Wine notes

Saturday 11 December 2010


Sangiovese, which is almost always associated with Tuscany, is in actual fact Italy's most widespread red grape variety. With about 10% of the total Italian vineyard area, or 100,000 ha, devoted to it, Sangiovese is the main ingredient in Brunello and the most important part of the blend that is Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Except for these internationally well known wines, Sangiovese features as an ingredient in a staggering 259 DOCs throughout the peninsula. This means that Sangiovese can be found in virtually every corner of Italy and, more and more, in other countries, albeit with rather mixed results so far.

One of the very few areas outside Tuscany where it is also the prevailing red variety is Romagna, the south-eastern part of Emilia-Romagna. It is so ubiquitous here that it was given its own DOC, Sangiovese di Romagna, as early as 1968. Although the DOC is far from a household name, with too much of the production ending up in the large Cantine Sociale fermentation vats, the area itself has been intelligently demarcated on the eastern slopes of the Apennines, which separate Romagna from Tuscany to the south west. There is no consensus, especially from the Romagnoli, on which side of the Apennines the variety originated. Recent DNA research, however, indicates a southern rather than a central Italian origin.

Sangiovese is first mentioned in Romagna in 1651 as Sanzuvesa in a document that is now kept at the Archivio del Stato in Faenza, whereas the first records in Tuscany from 1590 mention Sangioveto. This may therefore indicate that historically two different types of the variety were distinguished. In 1879 the Commissione Ampelografica della Provincia di Siena already made a distinction between Sangioveto from Chianti, Prugnolo from Montepulciano, and Brunello from Montalcino. Within the Sangioveto category, the Commissione distinguished a subvariety called Sangioveto Piccolo, which was considered identical to Sangiovese di Forlì.

The Istituto Sperimentale per la Viticultura in Conegliano, after having analysed the different biotypes of the variety on the basis of berry size, came to the conclusion that there are two main groups: Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo. In this case, together with, among others, Brunello and Sangiovese Grosso di Lamole (a tiny commune in Chianti Classico at 500 m altitude and considered by locals an important cru), the Sangiovese Romagnolo (also known as Cannello Lungo) is part of the Sangiovese Grosso variety.

But things are never as easy and orderly as they seem. Whereas in the area around Rimini a type of Sangiovese Grosso is cultivated, there is also a subvariety of it with elliptical berries which can be found in old bush-vine trained vines in the commune of Predappio. This one appears to be identical to the one cultivated in Lamole. It is especially this subvariety that the Convito di Romagna (of which more later) considers Romagna's very own, high-quality variety, and which is planted in the vineyards of several of its members.

Whereas Tuscany officially recognises the many different terroirs that play a crucial role in Sangiovese's various styles, and labels them according to the various subregions (Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the very recent Sangiovese di Montecucco, to name just a few), Romagna has never accredited, at least officially, its diverse range of soils and altitudes as a dermining component in the Sangiovese wines produced here. The DOC, Sangiovese di Romagna, includes a vast area bordering the Apennines in the south west, and the ancient Via Emilia connecting Rimini, Cesena, Forlì, Faenza, Imola and Bologna in a straight line. The Adriatic is in some instances so close by that some of the vines on the hills can literally see the sea but, wisely, the DOC area excludes the plains.

While the DOC decrees that vines can be planted only on sandy, calcareous soils, in reality soil structures, as in any hilly area, can be very different from one vineyard to the next. Plant density, with 3,300 vines/ha according to DOC rules, is not very high, but goes up to 3,700 vines/ha if the producer wants to label his or her wine Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore, with the prerequisite that the final wines need to have at least 12.5% alcohol rather than the 11.5% minimum for the straight Sangiovese di Romagna. There is also a Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva, which must be at least 13%, and with the legal requirement of at least 24 months of ageing before the wine can be sold. Straight Sangiovese di Romagna, on the other hand, can be put on the market from 1 Dec in the year the grapes were harvested, whereas the Superiore cannot be sold before 1 Apr of the year following the harvest.

It seems the rules were certainly not drawn up with clarity for the consumer in mind with all of the following DOCs on the market: Sangiovese di Romagna, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore, Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva. The suffixes fail to give a reliable indication of expected quality, while a more precise geographical indication, which may help to describe stylistic differences, is absent. However, DOC regulations do recognise style differences such as dry, medium dry (amabile), and Passito (a sweet version based on dried grapes), as well as a Novello analogous to Beaujolais Nouveau - a type of wine, one can safely say, that has never done anything for wine quality in general. Together with legally sky-high yields (11 tons/ha, ie around 77 hl/ha, are allowed) and the possibility of chaptalisation of up to one additional per cent of alcohol for all types of wine, it is easy to see that for good-quality producers to profile themselves as custodians of Sangiovese di Romagna there are many hurdles to overcome.

A group of producers who have set themselves this challenge is the Convito di Romagna. Founded in 2001 by Cristina Geminiani of Fattoria Zerbina (to be profiled here soon), Enrico Drei Donà of Tenuta La Palazza and Andrea Muccioli of San Patrignano, their main objective is to show, by means of high plant density, low yield, and mainly Romagna clones, that Sangiovese di Romagna as a wine is distinctly different from its Tuscan siblings. However, the three founding members soon realised that to promote high-quality Romagna wines, their strength would lie in numbers and therefore opened their ranks to any producer sharing their philosophy. So far, the Convito counts eight members in total (Tre Monti, Stefano Ferrucci, Poderi Morini, Calonga, San Valentino and the original three), whose estates are located all over the Romagna DOC.

As Sangiovese is seen as the expression of any particular Romagna terroir, the Convito demands that its members' wines labelled Sangiovese di Romagna are just that: 'if you want to see terroir in the wine you need to have 100% Sangiovese', says Geminiani. 'The law allows 85%, but it is all or nothing'. However, the law is set to change and will permit a maximum of 5% rather than 15% of other (read: international) grape varieties in the wine in the near future.

When it comes to density, the Convito demands from its members at least 4,000 vines per ha, and the vineyards must be located on hillsides. It expects its members to dedicate the majority of their production to Sangiovese di Romagna, and to market at least one Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva or a Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva with a geographical indication. It is especially the latter wine which has to trigger an interest in subzones and local characteristics.

This concept promoted by the Convito is analogous to Côtes du Rhône-Villages. In this case, the base would be Sangiovese di Romagna, with finer qualities being Riserva, and with a 'village', in this case a sottozona, or commune, appended as a further geographical precision. Although Italian wine law does allow for single-vineyard names to be put on the label (as long as they have been officially registered), in the past it has rarely taken regional differences or the presumed effect of terroir on wine styles into account. However, thanks to the work of the Convito, a change of law will allow for subzones to appear as a suffix to the Sangiovese di Romagna indication. And although there can be no doubt that stylistic differences are bound to emerge in such a large area, it will prove to be a considerable task for the Convito and any quality-focused producer to demonstrate this in the individual wines. And as always, local knowledge and experience form the basis for the more precise demarcation. The Convito's members seem to be the pioneers of this project as they have taken on the obligation to produce wines that try to reflect their origin.

According to Geminiani, the main point is that Sangiovese di Romagna is very different in style from Sangiovese cultivated in Tuscany. First and foremost there is a marked difference in soil composition, which is generally richer in Romagna, especially compared with Chianti Classico, Romagna's nearest neigbour and point of reference. Romagna vineyards tend to be lower, which Geminiani claims helps grapes to ripen earlier, sometimes even weeks before the harvest starts in the higher parts of Tuscany. She compares the Romagna climate to that of Brunello di Montalcino, with the marked difference of the proximity of the sea, which has a temperate influence on the climate, and provides ventilation. This holds true for most of the vineyards within a range of about 30 km from the Adriatic, whereas further inland the hills are higher and temperature differences between day and night start to play a more dominant role.

According to Enrico Drei Donà, one of the main characteristics of Romagna is that in general phenolic ripeness is more easily achieved than in Tuscany, and it is really rare, even in cooler years, for the grapes not to achieve ripe tannins. The downside, so Drei Dona points out, is that alcohol levels can be quite high at times. He also argues that Sangiovese is a difficult variety to get right, and hence he considers it only logical that it was and still is often blended with the easy to grow, and easy to appreciate, international varieties.

From the 2010 vintage onwards, there will be DOC Romagna with subzones Marzeno, Brisighella, Modigliana, Torre di Oriolo, Predappio and Bertinoro. According to Geminiani and Drei Donà there are some clear differences between the communes, which they independently described to me as follows:

Predappio is considered the origin of the best Romagna Sangiovese clones. Historically, its wines are considered to have high levels of polyphenols, which require and deserve long ageing. The sandy clay soils tend to give wines with more depth and high alcohol levels. Owing to the proximity of the sea there is enough difference between day and night temperature, as well as ventilation, which keeps fungal diseases at bay.

Marzeno, located further from the coast with the influence of the sea much less noticeable, a meso climate Cristina describes as 'more continental'. The soil structure on the slopes is predominantly limestone and clay, giving wines that are perhaps less rustic and with more elegant tannins.

Modigliana is very similar to Marzeno although its highest vineyards (up to 350 m) tend to give a more austere style of Sangiovese.

Oriolo commune lies between Marzeno and Predappio, with more sandy soils and a somewhat cooler meso climate and the wines tend to be lighter and more elegant in style.

Imola has richer soils and is flatter; the commune is historically known more for whites (especially from the Albana grape) than for reds, which tend not to have a lot of structure, and for earlier consumption, but with some notable exceptions (see tasting notes).

Castel Bolognese, a commune known more for its whites made from Albana than for its reds.

Forlì soils are considered poor and have a high rock content, giving wines with persistent tannins and hence ageing potential. The proximity of the sea seems to guarantee a low level of fungal pressure.

As Sangiovese di Romagna is yet to make its mark on the international wine map, initiatives such as the Convito, which incidentally is wholly privately financed, really are needed. As Drei Donà summarises, in the past Romagna, unlike Tuscany, has had very little influx of outsiders. Oenologists, which are bountiful in Tuscany, are rarely seen in Romagna, and if they do play a role, they are seen more as temporary tutors rather than as a marketing tool. The research in Romagna's terroir has officially been sanctioned, but regulations could go further. If it is the combinaton of Sangiovese with the different communes that is the determining factor in the different wine styles, the law should reflect that by omitting the grape's name from the label. In this case, Romagna (at least the red version) would stand for Sangiovese only, and marketing could concentrate on establishing this.