Hills and castles, historic villages and genuine hospitality: Romagna, the eastern part of Emilia-Romagna, is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. The area’s wine scene has experienced a metamorphosis in recent years thanks to research and the ingenious, creative nature of the locals. Alongside the two stars, Sangiovese and Albana, a series of vastly different native varieties is coming to the fore.
Where exactly Romagna begins and Emilia ends is a matter of opinion or, as Italian wine expert Daniele Cernilli puts it in the Vini di Romagna consortium’s book, Romagna, mosaico di vita (Lariana/Civiltà del Bere, 2023), ‘Romagna is a state of mind’.
One way to establish where you are is by following the traditional saying, ‘Ask for a drink and if you’re given water, you’re in Emilia; if it’s wine, you’re in Romagna.’
From the winemaking point of view, borders are clear: the Romagna DOC area starts just east of Bologna, stretching to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. It’s divided into 16 subzones, each represented by a castle, most of which can be visited. A subzone mentioned on a wine’s label typically marks the peak of quality.
My perfect day
Wake up to birdsong in the spa suite surrounded by vines at the Trerè agriturismo near Faenza and, after an early swim, enjoy breakfast on the farmhouse veranda with local produce and home-grown cherries. Buy some bottles before setting off a few kilometres into the hills at Oriolo dei Fichi for a scenic walk through vineyards. Aim to reach Locanda della Fortuna for a delicious lunch in the atmospheric 16th century farmhouse or its surrounding garden. Opt for homemade pasta or risotto with asparagus and hazelnuts paired with wines from the family’s Leone Conti winery nearby, perhaps Progetto 1, a classic dry white Albana.
After lunch, stroll down the hill to see Oriolo’s distinctive hexagonal tower (open weekends) then continue the day nearby at Fattoria Zerbina for a thematic Albana tasting including exquisite passito.
Head east (36km) for the afternoon in Predappio Alta, with a tour of historic Fattoria Nicolucci and a tasting of its memorable Sangiovese and other wines, taking in the views from the castle ruins.
Carry on east to Bertinoro, the village famed for its hospitality and known as the balcony of Romagna for its sweeping panoramas. Admire the column with a dozen rings, devised to resolve disputes about who would have the pleasure of hosting visitors – the family corresponding to the ring where the visitor chose to tie their horse had the honour. Dine on tasty dishes such as gnocchi with rabbit and cardoons or simple piadina flatbread with a platter and local wine on the terrace at Ca’ de Bè.
After dinner, make your way to Villa Venti near medieval Longiano. Relax on the attractive terrace with the day’s last glass, perhaps an amphora-vinified Centesimino, and spend the night in one of two simple, attractive rooms decorated with traditional print fabrics and natural wood bedheads made from cognac barrels.
Romagna’s white wines
With DOCG status since 1987 (Italy’s first white DOCG) and a variety grown here since ancient times, Albana is an extraordinarily versatile grape combining acidity, strength and structure. It has experienced a recent upsurge in popularity, and while there are many delicious dry versions perfect with typical cheese or meat-filled cappelletti pasta or baked fish, wineries are achieving outstanding results with other styles of Albana too.
Producers making vibrant traditional-method Albana spumante include Branchini, located near the delightful village of Dozza (see box, below) and with an interesting display of country-life heirlooms. Nearby at Imola (of motor-racing fame), Fattoria Monticino Rosso makes other interpretations including Codronchio, a startling, complex dry Albana made with botrytised grapes from old vines. Also at Imola, Tre Monti makes several superb Albanas, including a lemon-fresh pét-nat and award-winning amphora wine, Vitalba.
Enthusiastic young producer, Jacopo Giovannini uses Georgian amphorae for Albana too, while at Tenuta Masselina, which has a country life museum, the terracotta vessels are from Faenza, celebrated for its ceramics with a dedicated museum and numerous artisan workshops.
Albana is perhaps best known for its exquisite passito, however, and Cristina Geminiani of Fattoria Zerbina is a passionate expert. Her world-class Scacco Matto, made in good years only from botrytised grapes, is a kaleidoscope of saffron, honey, apricot and candied citrus infused with freshness.
Another historic local white variety that’s rocketing to popularity is semi-aromatic Famoso. Adopt a row of Famoso vines, or picnic among them at Tenuta Casali, where the admirable range also includes a lime-fresh Trebbiano from old vines.
Romagna’s red wines
On the red front, the appealing Oriolo subzone near Faenza is home to smooth, elegant Centesimino. A phylloxera survivor given the nickname of its saviour, known for his penny-pinching ways, Centesimino thrives in this microclimate at wineries including Cantina San Biagio Vecchio, where it was first planted, and La Sabbiona, where versions include a seductive passito, perfect with dark chocolate.
Another local red grape, thick-skinned Longanesi, makes robust wines that vary between vintages but are always potent and intense. While the variety takes the surname of its 1950s discoverer, the wine takes his nickname: Bursôn. The original vine still grows on its oak-tree host at Longanesi.
Sangiovese is the undisputed king of Romagna’s reds, and despite being Italy’s most planted grape, the local Sangiovese has real identity. You can find it in a variety of styles, either in purezza or in blends, such as Tauleto (90% Sangiovese, 10% Longanesi), a top wine from the sleek Umberto Cesari winery which pioneered Sangiovese in the hills nearest Bologna in the 1960s. At Palazzona di Maggio, the Sangiovese offering includes a rosé spumante.
While the claim by Santarcangelo, an attractive hill-town on Monte Giove near Rimini, of being the birthplace of Sangiovese (from ‘sangue di Giove’, or blood of Jove) can be dismissed as quaint folklore, the variety has been here for centuries: Predappio, a subzone famed for complex, ageworthy Sangiovese, already had established winemaking regulations by 1383.
A visit to Fattoria Nicolucci provides a taste of history together with Predappio Sangiovese: fourth-generation Alessandro Nicolucci has keys to the castle next to his winery. His Vigna del Generale Sangiovese cru is memorable, and the views are stunning.
Consultant winemaker, Francesco Bordini helps many producers bring out the truest expression of their terroir and reorganise vineyards, such as those at Pandolfa, another Predappio winery rich in history, where vines growing on steep slopes around a grand 18th century villa include a plot dedicated to their Noelia Ricci project. Bordini also helped Elisa Baraghini get started, planting Sangiovese clones at the tiny Castello Montesasso, where she moved to from Milan after inheriting the historic stone-built property with breathtaking views.
Bordini has rented a plot of old vines in Predappio Alta for his own latest Sangiovese. His winery, Villa Papiano is at Modigliana, another prime subzone where altitudes of 500m bring incredible elegance to the wines. ‘I’ve chosen the two zones I love most to express myself through my own wines,’ he says.
The Romagna wine world is going through an exciting time, and the mostly small, family-run wineries provide visitors with famously warm hospitality. Wine-themed events, include the itinerant summertime Tramonto DiVino, Ravenna’s GiovinBacco in October, and Mercato dei vini dei vignaioli indipendenti in November (25-27 Nov in 2023, in Bologna), which sees hundreds of producers pouring their wines for thousands of visitors.
Your Romagna address book
Where to stay
A charming farmhouse surrounded by vines, offering comfortable rooms, apartments and an independent villa. The décor includes local ceramics and there’s an open-air pool and restaurant (Thursday-Sunday) serving traditional dishes and homemade pasta, with the estate’s own excellent wines.
Art is everywhere, with bold contemporary sculptures among the vines which grow to a soundtrack of Mozart, while wines age to Gregorian chants at this biodynamic estate with sea views. Accommodation is in four well-equipped bedrooms and there’s a spa, gym and year-round pool.
An attractive luxury resort at the Condé winery near Predappio. Rooms, some in villas around the estate, are beautifully finished and facilities include vineyard trails and barefooting, a wine therapy spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a choice of dining.
Where to eat
La Vecia Cantena d’la Prè
A historic trattoria with a winemaking museum in the cellars below, in Predappio Alta. The region’s speciality piadina flatbread, made here with Sangiovese in the dough, is perfect with local cave-aged cheeses and charcuterie.
A Slow Food-endorsed trattoria in Faenza with a country kitchen-style deli and extensive wine selection. Wood décor and warm colours set the atmosphere for genuine home cooking such as Mora Romagnola pork, oxtail stew and stuffed artichokes.
Ca’ de Bè
The panoramic views from the terrace here more than justify Bertinoro’s fame as the balcony of Romagna. Choose from the list of exclusively Romagna-made wines to pair with typical dishes such as filled cappelletti pasta or Sangiovese-braised beef.
What to do
Enoteca Regionale Emilia-Romagna
The regional wine collection, housed in the atmospheric cellars of Dozza castle, is the place to try and buy the best Emilia-Romagna wines. While here, tour the castle, explore Dozza village – decorated with over 100 murals – and walk the Sentiero del Vino footpath.
The 5-6th century mosaics from the city’s glorious period as capital of the Western Roman, then Byzantine, empires are truly stunning. Other sights include Dante’s tomb, and there’s a good covered market. Head to Ca’ de Vèn for Romagna wines and traditional dishes.
Brisighella olive oil
Picturesque Brisighella boasts Italy’s first DOP olive oil; tastings are available and numerous foodie events are held here. The olive-themed walking trail passes the medieval castle and six-hour clock tower. Many Romagna wineries produce their own oil; at Palazzo di Varignana it’s the speciality.
Romagna: How to get there
Fly to Bologna or Rimini, at the western and eastern edges of the 100km span of Romagna’s wine area respectively. Florence is about 100km to the south.