To say I had romantic notions about the Emilia-Romagna region in the northern part of central Italy would be an understatement. To me, the sounds of its subregions—Emilia, to the west, and Romagna, to the east—were as sweet as harps being played in the afternoon breeze on the terrace.
I actually fell in love with Emilia-Romagna, and especially its capital, Bologna, before I even arrived there.
Leading up to my visit to the region, I imagined myself walking beside the ochre-coloured buildings and below the small balconies; I pictured myself in Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, eating gelato; and I envisioned myself in a cozy enoteca drinking dry, full-bodied Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine from Emilia.
In fact, I had imagined what Bologna would be like with such vividness that it is difficult for me to distinguish between the memories I made there and those I only anticipated making; nevertheless, in both my imagination and my reality, I experienced Bologna as a vivacious and raw Italian city.
As I walked under Bologna’s archways, under the lamps strung between buildings, and under the shadows of the historic twin towers, I passed cafés and restaurants that serve cuisine from across Emilia-Romagna: fresh egg pasta; ham from Parma; parmesan cheese from Reggio Emilia; and balsamic vinegar from Modena.
While, I sauntered around the city, I could feel the heart-beat of the city, though I was not sure what it was. Well, that was until early one evening I stopped in the middle of a graffitied lane-way because I could smell the rich ragù, meat and tomato sauce, Bologna is famous for.
It was then I discovered that the heartbeat of Bologna is food, and that the culinary traditions of Emilia-Romagna are like arteries that make Bologna a delicious and infectious expression of the good life.
This good life is enhanced by the wines of the region, which although they are not the wines people typically think of when they think of Italian wines (people likely think of Chianti Classico or Barolo, among others), the wines suit the local cuisine, and I had one truly memorable wine in Bologna.
At Caffè Zanarini, near Piazza Maggiore, a waiter brought me a glass of ruby, full-bodied Sangiovese and told me “it is from Romagna, from near the sea.” I remember the aromas of this wine—blueberries, cherries, cinnamon, vanilla, tobacco, and earth—and on the palate the fruits and spices reminded me of Christmas fruit cake.
I got lost in this wine, wanting it to last forever, and I never even got to know its name.
I then became curious about the wines of Romagna and learned that Romagna has a long history of making wine from one of my favourite grapes, Sangiovese. So I wheeled my suitcase to the Bologna Central Station and purchased a train ticket to Forlì, which is south-east of Bologna. From there I went to Bertinoro, a medieval town in the heart of Romagna, which is known as the Town of Wine.
Bertinoro sits high on the hill, and from its fortified centre you can see vineyards, rolling hills, and the blue haze of the sea. At night, the lights of Romagna can be seen scattered across the deep indigo view like small boats on the ocean, and apparently, on a clear night, you can see the lights of Venice on the horizon.
The osterias serve generous portions of local dishes paired with local wines, and the best meal I have ever had in Italy was at Osteria Perbacco, which I enjoyed with a bottle of Le Grillaie Riserva Sangiovese by Celli.
As good as the food was at Osteria Perbacco, the view was at La Ca’ de Bè, an osteria and oenoteca with a wine museum. Apparently, La Ca’ de Bè means ‘the drinking house’ in the local dialect, and La Ca’ de Bè was the perfect place to try local wines while watching the sun set, which appeared as though the sun’s rays had been swept across the sky with a paintbrush leaving a trail of bronze glitter over the farmland.
In addition to Sangiovese from producers such as Campodelsole, Bertinoro makes both dry and sweet white wines from the ancient grape called Albana. The sweet Albana wines include a golden wine with intense ripe fruit aromas, including apricot and melon, and a passito sweet wine made from dried grapes, which due to its honey and stone-fruit notes is a good accompaniment to strong cheeses.
According to legend, in 435 A.C. on the Bertinoro hill, the daughter of Emperor Theodosius, Galla Placidia, tasted a sweet Albana served in an earthenware cup. She enjoyed the wine so much, she is thought to have exclaimed that the wine should not be drunk out of such a poor cup; rather it should be drunk from a gold goblet.
So Bertinoro gets its name from Galla’s recommendation, since berti in oro means ‘drunk in gold’. I agree, that the wines of this region should be drunk in a gold cup—why not?—but for me it is that Sangiovese from Romanga I tried in Bologna that really ought to be drunk in gold.
Feature photo: The view from La Ca’ de Bè at dusk.