In the less well known wine regions there is often one estate which is the standard bearer for quality. This is either for a single world-famous wine or, more unusually, because of the range of wines produced. For Romagna, this estate is probably Cristina Geminiani’s Fattoria Zerbina. She has shown a long term commitment to experimentation which is admirable and developed excellence on five fronts – Sangiovese, Sangiovese riserva, a red blend with international varieties and sweet and dry styles of the autochthonous variety, Albana.
This property was bought and the land gradually accumulated in the 1960s through to the 1980s by Cristina’s grandfather and father. The cellar was restored first and then more significantly the vineyards renewed. The first of the new experimental
plantings were in 1987 when five clones of Sangiovese where trialled. Even the little regarded Albana was planted at 5,000 plants per hectare (3,000 is the traditional standard). A major initiative here has been the long term evaluation of varieties, clones and 10 different rootstocks in various vineyard sites, bearing in mind that each planting takes 5-7 years to evaluate. Once the better options became clear Sangiovese was planted with high densities (7,500-11,000 plants per hectare), in rows but trained to alberello, ie bush vines. Depending on the site these are either very low (40cm) or candelabra in style. Now thirty years on, Cristina has as an in-depth understanding of her vineyards and a detailed plan for harvesting plot by plot. Although we did not tour the winery it too has been thought through with top reds being fermented in 500 litre tonneaux and punched down by hand.
However, Cristina is deeply pragmatic. She has done all the meticulous research over the years and at the same time she quite happy to sing the praises of mechanical harvesting, noting how good the sensors on the latest machines are. The hired-in machines have excellent drivers, can turn in a very small area and can work quickly early in the morning, before the heat of the day.
Most of our substantial visit in April 2012 was taken up with a wide-ranging tasting. The famous wines here are the Sangiovese and the sweet Albana but in general there is a fine range:
Dalbiere, Trebbiano di Romagna, 2012 – it is always a joy to find top wine makers working with the old fashioned workhorse white grape variety of central Italy. The difference here the vines are 42 year old. In the heat of 2012 the grapes were picked early and made a wine with noticeable freshness and a simple but pleasant nose of peach and grass notes with additional lemon flavours on the palate, medium plus in length.
Albana di Romagna DOCG Secco 2011 – for Cristina the key to success with Romagna’s own white variety is avoiding oxidation: pick early, when the grapes are still green and have not turned yellow, and press without oxygen. The wine is then fermented in stainless steel and matured for six months in concrete vats. The final twist is to blend with 1.5% of late harvest wine for a touch of richness. The wine has an intensity and freshness which is difficult to convey, supported by Albana’s typical high acidity (8.67g TA), and melon to grapefruit flavour. 2.93g of residual sugar are not perceptible as sweetness but do add that rich touch. A bottle which had been open a day and is a bit warmer shows slightly more stone fruit character with the fruit having relaxed a bit. We also tasted the 2010 – still a taut, intense nose, some greenness and some exotic fruit (pineapple) with slightly softer acidity (7.6g TA) These wines have good ageing potential as the acidity will keep them going for many years.
Ceregio, Romagna Sangiovese Superiore DOC 2011 – 8-10 days on the skins at 28° C for this junior Sangiovese, malo in stainless steel, aged in concrete and bottled in June. Simple, but quite intense, pleasant cherry fruit, medium plus acidity, medium tannins (ie low for Sangiovese in these parts). A proper annata, to be drunk before the next harvest.
Torre di Ceperano, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore 2008 – this is a selection from the medium sized berries (the largest and least characterful go into Ceregio, the smallest into the top wine Pietramora). The blend is 94% Sangiovese and the rest is Merlot and Ancellota, aged in French oak (90%, 5% new) with the rest being Hungarian and American. Fine, evolved nose, violets, charcoal, taut red-berried fruit, evident but fine tannins, very good and from a very good year.
Pietramora Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore Riserva, 2008 – 100% Sangiovese, made only in the best years, half fermented in oak with manual punching down and aged in 100% French oak, 1/3rd new. Outstanding expression of Romagnan Sangiovese: dusty, rich blackberry and liquorice notes, juicy fruit, good concentration on the palate, tannins just beginning to soften, very good plus. We also tasted the 2000 of which Cristina made only half the usual amount as she was not sure of the year: Garnet rim, expressive nose of balsam, old oak and raisined fruit, complex palate, drying finish. Apparently the magnums are the best option for this year.
Marzieno, Ravenna Rosso IGT, 2007 – 80% Sangiovese; 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from a single vineyard. The wine is named after the local village, Marzeno, with the added ‘i’ to keep the DOC police happy and to avoid cumbersome local . The Sangiovese is fermented in stainless steel for three weeks of slow extraction, the international gang altogether in oak. Matured for 30 months in new oak, with some American for the non-Sangiovese. Rich fruity nose, excellent balance of fine fruit and Sangiovese-derived austerity, very good concentration, high acidity, long. Definitely another wine that can age as we tasted the 1998: lovely evolved notes but still excellent blackberry fruit, liquorice, perfumed, velvety palate, silky tannins, Sangiovese really showing well here: superb.
OFF DRY WHITE
Tergeno, Ravenna Bianco IGT 2012 – Cristina’s wines and the blends have changed over the years. Marzieno has become 80% Sangiovese having been a 50/50 blend. Equally Tergeno was Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay but now has proper Romagnan accent: 60% late harvest Albana and 40% Chardonnay. Made in an interesting demi sec style – full marks for independence of thought! Very attractive, peach and ripe apple fruit, good length, very good.
Arrocco, Albana di Romagna Passito DOCG, 2009 – Fattoria Zerbina is rightly famous for its passito wines which does something to justify the much mocked fact that for whatever reason this pretty obscure DOCG was the first to win this designation in 1986. (But then someone has to be first.) Arrocco is made by by letting noble rot attack the grapes left in the vineyard and rather like Chenin Blanc, this has to be picked little by little, grape by grape, with many passes through the vineyard. Classic orange peel, honey and hay notes on the nose and fine layered palate; refreshing (Albana acidity is perfectly suited to sweet wines, about 120g residual sugar), very good indeed.
Scacco Matto, Albana di Romagna Passito DOCG, 2008 – this is the fuller, richer, more famous sibling: some of grapes are pergola grown which leads to more botrytis dehydration and higher sugar levels, while other are on Guyot-trained vines which leads to less botrytis but is a less dangerous option in terms of losing the fruit altogether. Richer, fruitier notes, candied stone fruit, brilliant sweetness (145g). Real wow factor.
And there is yet another sweet wine which Cristina dispenses with all the care of a chemist dispensing a rare elixir: Albana di Romagna Passito Riserva 2006 of which only 900 half bottles were made. 2006 was the last vintage to be made – it has been too dry in recent years. For the selected plants, the leaves are left on the morning side of the row and removed from the afternoon side to promote maximum ripeness. The grapes are picked in late October and the beginning of November and had an amazing 800g/l of sugar. With the benefit of Bordeaux-selected high-alcohol tolerant yeasts the final wine has a huge 300g/l of residual sugar. Massive concentration of citrus fruits, honey and floral themes, full sweet palate held together with the characteristic acidity. Remarkable – even if it does not appear to convey eternal youth.
This was a truly outstanding tasting and Cristina Geminiani more than deserves her pre-eminence among the wine makers of Romagna.
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