Emilian town celebrates 'best white wine in Italy'

Centro Residenziale Universitario di Bertinoro

BERTINORO -- Winding up through the foggy vineyards of Emilia Romagna, I arrived in this stunning medieval shrine to Italian wine. Mist rolled up through the narrow cobbled streets up to the main piazza in which the ‘column of hospitality,’ the symbol of the town, has been standing since the 12th century. The square looks out over the landscape to the sea, to Rimini (the home of cinema director Federico Fellini,) and northwards to the Alps

 Emilia Romagna is a region in which La Dolce Vita is taken literally. The traditional lifestyle, and now the modern economy of the dazzling region, is tied intimately to the olive brown earth. Mauro Sirri, proprietor of the local Celli winery, told me “this region is something quite unique. Everything around here was under the sea five million years ago, the minerals and salinity of the Adriatic are stored in the sedimentary rock.”

 “The thermal springs contribute to that mix too,” he said, as we ate at Da Nonna Rina, a small restaurant in the main square. “The hills capture the winds north winds from the Alps and the warmer southern breezes. All in all, it’s an excellent place to make wine.”

 Mauro wasn’t underselling it. I came to Bertinoro’s celebration of what the locals kept emphatically calling “the best white wine in Italy.” The region contains three distinctive grapes that are made into a myriad of different wines: San Giovese, Barbarossa, and the honoured grape Albana.

 Stopping by at the Fattoria Paradiso winery, I met Gabriella and Jacopo, the daughter and grandson of Mario Pezzi, the man who expanded this provincial vineyard into one of the most prestigious and long standing wineries in the region. They led me through a large dining hall, which epitomised the almost-Germanic style of traditional northern Italy, to “the wine museum.” The cellar was almost like a gothic dungeon, a narrow passage lined with dark bottles that covered the walls and covered by a vaulted ceiling that led into a room filled with dusty treasures.

 The real prize of Fattoria Paradiso is the Barbarossa grape. Mario Pezzi discovered it and endeavoured to perfect it - the unpretentious black bottles from his first experiments inhabit a corner shelf like trophies.

 Upstairs we tried Barbarossa, fruity and full, along with bread and olive oil made from the groves in the 75 surrounding hectares. They brought out some Gradisca, a sweet wine that the locals dip biscotti in as they drink. Gradisca was Fellini’s favourite wine. He even named a character after it in his 1973 film Amarcord, set by the city walls of Rimini.

 The Campodelsole winery, the turquoise shell of its roof visible on a clearer day from the square, was the modern side of the region's wine production.

 “This place is the result of the vineyard owners coming together to produce our own wine where the grapes are grown. We specialize in Romagna Sangiovese and Albano, a red and a white specific to this region. This modern facility is an effort to perfect the wine making process with everything science has to give us in this excellent new facility,” said Sandra Santini, proprietor of the operation.

 Emilia Romagna is the highest density of D.O.Ps (denominational origin protection) wine in Italy, as Champagne can only come from the Champagne region; it seemed that everything I encountered was directly tied to the traditions of production and unique qualities of the land. Other than wine and the excellent regional flat bread that seemingly greets you with its fresh baked smell wherever you go, the other point of pride is their cheese.

 Visiting the Caseificio Mambelli factory, a high quality producer of cheese, the daughter of the founder greeted us in the lobby in which the motor cycle her father used to bring his cheese to the markets with in the 50s was on display. “We collect water from the thermal springs every Friday, my father discovered that using this in the cheese making process gives it this great saline quality,” she told me. With the milk from local cows and water from local wells, Caseificio has become famous for Ricotta, the foundation of much of the region’s cuisine.

 Stopping at Società operaia di mutuo soccorso, a local restaurant that was originally founded as a club for returning soldiers who fought for Garibaldi in his unification of Italy, I met with Mirko Capuano, vice mayor of Bertinoro. Clearly extremely passionate about his town, he told me about his ongoing effort to invigorate the town.

 We walked down through the commune to a favourite of bar of his, a former cinema, as he excitedly told me the history of the streets we passed, about the medieval Jewish Quarter, home to the famous rabbinical scholar, the great Bertinoro, and the residence of Dante after he left Florence. At the bar we spoke about his two loves, AC/DC and the summer parties in the square, complete with local grappa from the valley.

 I woke up in the morning in my hotel, the Centro Residenziale Universitario di Bertinoro. Located in the stunning medieval building known as the Rocca, it had one of the best hotel views I’ve seen in my life, looking out over the landscape as the morning sun illuminates the ocean mist crawling up the hills.

 The festival started slowly and I was impressed to see the number of young people present. Arianna Pivi, of the tourism board and festival, explained that the wine here is intergenerational: “my father is 81 and his tastes are quite narrow, although I’m working on it, the youth are exposed to much more variety and develop tastes through events like this.”

 The tasting took place in the city hall, a grand building in the main square, built in the 12th century. Upstairs the walls were lined with tables bearing ice buckets filled with bottles. The variety of wines that were produced from Albana was incredible: passitos, spamentes, whites of all types, full-bodied as well as crisp and light ones.

 Speaking to a guest who drove from Turin to sample these wines, he told me “these are really excellent wines that you just can’t find elsewhere. The Albana grape is so diverse, the ones from one side of the table to the other are completely different and all from this small area. It’s amazing.”

 Dinner was held in a grand hall with a balcony looking out over the view. The guests slowly started filling the hall that boasted a large ceiling with dark wood columns holding the crests of the local families. A local band filled the room with the traditional music of the region, upbeat and provincial. It felt like stepping back in time.

 I was amazed at first by how many of the faces in the hall I knew after two days. It seemed that the whole town had come out to celebrate.

 Remembering, however, how much of the local identity is tied to the produce of the land, tasting the Adriatic in the wine or the thermal springs in the cheese, this was as much of a celebration of the beautiful landscape as what springs from it. 


Sandra Santini
Mirko Capuano