Sometimes I am amazed at how much I have learned about Italian food and wine over the last few years, particularly from traveling to Emilia Romagna. Before our recent trips, all I knew about Italian wine was Chianti, Prosecco, and Pinot Grigio. But, much to my surprise. there are so many Italian grape varieties that I never knew about before. And part of being a wine tourist is learning about these wines, often from the winemakers themselves. That’s how we learned about another of Italy’s secret wines, Negretto. We spent an afternoon learning about Negretto from some Italian winemakers, who are full of character.
Welcome to a Negretto Wine Tasting
The first person to walk in the door was Giorgio, an Italian winemaker in his late forties with wild grey hair and a big smile. He walked right over to us, greeted us with “Buongiorno!” and a kiss on each cheek. We were like old friends, despite the fact that we’ve only met each other once before, and we don’t share the same language. The only thing we share is our love of wine. And on this day, we were there for Negretto.
We had arrived at Agriturismo Gradizzolo before anyone else from our lunch party. Gradizzolo is set at the edge of a national park, which also seems to double as the small region where the Pignoletto grape is grown. Nearby is Corte d’Aibo, one of the first of the Bologna Hills wineries we visited. Also nearby, is our friend Alessandro’s winery, where we drank Pignoletto sparkling wine the year before.
We wound along the edges of the national park, where Google Maps inferred we were about ready to fall off the face of the earth. And there was Agriturismo Gradizzolo. We sat in the dining room waiting for Giorgio, and the rest of our party, to start our Negretto wine tasting.
What is Negretto?
Negretto is an ancient grape, from the Roman times. The word Negretto translates to something like dark, or black. The grape itself and the wine it produces, are so dark it’s almost black. In earlier times, the grape was so hard to grow that the wine in its natural state was nearly undrinkable. As a result, it would often be used to color other wines, making them darker. Such an interesting background for a little grape.
Over the centuries Negretto fell out of production. But a few hearty, or some might say foolhardy, winemakers have rededicated themselves to its production. Giorgio of Erioli Vini, is one of them, along with Antonio, the owner of Agriturismo Gradizzolo and Tenuta Bonzara. In addition to them, only two other winemakers are currently producing Negretto, making it one of the most secret wines of Italy.
Want to learn about more of Italy’s secret wines? Learn about Albana di Romagna in Emilia Romagna
Our Negretto Tasting and Lunch
When we arrived, several bottles of Negretto were laid out near a table set for six. In addition to Giorgio and Antonio, we were joined by Helena, our good friend from Yummy Italy, and one of her clients, a lovely British woman named Alice.
I was expecting a bit of a formal tasting, to compare the several bottles of Negretto that were laid out before us. Instead, the food started to arrive and the wine started to pour, all while Giorgio provided us with his “brief” history of Negretto, with Helena acting as a dutiful translator. What was interesting is that Giorgio is so passionate about wine and in particular the wines he grows, that once you wind him up he just keeps on going. Helena continuously had to interrupt him to translate before she was no longer able to keep the train of thought, bless her heart.
The food was fabulous, prepared by Antonio’s daughter Chiara who recently graduated from culinary school. It was some of the best pasta we had on this recent trip, followed by some of the best pork we’ve had in a very long time.
There was no formal tasting. We marched through several bottles of Negretto, each different from the last. All while eating fabulous traditional Emilia Romagna cuisine.
The Benefits of Tasting Wine with a Winemaker
One thing that we continue to notice with the winemakers we meet, particularly in Emilia Romagna, but also in Portugal and Spain, is the hospitality they exude.
It’s one thing to consider yourself knowledgeable about wines by spending your weekends touring wineries in Napa and Sonoma (I use these regions as an example of areas where the wine tourism market is very advanced). Many, if not most, of the wineries, have tasting rooms open to the public. Those tasting rooms are overseen by staff or salespeople. They may be passionate about wine and could be very knowledgeable about the wines they’re pouring, but it’s still not the same as talking with the winemaker who has spent hours upon hours, and years upon years, producing a wine he is personally proud of.
What happens when Helena arranges these winemaker visits for us is that the tasting starts out with a singular focus, but often becomes something so much more. When we conducted our Bologna Bubbles Pignoletto tasting last summer with our friend Alessandro, he suddenly started to offer more unique bottles, pulling treasures from his personal wine cooler or cellar.
The night before our Negretto tasting, we were back at Alessandro’s for dinner with him and his wife. He offered us some Pignoletto produced in a new method he was messing around with, using us as guinea pigs. During dinner, we were working our way through a series of his red wines. Twice during the evening, he disappeared for at least 20 minutes at a time. We wondered where he was. He was digging out a few special bottles for us, including a 2007 Barbera, which was lovely, as well as a 2007 Pignoletto. Now, Pignoletto is an Italian white wine, which is meant to be drunk young. Alessandro’s 2007 was superb and entirely different from the current vintage Pignoletto. It was all entirely unexpected.
But, this is what happens. We start chatting with the winemaker, and most importantly we ask questions. I try to show a genuine passion and interest in wine, their wines, and them as people. I am not wine experts in any way, and often ask many of the same questions to winemakers. We have our standard comments we make about wines to show interest when we might not know exactly what we are talking about. But we smile, we ask questions, we listen, we enjoy. And, the winemakers eat it up. I love it.
Tasting Pignoletto at a Negretto Tasting
Two interesting things happened at our Negretto tasting with Antonio and Giorgio. One, we were enjoying the Negretto and asking honest questions about the grape. After all, it was one we had never tried before. The winemakers appreciated our questions and interest.
Second, Antonio and Giorgio had heard about the special bottles of wine that Alessandro had dug up for us the night before. It’s a small, tight-knit community of winemakers in the Bologna Hills. They all know each other and many of them are friends. But even friends can have healthy competition.
Antonio could not be beaten by Alessandro, and thus he had to share with us something special. First, he pulled out a 2006 Pignoletto Spumante, a sparkling white wine. He, like Alessandro, disappeared for a period of time, bringing out an old bottle of darkened white wine. It should also be noted that this bottle was just one year older than the one Alessandro opened for us. There’s that friendly competition.
Antonio beckoned all of us to follow him into his winery, an oversized garage-like building on the other side of the parking lot. He opened the bottle carefully, allowing the cork to fly into a closed-in space. He looked around at our little group, excited to pour the wine he was so proud of. Only Giorgio was smart enough to bring his glass – a true winemaker at heart. But because we were all quick friends, Antonio poured only into Giorgio’s glass and we all passed it around.
Similar to the Pignoletto at Alessandro’s the night before, it was dark in color, creamy, and so different from a young sparkling Pignoletto. Alice, the Brit, had never tasted Pignoletto before, this being her first trip to Emilia Romagna. She enjoyed it, but wondered how it compared to a young Pignoletto – I quickly informed her that if she ordered a Pignoletto at a restaurant, it would bear absolutely no resemblance to this wine whatsoever.
It’s no surprise then that the Pignoletto portion of our Negretto tasting continued. Antonio beckoned to us once more, inviting us to a corner of the winery. In this dark corner was a large terracotta vat known as an amphora. It is very similar to how wine was produced and stored in ancient times. And because we were, technically, visiting Agriturismo Gradizzolo to talk about the renaissance of Negretto, an ancient Roman grape, this was a logical sideshow.
Antonio was producing Pignoletto in the amphora. By this point, we had remedied our error from earlier, and each had our own wine glass. One by one we stepped up to the amphora and Antonio ladled, yes ladled, out a generous portion. Again, it was dark and creamy, unlike any other Pignoletto we’ve tried before. He was thrilled to share it with us.
When we emerged from the winery and were back outdoors, Antonio asked our opinion. It was certainly a unique and interesting wine, and a lot more complex than the white wines I normally prefer. Yet, Antonio didn’t really wait for our answer. He replied like I would expect any passionate winemaker to answer: “I don’t really care if no one likes it. I like it. So I will keep producing it.“
The Passion of the Negretto Winemakers
And that is what I learned from our day of Negretto tasting in the Bologna Hills. Yes, I learned the history of Negretto and was able to taste it, something few people in the world can claim to have done.
But what I learned that day, and what I continue to learn from every winemaker visit we take with Helena and Yummy Italy, is that there is a passion for food and wine that unites us with people wherever we go. It’s the sparkle in the eye as Antonio ladled the wine from the amphora. The speed with which Giorgio spoke of the history of Negretto. The devilish smile that graced Alessandro’s face each time he emerged from his wine cellar with a wine he wanted to show off.
Passion is the reason we travel to the places we do and return to the regions we love over and over again.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now.
More About Our Trip
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