The Charming Hills of Piacenzaа

Green hills covered with vineyards and medieval castles sitting gorgeously on their tops. A superb local cuisine found both in Michelin starred restaurants and cozy guest houses kept by amiable hosts. And all this comes hand in hand with wonderful wines, impressive in diversity and unforgettable tastes.

 

 

Needless to say, it is all about Italy. However, it is about a part of Italy not very popular with the wine travelers – the Colli Piacentini (“the Hills of Piacenza”)*.

Until the middle of last century the Colli Piacentini was part of the greater and emblematic Italian wine region Piemonte (Piedmont). In 1967, this territory was given an individual DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata, or "Controlled designation of origin") , because of its distinctive specifics in terms of climate, soils, wine grape varieties and style of wine-making. As its name shows, the Colli Piacentini lies around the town of Piacenza, south of Milan. The vineyards spread mainly over the northern slopes of the Apennines, which rise up from here. The region can be divided in four parts which carry the names of the valleys of the corresponding rivers – Val Tidone, Val Trebbia, Val Nur, and Val d’Arda.

The hills near Piacenza have centuries-old traditions in vine-growing and winemaking. Archeological excavations of sites in the area have uncovered a number of fossilized vine roots and other wine artifacts, some of which dating 2,000 years back. In the times of Ancient Rome, the popular statesman and father-in-law to Julius Caesar – Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus – established here his private estate where vine-growing and wine-making were among the primary activities. The fact that he enjoyed drinking wine was pointed out by his famous political rival Cicero who publicly criticized him of “excessively enjoying” the wines from Piacenza.

 

In the Middle Ages the wines from the Colli Piacentini had a good reputation and sold successfully in the neighboring Milan and Parma, and even in France. As early as 15th century the local authorities set regulations relating to vine-growing and wine-making, introducing standards for quality with the aim to prevent wine frauds. In 16th century, wines from the region were praised by the official cellar-master of Pope Paul III.

These long-lived traditions are not forgotten in the modern times. Nowadays, the slopes of the Apennines in the southernmost part of the province can be likened to a real green sea of vines stretching as far as the eyes could see. Thus, we are not surprised to learn that in one of the municipalities here vineyards hold a record share of all arable lands – over 90%. Otherwise, the data show that the total area of vine plantations in the Colli Piacentini is about 6,700 ha. The average annual yield of the region is about 60,000 tonnes of grapes, of which nearly one third meet the higher standards for producing wines with DOC. However, the total number of registered wine producers exceeds 3,000, as wine is made in almost every house around here. We are tempted to draw a brief parallel with the situation in Bulgaria where a needless „war“ with the so called „home production of wine“ has been waging for years...

The DOC system strictly regulates the varieties grown and the yields from the vineyards, as well as the wines and the possible blends. While it may sound restrictive, it is actually not in the case of the Colli Piacentini. On the contrary, both varietal and style diversities are quite rich. White and red still wines, rosé wines, sparkling wines, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet wines – there would hardly be a sort of wine that is not being produced here. The DOC system currently encompasses 17 wines – both varietals and blends.

 

Unlike the typical for the Old World labels, where the varietal content is usually either unnoticeable or completely missing, some wines from the Colli Piacentini can be labeled with the grape variety's name appearing on the front of the wine bottle. This privilege is given to only a few local varieties. In order to qualify for this permission, a wine must contain at least 85% of the grape variety that is to appear on the label.

It should be no surprise that the

 

traditional local varieties

 

have greatest popularity among the producers, as well as the consumers. Probably the most noteworthy of them are:

 

Malvasia di Candia – an aromatic white variety grown here since the times of the Renaissance. It has been brought around from the Greek island of Crete (called also Candia by the Venetians).

 

Ortrugo – a white variety which is known to be grown in the region of Piacenza since even the pre-Christian era. It has been used in the past mainly as a complement to Malvasia di Candia in the production of blended sparkling wines. However, over the last quarter-century, it was a subject of many successful attempts for individual vinification.

 

Barbera – one of the three most famous and widespread red wine grape varieties in Italy, together with Sangiovese and Montepulciano. It has its origins in the neighboring region of Piedmont where centuries-old vines still give a good harvest.

 

Croatina / Bonarda – a typical for the region red variety which is believed to be brought here in the Middle Ages from the coasts of Croatia. It is known by both names and has a relatively higher level of tannins, which allows for a longer aging of the wines made from it.

The coupling of Croatina and Barbera has given birth to the local pride called Gutturnio. The name of this remarkable wine has a Roman origin: “Gutturnium” was the name of a big silver cup used by the Ancient Romans for drinking wine during feasts, sharing it with the other guests. . The blend between the structure and strength of Barbera and the elegancy and smoothness of the Croatina has a great potential for further improvement while ageing. Initially the two varieties ferment and mature separately, and then they are blended in proportion 30-45% of Croatina and 55-70% of Barbera, depending on the specific style of the producer. Typically, the wines of this kind are lightly sparkling, but due to the consistent efforts of the local producers the still version becomes increasingly popular and appreciated.

The wineries

we visited made us experience the true spirit of this region.

 

One of them carries the euphonious name of Torre Fornello, which to a great extent embodies its venerable history. Around 1200 A.D., the site where the current winery is situated was a ground of a brick-furnace (“fornello”) where lime stones and bricks were baked and thereafter used for the construction activities in the neighboring villages. Around 1400 A.D., a defensive tower (“torre”) was erected nearby the brick-furnace. Later on the entire estate became property of the Counts Zanardi-Landi, who turned it into their summer residence. Most of the buildings around – still present today – date back since those times: stables, barn, botanical garden, and even a church.

In the 1980s, the estate was acquired by the Sgorbati family – winegrowers in the area for many generations. The current owner – Mr. Enrico Sgorbati – took the helm of Torre Fornello in 1992. The winery’s vineyards are planted predominantly to traditional local varieties such as Ortrugo, Malvasia, Barbera, and Bonarda (Croatina), as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero, and Marsanne. Stunning again is the diversity of wines made in this cellar: Gutturnio in all of its kinds: still and sparkling, young and aged; Malvasia; Ortrugo; as well as some contemporary experiments with well-known international varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), and Marsanne. It was the sparkling wine from Marsanne that left the strongest impression on us.

Not less impressive here are the style and mastery that incarnated a modern use and outward appearance in the centuries-old buildings. The former stables, for instance, are turned into a place for art exhibitions. Each year young artists in the field of the contemporary applied arts are holding “plein-air”-s, and their best works are then exhibited for a whole year inside of the building. The cellar that has been built in 17th century is still used today for ageing and preserving of Torre Fornello’s wines. Undoubtedly, the church with the elegant bell-tower that still fills the neighborhood with the song of its church-bell at every hour remains the true symbol of this estate…

 

The Mossi winery is another one whose story we would like to briefly tell. Founded in 1558 by the Mossi family, currently the winery is owned by the former Chief Executive Officer of the Italian banking group UniCredit – Mr. Alessandro Profumo. The latter is well-known in Bulgaria due to the Bulgarian division of the banking group – UniCredit Bulbank. The winery is managed by his son – Mr. Marco Profumo, while Alessandro waggishly introduces himself as “just an investor”. The family is determined to continue the traditions in making of typical local wines, while adding to them some modern methods and techniques. More efforts will also be put into marketing and increasing of the consumers’ awareness of the regional wines – both in the domestic market and internationally.

As typically in Italy, the winery is also a home of Marco and his family too. The sincere hospitality of the Profumos made our visit to their place truly unforgettable. The hosts did their best to present us not only with the rich variety of their wines but also with a great part of the typical regional food. Amazingly, all of the dishes for the well assorted and hearty dinner were made of products from the own small farm or bought from other local producers situated not more than 50 km away. The good collaboration among the individual farmers in a given geographical area is a proven for its efficiency way of stimulating the local production. Italy is a brilliant example for that..

When it comes to the wines produced by Mossi, the cellar’s pride – boosted by a great number of prestigious awards – is the varietal Ortrugo. This wine is made both in the still and the sparkling version. Actually, due mostly to the efforts of the previous owner of the winery – Mr. Luigi Mossi – this slightly forgotten old indigenous variety was rediscovered for the Italian wine industry and included in 1984 in the DOC system. Therefore, the Mossi winery, together with the University of Piacenza, continues to experiment with Ortrugo not only in its vineyards (e.g. through reduction of the yields) but also in the process of vinification. The other wine that won our admirations was the sweet Rosa di Vigna – the first series of varietal wine made from the newly created hybrid Malvasia Rosa variety.

 

And while the wines of the Colli Piacentini are yet not very popular outside of their region and Italy, this is definitely not true about the

 

local culinary specialities

 

It’s enough to mention just a few of them which are very well known to every lover of the Italian cuisine: the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano cheeses; the Balsamico vinegar; the meat delicacies Coppa, Pancetta, Salame… All these tasty things have been produced here for ages from well-preserved traditional recipes. The production process is strictly controlled with respect to the origin of the inputs (which must come only from the same region), technology and quality. In order to convince consumers of all these facts, visits to most of the production facilities are not only permitted but also take a natural part in many of the popular touristic routes.

The traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano is the most famous of all Italian cheeses. It is produced exclusively in the Emilia-Romagna administrative region, and more specifically in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena. It is believed that the Benedictine monks first invented the recipe in their search for a cheese that will stay good for a longer time. Traditionally the cows which give the milk for this wonderful cheese have to be fed only on grass or hay. Thus, the quantity of their milk is considerably reduced and obtains a peculiar flavor. As a matter of fact, one of the producers, Grana d'Oro, uses only milk from “red cows” – a traditional breed brought here millennia ago from Eastern Europe, and, in our humble opinion, almost identical to the widely distributed in the Rhodopes Mountain (in Bulgaria) breed of cattle.

 

To produce 1 kg of Parmigiano-Reggiano some 14-15 litters of milk are needed. No supplements, except for the salt, are allowed. When the cheese wheel (whose weight is 40 kg) is ready it is checked individually and if meets the required norms it is left to mature from 18 to 30 months.

The other popular cheese of the region – Grana Padano – is produced in a quite similar way. Its name comes from the Italian word “grana” (grain) which reminds of the grainy structure of the cheese. There are just a few differences to the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano: cows can also be fed on silage, milk has slightly lower fat, and the maturation lasts for up to 20 months.

 

The emblematic for Italy Aceto Balsamico (i.e. balsamic vinegar) has been made in Modena and Reggio Emilia since the Middle Ages. The initial input for this elixir is the grape juice from the white variety of Trebbiano, to which a tartaric acid is added. To become “balsamico” (i.e. balsam-like), the vinegar must age in wooden barrels from 12 to 40 years. Each year the liquid is transferred from larger to a smaller barrel, to end up finally in 10-15 l barrels. The true professionals insist that the wood type shall also differ from barrel to barrel – along with the oak, there may be woods like chestnut, cherry, mulberry, and juniper. Besides the wood, various herbs are also contributing to bring the vinegar's taste to a definite culinary masterpiece. On the 40th year, usually just about 10% of the original quantity has left in the barrels, and this explains its high market price – between 150 and 400 Euro per 100 ml. Therefore, normally just few drops of the vinegar are put in a dish, but these are enough to give it a unique elegance. 

When we speak about food we can not leave out the long-lasting regional traditions in pigs breeding and production of pork delicacies. Three of the most popular traditional meat products with controlled designation of origin are Coppa, Pancetta, and Salame Piacentino.

 

Coppa slightly reminds of the more famous Prosciutto, which is being produced in the neighboring province of Parma. The basic difference in the preparation is that besides salt, other spices such as black or white pepper, cinnamon, clove and bay leaves should be added to the meat. Then the meat is wrapped by the skin of the animal, tightened and left to dry between 3 and 6 months.

Pancetta is made very similarly to the bacon, while there are some contrasts: the meat is not being smoked and spices such as black pepper, chili pepper, dill seeds, coriander, rosemary and juniper seeds (but not sugar as with the bacon) are added; then the meat is salted and left to dry.

 

Salame Piacentino on its own very much resembles the taste of the Bulgarian sudzhuk (dried sausage). Similar is also the technique for its preparation: the seasoned minced meat is filled into the natural pork casing and left to dry for months and even years.

 

Concluding our story about wine and food on the charming hills of Piacenza, we could only give a candid word of advice: Go to this place whenever you have a chance, time and wish for travel. And if you happen to make it, you will definitely find that Italy has to offer a lot more tastes and flavors, other (and truly not less fascinating) than Tuscany, Sicily and Piedmont. Buon viaggio, amici!**

 


* The team of VinoZona toured in the Colli Piacentini by courtesy of the Italian National Confederation of Independent Farmers (Coldiretti) and the company of Iron3.

** Have a nice trip, friends! (in Italian)

 


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