Have you ever enjoyed a glass of sweet Lambrusco wine? This flavorful wine comes from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, one of Europe's most luxurious areas. The cuisine and wines of this land, developed over centuries, have a worldwide reputation. Geographically, Emilia-Romagna consists of two distinct regions, to the west and east of the regional capital of Bologna.
Emilia is named for the Via Aemilia, a road built by the ancient Romans that connected Bologna to the cities of Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma to its northwest. The ancient Romans also lent their name to the eastern portion of the province, which stretches to the Adriatic Sea and includes Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire.
Emilia-Romagna lies to the south of the Po River, and the fertile Po valley is the source of the region's agricultural wealth and high standard of living. Bologna is considered Italy's center of gastronomy, and a variety of distinctive wines are cultivated in the area to match the specific flavors of local products such as ragù.alla bolognese (bolognese sauce) and balsamic vinegar of Modena. The dry wines of Romagna, like Sangiovese and Albana, are not very well known among casual wine drinkers, but the signature beverage of Emilia -- Lambrusco -- was popularized by the Riunite brand and became one of the most popular American imports during the 1970s. Yet so much of a good thing isn't always such a good thing. The popularity of an inexpensive, cloyingly sweet Lambrusco has obscured the high quality and individuality of the different strains of the Lambrusco grape. More recently, artisanal Lambrusco has begun to get its share of recognition.
Let's take a light and frothy tour through the fascinating history of Emilia-Romagna and its viticulture. We'll learn how Italians grow wine grapes and administer the business of wine, and we'll also investigate the delightful diversity of the Emilia-Romagna terroir. Grab a carafe and andiamo!
Emilia-Romagna Wine Region History and Culture
The food and wine that are paramount to Italian culture date back to ancient times. The relationship between the Emilia region and the Lambrusco grape appears to have lasted for millennia -- archaeologists have found fossilized remains of the Vitis Labrusca plant that are between 12,000 and 20,000 years old. These fruits were almost certainly wild rather than cultivated.
The birth of wine production in Emilia-Romagna probably occurred in the seventh century B.C., in the Villanovan civilization in the Po Valley [source: DiWine Taste]. Evidence also suggests that the Etruscans cultivated Lambrusco in the area and may have been the ones to bequeath the practice of viticulture to central Italy [source: Muhawi]. Certainly the industry was in full stride by the height of the Roman Empire, as evidenced in the writings of the poet Virgil and the scholar Pliny the Elder that refer specifically to the Lambrusco grape and its nature.
The naturalist Marcus Terentius Varro, whose work "De Re Rustica" (On Agriculture) influenced both writers, confirmed that Albana, Trebbiano and Spergola grapes were being grown in the Po River valley in the first century B.C. [source: DiWine Taste]. And according to a legend dating from the fifth century A.D., a daughter of the Roman emperor was offered Albana wine in a small Romagnan village and exclaimed that such a beverage should be drunk in gold (in Latin, "berti in oro"). Thus, the village took the name Bertinoro.
Over the years, wines have developed and thrived in certain locations, with specific grapes and cultivation techniques suited to the conditions of the soil and climate. Local wines and foods have evolved in close association with each other. Emilia-Romagna is the source of many treasures of Italian cuisine, such as parmigiano reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma and other cured meats. The unique wines of the region are meant to complement the flavors of the local cuisine.
How do they do it? What's in that soil? Read on to learn more.
Emilia-Romagna Wine Region Agriculture
It certainly takes a variety of influences and skills to produce great wine. Today's winemaking practices are a result of the preservation of longstanding traditions and the artful blending of cultural, social and agricultural practices. Emilia-Romagna, for example, bears the cultural legacy of the Greco-Roman and Etruscan civilizations, down to small details like techniques of growing and pruning grapevines. The ancient Greeks characteristically trained their vines with short canes planted into the ground some distance apart, in what is called the head or goblet system. The Etruscans, on the other hand, used longer canes to attach vines to the branches of tall trees. Today both systems are still used in the vineyards of Emilia-Romagna [source: Fontana]. Lambrusco grapes, the primary kind grown for wine in Emilia, are commonly supported vertically on trellises, to reduce the likelihood of mildew [source: Apicella].
Some influences are not always beneficial. In the late 19th century, an epidemic of the parasite Phylloxera devastated European vineyards. As the fields recovered in the early 20th century, social changes were transforming European agriculture. The common practice of sharecropping was on its way out, to be replaced by a system of cooperatives and privately owned estates. These new vineyards phased out the mixing and rotation of different crops, concentrating on the exclusive or monocultural cultivation of wine grapes [source: Fontana].
By the mid-20th century, the quantity of wine produced in the region had skyrocketed, leading to concerns about diminishing quality. Wine is serious business in Italy, and the government wanted that legacy to continue. To address the issue, a consortium was created in 1962 to preserve the classic wines of Romagna [source: DiWine Taste]. The national government even instituted strict systems of quality control. The most distinguished of traditional wine-growing regions receive the designations of Denominazione d'Origine Controllata (DOC: Denomination of Controlled Origin) and Denominazione d'Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG: Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin). Twenty areas of Emilia-Romagna have earned the DOC label [source: DiWine Taste].
If you're interested in "tasting" some of the different wines of this region, move ahead!
Famous Wines of the Emilia-Romagna Region
Red or white? Among Italian wine-growing regions, Emilia-Romagna is noted for the diversity and individual personalities of its wines. Emilia is associated principally with Lambrusco, a frizzante (mildly sparkling) red. However, there are vast differences of character within the several Lambrusco variations. Only recently have the other varieties -- the ones Italians typically enjoy -- reached American cellars. The crisp Lambrusco di Sorbara and spicy Lambrusco Grasparossa are effervescent reds, dry to "amabile" (slightly sweet) in flavor, that pair well with smoked meats such as prosciutto, mortadella and Culatello di Zibello, all Emilia-Romagna products [source: Reynolds].
Among the wines of Romagna, Albana di Romagna has earned much attention with its attainment of the DOCG ranking -- an achievement that has brought its share of controversy. Albana is a white wine, usually dry. However, partially drying the grapes before pressing concentrates the sugar content and results in a sweeter Albana called passito, which some aficionados describe as the Albana grape's finest expression [source: Apicella].
Romagnans tend to favor Sangiovese, a red wine with robust flavor and body [source: DiWine Taste]. Trebbiano di Romagna is a dry white wine, sometimes spumante (bubbly), and so light that it is best consumed young. Lesser known Romagnan wines include Bosco Eliceo DOC, Cagnina, Colli Bolognesi and Pagadebit di Romagna.
Vintners in Emilia-Romagna are making a concerted effort to preserve and market traditional indigenous varietals, in keeping with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. The CAP mandates that rural territories should express their unique and individual traditions [source: Fontana]. However, they're also infusing more well-known "international" varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The blends of international and indigenous grapes can't receive a higher denomination than IGT (Typical Geographical Indication), but they're gaining in popularity. The result is a sumptuous array of choices, reflecting both the revitalization of a proud and ancient tradition and the fruits -- literally -- of a globalized market. Whether you prefer red or white, Emilia-Romagna certainly delivers flavorful choices to delight your palate.
For more information, grab a glass and visit the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Apicella, Peter. "The Wines of Emilia-Romagna." (Accessed January 19, 2009) http://www.lagazzettaitaliana.com/emilia.asp
- DiWine Taste. "Emilia-Romagna." ABC Wine, Issue 49, February 2007. (Accessed January 19, 2009) http://www.diwinetaste.com/dwt/en2007022.php
- Fontana, Marisa. "The Wine Production in Emilia Romagna, Case Study." (Accessed January 19, 2009) www.cap-to-wineculture.eu/doc/fontana_2.pdf
- Muhawi, Jennifer. "Italian Wine: The Taste of History and Passion." (Accessed January 21, 2009) http://www.intowine.com/italian-wine-taste-history-and-passion
- "Ravenna Province and Its Wines." (Accessed January 21, 2009) http://www.cap-to-wineculture.eu/ravenna.html
- Reynolds, Adrian. "The Terroir and Diversity of Lambrusco." (Accessed January 19, 2009) http://piccologastronomo.blogspot.com/2008/09/terroir-and-diversity-of-lambrusco.html