Winery Profile: Umberto Cesari
The Fight for Emilia Romagna
by Sara d’Amato
Making your way in the world today is no easy feat and for Gianmaria Cesari, son of Umberto Cesari, it is a true labour of love. Its production of Lambrusco may be known the world over but the region home to Cesari, Emilia Romagna, has never been known for a great history of quality wine production. There is no expectation by government or by locals for the wines of this region to get even half the recognition of those of Tuscany or Piedmont, or that they are able to realize the renewal that Sicily has undergone.
Yet, this is why Gianmaria Cesari’s hope to build upon his family’s legacy and to continue the tradition of high-quality sangiovese and Bordelaise grape production in this region is so significant. You may very well call his unique wines “Super Romagnolo” and once upon a time they broke ground. Sangiovese is not new to Emilia Romagna but it has never been seen as a competitor to Tuscan versions of this grape. Romagnolo sangiovese has thus been largely ignored until Cesari’s father, Umberto decided to turn the industry on its head in the late 1960s. By planting carefully trained and maintained sangiovese vines as well as crafting more complex and concentrated wines, he was able to charge triple that of his competitors. Umberto was initially regarded as a Candide of sorts, foolhardy and unrealistically optimistic. It was then that Umberto dedicated himself to a long, uphill battle. This campaign may never be fully realized but Gianmari Cesari has certainly seen a change in Emilia Romagna. He relates that “some are recognizing our values, vision and philosophy. They are giving us some credit which is encouraging.”
To Cesari, his endeavour is not about wealth, if it were, he would have relocated to another appellation. Nor is it about recognition; it is about land, historical and cultural preservation, and about making true connections with people in the way only wine can effectuate. Most important to Cesari is the aspect of heritage, of looking towards the future where families can still return to the country to raise their children among the vines. It all sounds terribly romantic and even impossibly altruistic but Gianmaria seems to draw both comfort and satisfaction from being a part of something greater than himself. There is sagacity to his cautious optimism, to his well-paced strategizing, and to his positive outlook on the future.
This feature was commissioned by Univins and Spirits.
To the Cesari organization, sustainability focuses on business practices that build bridges with the local community. And to that end, the family owned company keeps buying new land, without a plan for maximum expansion. Gianmaria calls it “sustained growth” – growing both in the number of bottles produced and also with the sum of hectares acquired. The winery prefers to own all of the land from which their wines are produced. The land is purchased in small parcels at a time, generally from longtime growers retiring without future generations to continue the tradition. With every single hectare gained, there is a long decision process: “because a good understanding of the terroir, i.e. the sun exposure, the quality of the soils, etc., can only be assessed by talking to the local landowners. Their memory of the land is just as important to us as the technical discoveries.” He goes on to say that wine is a “good mix of analysis and art, it is not simply technology. You have to put something irrational into what you do. An enologist following protocol does not always make the best wine.”
Land lost is perhaps the single most important factor threatening the wines of the region. For decades, the “urban drain” has affected Emilia Romagna more gravely than other more celebrated wine regions due to a low cost of land. Currently, the land cost in Emilia Romagna is 1/3 of that of neighbouring Veneto. Cesari was therefore able to buy land easily over that time, growing their business but also preserving agricultural land. Gianmaria is now happy to say that there is a big turnaround in terms of the younger generation returning to the land. Although there is less saleable land to be acquired, there is a return to tradition here. An upswing is observable in life changes among the working populous resulting in better quality, small production winemaking. These boutique producers nevertheless are the minority but it is an important step towards future acknowledgement of the region. Large co-ops still control a great deal of the production but Cesari’s swelling business provides a great balance to that situation.
In addition to land acquisition, sustainable practices are a key part of wine production at Cesari. Although certified organics and biodynamics are not viticultural practices employed at Cesari, no chemical sprays have been used for the past 15 years. Cesari is also amassing solar panels to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Although irrigation is performed on certain parcels, saving water is considered a sacred duty. The company is a heavy supporter of Charity: Water (charitywater.org), a global non-profit initiative bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.
So, what styles of wine can be found now in Emilia Romagna? The sparkling Lambrusco still reigns supreme. Lambrusco is both the name of the wine and the group of related grape varieties that form the base the wine. Most examples of Lambrusco are produced in bulk using the tank or Charmat method to give the wine its fizz. Most of the Lambrusco production takes place in the western “Emilia” portion of the region, a hilly landscape largely influenced by the Apennines.
Although Lambrusco has put Emilia Romagna on the map, it is sangiovese and other “international varieties”, largely produced in the distinctly disparate eastern Romagna region, that has been championed by Umberto Cesari. To this end, the winery is largely responsible for the success and marketability of the Rubicone IGT. Although the IGT allows for the use of almost 40 different grape varieties, the trend within this appellation leans heavily towards sangiovese and Bordelaise grape blends. This landscape to the east of Modena and Bologna is much flatter and is widely planted with sangiovese. That being said, the Colli (hills) that do exist within Romagna produce significantly better wine. All of Cesari’s vineyard sites are located on slopes.
In addition, Romagna is the only region to have a DOC Sangiovese, completely devoted to this single varietal wine. Cesari would argue that Romagna is sangiovese’s birthplace. The region also has two other important varietal specific DOCs, one for cabernet and another for merlot. In this region, these grapes are considered very much a part of the appellation’s tapestry and heritage. That being said, Gianmaria has noted that the younger, more adventurous generation of local wine drinkers, as well international consumers are searching for wines outside of the realms of chardonnay and cabernet. Although the winery continues to focus on sangiovese-based blends, they have also been experimenting with other local varieties.
Gianmaria sees some future for petit verdot and syrah in Romagna and continues site-specific trials. Quality-focused production is also being elevated within Cesari due to recent aid from Alto Adige- and Montalcino-based consultants for the winery’s higher tiered labels. Along with regional producers, the winery also benefits from research and experimentation from the University of Bologna, who run trials on donated land from Cesari. From within, the production team is comprised of five winemakers who have been with the company for over 15 years. A strong belief in the potential of the region keeps the team dynamic and driven.
As far as whites are concerned, trebbiano and albano are the most important in Romagna. Although the widely planted trebbiano grape is best known as a high-yielding blending variety, it has a unique expression in the gentle hills surrounding Imola, Rimini and Cesena. The trebbiano produced here tends to show more distinctiveness and exuberance than those from most other Italian regions. Italy’s first DOCG for white was Albana di Romagna DOCG. Unfortunately, the two DOCGs in the region (the other being that of Colli Bolognesi Classico Pignoletto) are largely ignored by the value-seeking public and have never reached great heights of importance or consequence. Regardless, sparkling Pignoletto, largely un-exported, is a refreshing and cheerful find similar to Prosecco and is quite popular among the Bolognese. However, Prosecco’s domineering, neighbouring presence will ensure that Pignoletto remains largely in the shadow.
Currently, Gianmaria Cesari relies heavily on the export market as an outlet for the company’s wines. Italy has not yet recovered from the financial crisis and the reputation of the region, although steadily increasing, is oppressive to the desire to produce higher quality wines. To this end, 90% of Cesari’s wines are sold outside the country. Canada is a huge market for Cesari whose wines are sold even in the Yukon. From Mexico to Taiwan, Gianmaria has greatly expanded his export markets of late.
The export market is not the only place where Gianmaria diversifies. The winery’s portfolio consists of an impressive 25 labels from value-oriented wines such as the IOVE line to the upper tier Tauleto, sourced from single vineyard sangiovese. Liano is perhaps the winery’s most well-known export. The Rubicone IGT blend combines 15-20 year old plantings of sangiovese (grosso) with cabernet sauvignon. The vineyards of the same name are located high on the slopes of clay-rich soils with a very sunny aspect. The white version is based on chardonnay and sauvignon blanc planted on the Podere Laurento site, an ancient property purchased by the family over 30 years ago. Located here are the experimental vineyards on loan to the University of Bologna.
Cesari owns over 180 hectares of land, all on hillside slopes, and has long-term contracts with another 170 hectares. It is 100% family owned. Six individual parcels in Castel San Pietro Terme include those of Podere Casetta, Parolino, Laurento, Cà Grande, Liano, and Tauleto. Only the MOMA line of wines are produced from the non-estate grown fruit but long-term contracts allow the winery full control over vinification in those non-estate sites.
The winery receives over 3,000 visitors a year and is widely regarded as the most influential force in the region. It is the largest private producer in Emilia Romagna and outputs over 3 million bottles per year. In 2011, the winery was awarded the prestigious title of Winery of the Year at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. Although Umberto Cesari’s vision to change the face of Emilia Romagna by producing distinctive sangiovese has largely been realized, his grandson, Gianmaria, continues the work of promoting quality regional wines despite enormous challenges and global prejudgment of the region. Although the local government seems disinterested in creating zoning regulations to identify key quality areas in the region, Gianmaria continues to lobby for such regulations. He is strongly encouraged by a slow but steady change in the popular perception of the region which he hopes will move towards an increase quality production over quantity.
Our Ontario panel of WineAlign critics tasted through a large portion of the winery’s portfolio this week. Top picks can be found below.
For Consignment orders, or more information about these wines, please contact Univins and Spirits Tel: 905-990-3580.
Umberto Cesari Liano Bianco 2014 (Private Order and SAQ)
This is a blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, not often the easiest bedfellows. But some oak spicing as smoothed over the crevices. This shows nicely lifted aromas of cedar, spicy, fresh herbs and some resin, with exotic pineapple fruit. It’s quite full bodied, smooth and rich – packed with oak spice, celery and warmed black licorice. This is quite fine.
Umberto Cesari 2015 MOMA (Consignment)
A blend of 1/3 trebbiano and 2/3 sauvignon blanc and chardonnay from the slopes of the Podere Parolino. Young vines are used to source this light, fresh and playful blend aged entirely in stainless steel whose flavours are dominated by those of sauvignon blanc. The acronym “MOMA” MyOwnMAsterpiece is the name of this inexpensive and expressive tier of wine and belays the winery’s dedication and its philosophy of creativity in the cellar. Since 2011, a competition among art students from the Academia di Belle Arti of Venice, Urbino and the Université du Québec in Montreal is held to determine the picture used on the label of MOMA’s subsequent vintages.
Umberto Cesari 2013 Riserva Sangiovese di Romagna (VINTAGES April 1, 2017 Release)
Umberto Cesari has risked its reputation on Sangiovese by making themselves specialists in the region. Labeled under the Romagna DOC Sangiovese Riserva, this 100% sangiovese is sourced from the Podere Ca’Grande vineyard known for its sunshine and heat. It has been aged two years in Slovanian oak, quite common in northern Italy, and offers a fleshy palate and a modern sensibility. Acidity and iron-laced fruit add structure and intrigue to the palate. A distinctly Romagna style of sangiovese which is rich and cleaner than its Tuscan counterpart.
Umberto Cesari 2013 Liano Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon (LCBO VINTAGES release November 26)
A new VINTAGES release from late November, Cesari’s Liano is a widely appealing blend of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, the most typical style of blend in the Rubicone IGT. The winery’s flagship red is a consumer favourite offering rich oak and the cherry laced meatiness of sangiovese. Pair with braised meats and wintry stews.
Umberto Cesari 2012 Liano Vieilles Vignes Sangiovese Cabernet Sauvignon (Private Order and SAQ)
Liano Villes Vignes is produced from older vines than the winery’s flagship wine, Liano Rosso. It offers impressive complexity with sophisticated dried herbal notes and a touch of volatility that compliment the generous fruit and firm tannins on the palate. Finely crafted.
Umberto Cesari 2012 Polvere di Stelle Sangiovese Cabernet Sauvignon(Private Order and SAQ)
Polvere di Stelle means “stardust” and the glittering crystal encrusted bottle is a result of a collaboration between Swarovski and Cesari. A Super blend of 70% sangiovese and 30% cabernet sauvignon that delivers silky tannins and a richly concentrated profile. The grapes were selectively hand harvested after having been partially dried on the vine. The wine is subsequently matured in large 50-hectoliter oak casks followed by bottle maturation for one year.
This feature was commissioned by Univins and Spirits. As a regular feature WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, if any, is entirely up to WineAlign. See below for more details provided by the winery and their agent in Canada.
More about Umberto Cersari
Celebrating our local grape varieties to create great wine: this has always been Umberto Cesari’s mission.
Our wines are created in Emilia Romagna, on the hills of Castel San Pietro Terme, 250-400 metres above sea level. Our 170-hectare vineyards are protected by the striking Calanchi Azzurri (badlands), enjoying an ideal micro-climate with a wide temperature range, constant wind, and a lot of sun.
Please call Univins and Spirits for more information about these wines 905-990-3580.