palazza. Romagna, once one of the most fascist regions of Italy, almost overnight became communist once Mussolini was ousted. If it weren't for Mussolini, the Convito might now be making Tuscan IGT.

Jewel in the crown

In fact, most of the Convito wineries do make IGTs, for both 100% Sangiovese wines and blends of Sangiovese with other varieties. There is no doubt, however, that the wines that they set their reputations by are the Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva DOCs each produces, which are uniformly both excellent and excellent value for money. While in the 1980s their Tuscan peers were hopping on the Bordeaux-blend bandwagon, the Convito producers dabbled in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but took the gamble - perhaps another expression of Romagnolo pragmatism - that trends pass, and stayed focused on Sangiovese. Now we can see that not expanding into Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was the right way to go,' says Drei Don. In Chianti, a problem of identity and price is created when you have to pay 20 ex-cellars for a bottle.' (The ex-cellar prices of these wines start at around 10.)

Maurizio Baravelli of Calonga, maker of the superb Michelangilo Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva, the 2002 vintage of which a fellow Convito member thought was currently showing the best of all the Convito wines at the moment, feels that the gamble has paid off in terms of credibility as well as quality. It is more difficult to make a great Sangiovese than a great Cabernet Sauvignon, because Sangiovese is more difficult to get right,' he says. Adds Drei Don on the subject of this gamble, Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese in some places on the same estate will be good, in other places not so good.'

Although there are clear expressions from estate to estate in the Convito, the Sangiovese wines share an immediacy of fruit, generous concentration, well-managed oak, and a lovely juxtaposition of freshness and fine leather. While more accessible than many Tuscan predominantly Sangiovese wines, this is not at the expense of complexity and elegance. While the Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva DOCs, which must be aged in wood and bottle for a minimum of two years, are justly the ambassadors of the Convito project, the entry-level Sangioveses that the wineries produce, either as Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOCs or IGTs, offer an unexpected dose of fruit, elegance and balance at prices of around 4 ex-cellars, and would make excellent house wines, for instance.

As well as the fact that the wines are increasingly made from two typically Romagnan clones - RL Bosche and R-24 - the Convito members are also keen to point out that their wines are made above the fertile valley that produces some of Italy's best agricultural products but not its finest wine. Though at least some 20km apart, the wineries are located at a median height of 150 metres above sea level on gentle slopes. San Patrignano and San Valentino are the most maritime of the wineries in terms of climate - each are about 10km from the Adriatic resort of Rimini - and enjoy more temperate climates than the more inland wineries, which grapple with extremely hot summers and winters that are cold enough to have permitted the late maverick Stefano Ferrucci to make a stunning icewine from Malvasia, a wine that his daughter Ilaria is keen to continue producing. However, all the estates are close enough to the sea to enjoy a tempering breeze, contributing to their elegance and freshness. The wineries are in fact located on a sort of diagonal line running from north-west near Bologna, south-east towards the sea, and the Convito views this progression as a way to showcase the subtle differences of expression of which Sangiovese is capable.

Most of the producers have also gone to great pains and expense to understand their terroir, and further, jointly funded studies of the best microzones for planting Sangiovese are in the works. At Tre Monti, for instance, a neat white-for-red grape swap was made between their two vineyard locations after a five-year study, led by Attilio Scienza and Francesco Lizio, concluded that the indigenous white Albana would do better at Imola-Tre Monti, while Sangiovese and other red grapes would do best in Petrignone, 15km away in the hills between Faenza and Forl. At Zerbina, Vincenzo Geminiani explains how his sister Cristina has successfully experimented with high-density plantings of Sangiovese, up to 11,500 vines per hectare, and has also reinstated the ancient Alberello (bush) training method, which produces excellent fruit but adds significantly to production costs. At San Valentino, bought in 1990 by their father Giovanni, Roberto and Maria Cristina Mascarin replanted much of their 14ha estate 12 years ago (although they still have plants that are more than 40 years old). According to Roberto, Fabrizio Moltard, San Valentino's consultant, loves working in Romagna because he feels that the potential to make good wine there is higher than in, say, Montalcino, because people are willing to make sacrifices on the land rather than resting on the laurels of a fancy appellation.

Local colours

Like most premium-minded Italian producers, the Convito producers do champion indigenous varieties, but, again, with pragmatism. Of his Balsamino Vino da Tavola, a bizarre yet enjoyable combination of barnyard (think free-range pig farm) and raspberry patch, Maurizio Baravelli of Calonga says, It is not an important wine - it is a curiosity.' It is a worthwhile effort, though, especially as Balsamina, a grape traditionally used for cutting, because of its intensity of colour, has been in danger of disappearing.

Albana, unique to Romagna, is the indigenous variety that gets the most attention from the Convito, whose members between them produce around 60,000 bottles a year across dry, sweet and passito styles.

A highly distinctive, relatively tannic white grape, Albana was the first white grape to obtain a DOCG, in 1987, but is now, according to Vittorio Navacchia, made by only 35 producers. Navacchia, who jokes that his output of 25,000 bottles makes him the world's third-largest producer', is perhaps the most passionate proponent of the Albana, although Ferrucci also makes a stunning Albana della Serra passito, Domus Aurea.

Navacchia loves the challenge of managing Albana's tannins and the fact that its optimum picking time can sometimes be a window of a mere few hours, and sometimes at night, luring him to spend nights under the stars, watching and waiting. A former student of Donato Lanati, who has been a consultant to Tre Monti since 1996, Vittorio is now forging his own, more regionally focused, path, with the maestro's blessing, and emphasising the intriguing range that Albana is capable of in, among other wines, Perlante, a sparkling blend of Albana, Trebianno and Sauvignon Blanc, and Salcerelle, Colli d'Imola Bianco DOC, a blend of Albana with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

In most cases, the clone Navacchia uses is the Albana della Serra, named after the Chiesa della Serra, a tiny church overlooking the vineyards at Tre Monti. Facing the hill on which the church is situated, if you blink you will miss the vineyards that make up much of the qualitative output of this variety.

While this variety's profile offers the kind of minutiae that draw wine lovers to Italy, it is also what risks drowning the Italian offer in detail. What is refreshing about the Convito producers is that they seem to understand this, and, while not ignoring their rich indigenous offerings, are presenting an offer, structured around Sangiovese, that is clear in terms of provenance, variety and value. Perhaps they are lucky to be working at a high level with a variety that, in a varietal-savvy world, is increasingly recognised as a variety in its own right, and perhaps they are lucky that di Romagna' has a certain grave and recognisable ring to it (Romagna is, in fact, named after ancient Rome, with which it historically had particularly strong connections).

One thing that is sure, however, is that the Convito producers provide a refreshing example of how an Italian wine-producing area can market itself with clarity.