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There's something of a fairy-tale quality about the Umberto Cesari story: it all started back in the early 1960s when Umberto worked with his father at the family restaurant in central Bologna and was continually frustrated by the local wine-makers' strategy of putting quantity over quality when it came to their Sangiovese. His strong belief in the region's potential for the wine led him, together wih young wife Giuliana, to invest in a smal patch of land in the hills just east of the city to try his hand at pioneering quality Sangiovese in Emilia Romagna.
Fifty years on, while the Da Cesari restaurant is run by Umberto's brother Paolino and still going strong, the Umberto Cesari winery has grown from its initial 20 hectares to a phenomenal 170 and made a name for itself worldwide for its award-winning wines. Nowadays Umberto's son Gianmaria deals with the business and the marketing side of things and wife Giuliana is behind the Tauleto wine therapy products inspired by their own top-of-the-range wine of the same name. As for Umberto, he's still very much involved at the winery, continuing to work hands-on among the vines and with a team of expert wine-makers to make each year's vintages as good as they can possibly be.
He believes the human element to be fundamental - much of the work in the vineyard, including most of the grape-picking, is done by hand and endless checks are carried out throughout the process as so many external influences can potentially alter the character of a wine. At the same time no expense is spared when it comes to investing in new technologies that can assist in ensuring quality. Hi-tech equipment includes an innovative optical selector designed to pick out only the perfect grapes, technological devices to monitor the vines, special carts to transport the grapes to the winery in oxygen-free conditions at harvest time and computer-controlled atmospheric conditions for the wine cellar.
A real passion for what they do still drives the Cesari family and their colleagues and it's almost tangible in the atmosphere at the estate - the magical element which leads to such superb wines. While Sangiovese still leads the way in the vineyard, forming the basis of all nine reds produced as well as the rosé, international varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have also been introduced for exquisite blends like the complex Yemula (Sangiovese and Merlot) and smooth Liano (Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon). A selection of excellent white wines is made with grapes growing on the estate's north-east facing slopes - Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (blended together for the characterful Liano Bianco) alongside native vines Albana, Trebbiano and Pignoletto, which makes a fresh sparkling white as well as a spumante.
Winery tours, available Monday to Friday (book online) provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the reality of what goes on here, starting with a stroll through the vines then passing from the presses and fermentation vats of the production site to the new company building at the heart of the estate. Inaugurated just a few years ago, it has a vast and aromatic cellar which houses over 600 barrels of varying dimensions where wines are aged.
Visits end up at the on-site tasting room or shop where expert sommelier and gastrome Daniela will guide you through a selction of Umberto Cesari wines with delicious food pairings: powerful and spicy Tauleto finds its ideal partner in extra dark chocolate, while another not to miss is the golden-hued Albana di Romagna DOCG Passito Colle del Re which has been pulling in the prizes recently for the 2007 vintage. Its sublime apricot and honey taste doesn't cloy thanks to a fresh finish and it makes an ideal after dinner drink, perfect in contrast with blue cheeses or foie gras. To make such a delectable liquid, grapes are left on the vines for as long as possible before being dried on racks in ideal conditions to encourage the controlled development of noble rot, and aged in oak for two years.
Umberto Cesari wines are highly appreciated throughout the world. North America is one particularly devoted market and the winery even sponsors the Montreal Impact soccer team as well as Bologna FC - links with the local territory remain a priority. Around here a restaurant wine-list without a selection from Umberto Cesari is a rarity and most of the wines are named in homage to the land - Yemula is a historic name for nearby Imola and several wines, including Tauleto, Liano and Ca' Grande, are named after the plots where their grapes grow.
One label that has a different story behind it is Moma, an accesible and much-loved range that includes a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, a fruity rosé, a white and a spumante. The original Moma label reproduced 'Bagnanti', a work by the well-known 20th century Bolognese artist Giorgio Morandi who used to eat at the Cesari family restaurant and took empty bottles home with him as subjects for his still lifes.
Moma actually stands for My Own Masterpiece, a play on words that refers to the quality of the wine as well as to the label and nowadays bottles bear the winning design of the Umberto Cesari Art Contest held every four years, next edition in 2019. Art student Donatella Carollo designed the current Moma label - her stylised image of a wine-drinker made up of letters spelling Moma was the winner of a public online vote out of a shortlist of finalists drawn up by a panel of expert judges.
Regular initiatives and events are held at the winery with the aim of interacting with the public and promoting the area, including monthly themed tasting events in partnership with producers of top-level food excellences, many of them from the region. Another way to get involved in the Umberto Cesari universe is by joining the Wine Club, a recent initiative set up to reward regular clients with a choice of memorable experiences such as picnics in the vineyard, cookery lessons or photography courses among the vines.
Whether or not you qualify for such prizes, a trip out of town to visit the Umberto Cesari winery is a memorable experience - the location is stunning, there's an inspirational atmosphere of excellence and the wines are exceptional. Rumour has it that there's a new world-class Sangiovese in the making - watch this space for news of its release.
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