In the Emilia-Romagna region, whether you’re talking about the western half, Emilia, or the eastern half, Romagna, the wine scene improves as you head south. Most of Emilia-Romagna’s major towns, including the prosciutto haven of Parma, lay in the low, humid plains that reach toward the Pò River. The Pò plain tends to define the region in most people’s minds, but the southern flank of Emilia-Romagna offers a dramatically different landscape — the Apennine mountain chain, which separates Emilia-Romagna from its southern neighbor, Tuscany.
Around Parma proper, the lambrusco grape still rules. In past “Sommelier’s Picks” columns I’ve made the case for lambrusco in certain situations, and while memories of “Riunite On Ice” may make you a little gun-shy, an afternoon spent in Parma may well change your mind: Alongside some freshly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, with some tangy mostarda (fruit relish) to accompany it, a little glass of chilled, dry lambrusco makes a lot of sense. The big issue for Americans is that the lambruscos traditionally exported here were sweet versions, whereas it’s the tart, high-acid dry styles that the Emiliani actually drink. Try a dry lambrusco, such as Ermete Medici’s “Concerto” (a standard on the Babbo wine list), and you may well be converted.
This is not to say that lambrusco is a “serious” wine, or one to buy and hold in your cellar. Lambrusco is food wine — extremely fruity, high in acidity, and made in a frizzante (semi-sparkling) style, lending it some “cut” for the rich, fatty cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. Another interesting specialty of Parma is a white wine made from the exotically aromatic malvasia grape made, in the local custom, in a frizzante style. The slight fizz of the wine gives it an appealing liveliness for a plate of prosciutto, especially when you incorporate some of the typical fruit garnishes: melon, figs, pears, whatever.
Aside from these fizzy local oddities, you need to broaden your search beyond Parma to find more substantial whites and reds to drink. But, as with every region of Italy, there’s lots to discover: East of Parma, just south of Bologna, you’ll find the Colli Bolognesi appellation, where vintners are making some excellent reds from cabernet sauvignon (try Tenuta Bonzara’s “Bonzarone”) and whites from sauvignon blanc. To the west of Parma, in the hills south of Piacenza, the vineyards of the Colli Piacentini are some of the most prized in all of Emilia-Romagna. Altitude and proximity to the cooling breezes of the Apennines gives both of these wine zones an advantage in producing bright, aromatic whites and balanced, powerful reds.
In the Colli Piacentini, check out the whites from the sauvignon blanc grape, and be sure not to miss the local red “Gutturnio,” a blend of barbera and bonarda. There are a number of producers who make Gutturnio, and it is typically a lush, meaty, gutsy red; at Babbo, I often recommend Gutturnio with Mario’s Pappardelle Bolognese, for those who really want to get into the regional Italian spirit.