I feel like I was given the key to a secret vineyard tucked away in the greenest hillsides of Italy. It’s in a town you likely have never heard of. Built more than 2000 years ago, its large valleys and grapes are as rich as Tuscany but it is often overlooked when it comes to savoury wine. This time I skipped the vineyards of Tuscany for Imola in the region of Emilia Romagna. I found a place where the people, the beauty, and the wine is a local, unintentional secret.
I didn’t know about this small town until I met Patrick, my new Bolognese friend. We met on Twitter when he heard I was coming to his hometown – leave it to Twitter to bring people together! He graciously offered to take me to this hidden gem about 35 kilometres south-east of Bologna. Patrick is also a journalist so our passion to tell untold stories is one of the reasons we got along so well. We talked about everything from politics to culture, and even vented our shared frustrations about the state of mainstream journalism today. I was just intrigued to learn more about him, his ideas, and life in Italy from his point of view.
In between conversations in his car Patrick would point out new commercial buildings along our route to Imola, which have just been left unfinished and abandoned – the spiralling economy has left little money to complete developments and thousands of locals remain unemployed. Still, he says people are generally content. After all, they live in one of the richest countries in the world for food, and most of all, wine.
We continued to drive on remote winding roads to the hilly countryside where Patrick would take me to visit the Navacchia family, taste their wines, and have a stroll in the vineyard. His friend Sergio is the vignaiolo (winegrower) here. He lives right on the vineyard in a rustic red-orange home with a typical Italian terracotta rooftop and green-shuttered windows.
Sergio’s vineyard, Tre Monti (or three mountains) is named for the three large hills that surround the winery. The winery has been a family business since 1989 but ask anyone who spends his life in the wine business and they’ll agree
truly great wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery
Sergio owns about 55 hectares across two estates (the other is in the hills of Forli) but in Imola there is a unique viticoltura that makes wine so delicious – a culture dedicated to the science and production of wine and the study of grapes. His family has been dedicated to the craft for more than 30 years and he tells me Imola is the perfect region for grape-growing.
The terrain here is very hilly with varying degrees of inclines and descents. Hillsides are actually better for grape growing than flat terrain because it means crops can get a good amount of direct sunlight while still being slopey enough to help drain water after rainy days.
The microclimate also means different phases of temperatures can cycle through evenly – the sun at the top can warm the crops during the day (producing high acid and high sugar or sweetness levels) while much lower temperatures help cool them at night (and balances its natural acidity). This cycle helps produce the best quality of grapes, smoother and more aromatic – especially for white wine. That’s key since
a good wine can only be obtained from the perfect grape
The biggest factor in good grape-growing may actually be the quality of soil since it’s at the root of the crop. Sergio’s vines are primarily planted in a mix of silt, sand and clay soil. This complexity means it can retain the right amount of water and produce some of the best white wines.
terroir is ultimately what creates that perfect glass of wine
It’s not just one ingredient but terroir - all the effects of weather, soil minerals, time and place together that predicts a wine’s quality.
Sergio opened up his home to us but when an Italian opens up their cantina, that’s like opening up their master bedroom!
A cantina is close to any Italian’s heart because that’s where secret culinary ingredients are stored – years of family tradition tucked away in the corners of a cold basement. In Sergio’s cantina, you’ll only find wine! Small oak barrels line the cold cement walls. Oak barrels play an important part in making good wine – this is where the fermentation process happens and where good aged-wine gets its unique flavour. There is a saying in Italy
nella botte piccola, c’è il vino buono
In small barrels, there is good wine. Standing here smelling the fragrance of the grape must, I couldn’t agree more – good things do come in small packages.
Wines to Bring Home
If you come to Emilia-Romagna you can’t leave without savouring Albana Secco, a speciality in the region. It is also the first official Italian white wine to receive DOCG designation – the highest designation for a locally-produced food or wine that guarantees it’s authenticity.
Sangiovese di Romagna, a distinct grape from as early as the 16th century is still harvested today. It’s name is Latin and literally means “the blood of Zeus”. I tasted Sangiovese from it’s native Tuscany but in Imola I found it much more fruity and ruby dark.
Albana Passito is also unique to Emilia-Romagna with a more golden colour and sweeter flavours like honey and apple. It’s meant to be a dessert wine but I could easily indulge with the cheese I picked up at the local Parmigiano-Reggiano factory.
Visiting old towns and seeing simple life acted out in the smaller villages make me feel removed from the outside world. It’s peaceful, serene, and truly authentic. Getting the chance to personally taste wines with the vignaiolo right in his home where he lives and harvests daily is now one of my most memorable experiences.
I didn’t want to leave Imola but Patrick and I had planned on a Bolognese lunch! On our return back to Bologna, we stopped at Osteria dell’Orsa. Patrick tells me they have the best typical Emilia Romagna dish – tagliatelle, a homemade egg pasta with a traditional red meat sauce only Italians seem to master. He was right!
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Thank you Patrick for your warmth and generosity and to the Navacchia family for welcoming me into your home and sharing your passion for vino.
More in this series:
A First Taste of Local Life in Bologna
The Cheesiest Place on Earth
The Medieval Town of Ferrara
The Other Leaning Tower of Italy
Porticos of Bologna
The Culture Behind Italian Gelato
The Oldest Wine Bar in the World