In commercial terms Lambrusco has been enormously successful – in terms of perceived quality it has been truly disastrous. Now, however, interest in this light, frothy wine is resurfacing, as MICHELE SHAH reports.
LAMBRUSCO outsells every other wine in the world, but who cares? Commercially, of course, a lot of people do, but not the discerning consumer. Giant cooperatives such as Cantine Riunite conquered the market in the 1970s, partly by fine-tuning the product to particular sectors – developing less alcoholic versions, for example, to attract younger drinkers away from beverages such as Coca-Cola. Lambrusco sales now total 180 million bottles a year, with about 40% of all Lambrusco exported, most of it to the US, but this success has damaged the wine’s image among more discriminating demographics.
Wine drinkers with sophisticated palates see Lambrusco as a standardised, industrial product and it has lost the reputation it once had as a serious wine. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, it was sold at three times the price of a still wine from the same area, and as early as 1430 it was being exported from Modena to sophisticated Paris. At this time, the wine was almost certainly no more than slightly prickly on the tongue, due to natural carbon dioxide generated from a slow fermentation during the cold winters in the Po Valley. By the early 1800s, bottle fermentation had taken over, producing the sparkling Lambrusco we know today, but in the early 1960s it was the widely adopted fermentation in large pressure tanks at controlled temperatures that led to the current mass production and low cost.
Engineering a makeover
Fortunately, though, a Lambrusco revolution is now under way, with the objective of recapturing the prestige of the past and pleasing more upmarket customers. The drive is towards character and quality, particularly through lower yields, and many producers are picking less than half the 18 tonnes per hectare authorised by the DOC. Higher density plantings, clonal selection, less expansive pruning systems and more refined winemaking practices have also been introduced, with some producers returning to the traditions – including Champagne-style bottle fermentation – that gave Lambrusco its former glory.
Efforts to recover the past prestige of Lambrusco are supported by Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and local authorities. More than 500 wines from all over Italy were featured at the sixth annual sparkling wine competition in Reggio Emilia, the Palio dei Vini Frizzanti – Matilde di Canossa – Ghirlandina D’Oro, but Lambrusco had the largest representation and was the main focus. The standards of the Palio are high and Lambrusco did well. After blind tastings, 10 commissions made up of oenologists and journalists fill in individual reports. A separate commission then re-tastes each sample and a further commission decides the final results. Another promotional event, just for Lambrusco, is organised in Modena each year under the name of Lambrusco Mio.
Bursting with fruit
Many of the largest wineries now produce upmarket Lambrusco ranges by carefully selecting grapes from the best vineyards and using particular care in their vinification. For example, Riunite has a top Lambrusco Reggiano called Ronchi dell’Olma, plus a Lambrusco Salamino and Lancellotta blend called Ottocento Nero, both with good structure, body and intense fruity aromas.
Despite producing 15 million bottles annually, Cavacchioli’s wines manage to maintain a distinctive character. Established in 1928, it now owns about 100ha (hectares) of vineyard and also buys in carefully selected grapes from other producers. It is the most widely distributed brand in Italy and, like some other large concerns, turns out some top-range, bottle-fermented Lambruscos. Vigna del Cristo is a pleasant, light Lambrusco Sorbara, rather austere but elegant and not over fizzy, while Col Sassoso is a traditional Lambrusco Grasparossa, dark, rich and fruity, with plenty of body and character.
Chiarli dates back to 1860 and is the oldest of today’s producers. It produced over 20 million bottles in 2001, of which half were exported, and in addition to its production agreements with cooperative wineries, it now makes a top range from its own 100ha of vineyards. For these cru Lambruscos, it has reverted to the past by putting the name of the founders, Chiarli Cleto e Figli, on the label. One of these crus is called Vecchia Modena.
Of particular interest are some of the smaller producers who are doing their best to produce Lambrusco with the characteristics of body and flavour generally missing in those of their larger competitors. One of these is Vittorio Graziano, an ebullient character who is passionate about his winemaking.
Graziano’s 7ha vineyard is planted at very high density and he only produces about 30,000 bottles a year, all of them of organic Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro fermented in bottle. He is interested above all in quality and a return to the traditional values of Lambrusco. He refuses to buy in grapes or must and shuns all wine competitions. His Grasparossa di Castelvetro has unique character. An intense ruby colour, its bouquet is elegant and rich in aroma, slightly vegetal and smoky. On the palate it is round and smooth, only slightly spritzy, with a long finish. He exports limited amounts to the UK, Switzerland and Germany.
Giuseppe and Ricciarda Caprari is another small, family enterprise. ‘The quantities we can produce are very limited,’ says Giulio Caprari, the present manager, ‘so our way forward must be through quality and by reaching discerning consumers.’ While most of the wine is produced in pressure tanks, the drive for character and quality involves some novel approaches, for example a primary fermentation in barrique followed by bottle fermentation.
Finding the fizz again
Cantine Medici Ermete is a century-old family business which aims for quality and a discriminating market sector. Its high-density vineyards produce much less than the authorised 18 tonnes/ha of grapes – for a cru Lambrusco like Concerto, the yield is 11 tons/ha – and the result is a wine with a more intense structure, concentration and vibrant aroma. Medici exports more than 60% of its annual nine million bottles of DOC and IGT Lambrusco to 35 countries, including the UK.
Rinaldo Rinaldini has 15ha of vines planted at relatively high density. Until the late 1960s, the family were successful restaurant owners but they never lost their love of the land nor their knowledge and admiration for the Champagne method of making sparkling wines and sold the restaurant to become winegrowers instead.
For part of its output, Rinaldini Rinaldo uses bottle fermentation, a particular clone of the Lambrusco grape called Pjcol Ross, ageing of between 18 and 36 months on the yeasts and dégorgement without freezing. This last process calls for great dexterity and skill, in the best tradition of bygone Champagne makers. The resulting Lambrusco Pjcol Ross has a red mousse and a deep ruby colour, with an intense and incisive bouquet. On the palate it gives vivacious, rounded, full-bodied, fresh, fruity aromas and a full, fruity aftertaste.
Overall, the Lambrusco scene is very encouraging and it seems that, slowly but surely, the wine is gradually recovering its status as a unique and high-quality product. The wines being produced today by committed smaller producers and the top ranges from the large producers have little in common with the standard Lambrusco, so throw away your prejudices and you could be pleasantly surprised.
Although there are more than 40 clones of the Lambrusco grape derived from the wild Lambrusca variety first noted by the ancient Romans, three principal ones are used for today’s Lambrusco.
Mainly grown in the areas of Emilia that bear their names, each gives rise to a distinct type of wine. They are Lambrusco di Sorbara, which gives the lightest, fruitiest version; the medium-bodied Salamino di Santa Croce; and the fullest-bodied Grasparossa di Castelvetro.
The Lambrusco produced in Modena tends to be dry or off-dry, while in the province of Reggio it is usually a little sweeter. All types have good acidity and fruit, a perfect foil for the fattiness of Emilian cuisine’s many pork dishes. However, the wine goes well with many foods, including Asian, and its fairly low alcohol content encourages one to imbibe liberally.
TAKE A BUBBLE BATH
Vinoterapia or Lambrusco wine therapy can be enjoyed at the Terme di Salvarola, a thermal spa resort in the Sassuolo hills, some 20km from Modena. The treatments include face masks made from grape vine oil extracts; massage with Grasparossa Lambrusco skins and grape must to smooth the skin; hydromassage with grape extracts added to the thermal water, which is already rich in mineral salts; and relaxing baths in a vats of bubbling Lambrusco.
The wine and grape extracts, especially the seeds, are rich in antioxidants, calcium, phosphorus, flavones, polyphenols, vitamins, organic oils, acids and a host of other substances, reputedly helping to cleanse, hydrate and regenerate the skin, leaving it elastic and smooth, as well as slowing down the ageing process.
The vinoday (Euro149) offers various treatments, while the vinoterapia weekend (Euro444) includes the full works plus two days half-board in the Terme di Salvarola hotel. A five-day vinoterapia (Euro880) course with half-board is also available.
l Terme di Salvarola, località Salvarola Terme, 41049 Sassuolo, Modena (+39 0536 871788), www.termesalvarola.it
Written by Michele Shah