All right, I’ll admit it – where exactly is Bologna in Italy? If you are a devotee of all things Italian, particularly the food, then I expect you already know but… for the rest of us it’s ‘somewhere up North, maybe?’ And what can a ‘wine finder’ turn up?
Well, the first thing to say is that it has an international airport, so you can get there via Ryanair or BA, or you can drive/train past Milan and keep going across the country to the eastern seaboard. Bologna, in all its glowing redness yet anonimity, sits in the middle of Emilia-Romagna’s Po valley and you really can’t miss it.
That’s a call to action which I took up following Rick Stein’s Weekend Break prog back in the Spring on BBC2 that piqued my interest and got the salivary juices going; it is foodie heaven. There are no well-known vineyard areas around it so the Bolognese tend to pull in the best of their neighbours, and we found a raft of well-informed sommeliers all ready to plug their favourites. Piemonte and the Veneto feature strongly, as do the stars of Tuscany, but it was good to see so many well-priced numbers from Marche, Umbria and the North-East. Yes, it’s a great place to find some ‘off-the-beaten-track’ wines for a wine-finder like me who delights in something a bit different.
Bologna is a perfect size for a four night / three day visit. The internal ‘ring-road’ circumnavigates a centre which is 30 mins walk from side to side. There are just enough piazzas and basilicas to keep the culture vultures happy; Giotto, Raffael and Michaelangelo have all left masterpieces behind in various collections. The main piazza, Piazza Maggiore, is grand yet without the crush of St Mark’s or the sweat of Rome. In June and July, in that paean to the populace that seems so right in the warmth of a Mediterranean evening, it becomes a huge outdoor cinema with about 1,000 school chairs in the middle all filled nightly by 9:45 for the main attraction. However, there are other vantage points: if you are poor, or studenty, then the steps of the basilica suffice, while anyone thirsty can sit at the cafés and bars at the edge. It is a delightful arrangement when the temperature is knocking on 40 degrees and you couldn’t sleep at home anyway! Equally, although the temperature is ‘scorchio’ in July and August, the design of the city’s building means that you wander the pavements under the cover of vaulted arches making the walkways shaded and cool. And while I’m not one for signing up for tours, I have to admit that the two hour walking tour was very good and very helpful as a pointer to the inside line on Bologna.
This was a holiday so I’m not going to bore you with too many meal renditions and endless pictures of a cheffy creation, but boy, we did eat well and very reasonably. Rick had mentioned trying Banco 32, a lunchtime restaurant next to a fish stall in the main covered market, Mercato Delle Erbe. You need to get there, (and other markets where the locals lunch,) before the rush at 1pm; by 1:15 these places are packed. Our fish and shellfish went beautifully with a Pecorino, quite similar to a Soave in style with just enough oomph in its core to cope with superb fresh seafood pasta and a gorgeous piece of bass. This is a great place for two, almost a café feel to the place where you can watch the Bolognese do their shopping.
Highlight on day 2 was dinner at Trattoria Bissanot with an excellent wine choice from the sommelier: Langhe 2009 for 14 euros was incredible value to go with my outstanding beef with Parmesan cheese and other local delicacies. (Mushrooms were not in season, but I’d love to return when they were.) The Nebbiolo grape, and therefore Barolo, Barbaresco and little brother Langhe reds can take a while to come round but 2009 is delicious now; surprisingly forward with that lovely meaty richness you can get from a good one.
Now we don’t carry one at the moment here at Tanners but as a fun, frothy, low-alcohol lunch wine we went for Lambrusco Rosso. It must be well chilled, and I’m not convinced it would work anywhere in the UK when the temperature is less than 30 degrees, but it was brilliant in Bologna with a plate of Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (the more mature, the more sublime). Another discovery was the local sparkling grape variety, Pignoletto, which makes gorgeous ‘frizzante’. It’s just a little fuller and a little less sweet (dare I say less frivolous too?!) than the ‘craze-fav’ Prosecco, with a cleaner finish as well. One I suspect we’ll be following up here at Tanners.
Finally on day 3 I chased down a brilliant red grape, Schiopettino, from the Veneto. I last tasted one in the early 1990s and while it was full of flavour back then, there was often a brutish side to it. Not on today’s rating; Bortolusso was the producer and it was stacked with soft, blackberry fruit and a mere 20 euros in an outstanding new restaurant, Osteria Il Rovescio in the buzzy, Via del Pratello district. The house wine was pants (out of a box, served in a carafe, always beware…) but the rest of the list was varied and interesting.
To sum up, Rick Stein was spot on; Bologna is a fabulous destination for a few days. The size is right, the weather is right, the food is right, the price is right and you’ll find some little gems to drink. Go now, before the world wakes up and finds the Po Valley.