Understanding the Lambrusco grape family
The regionality of Italy is clearly evident as you travel through this wine- and food-centric nation, and the region of Emilia-Romagna is no different.
Located in the northeast part of central Italy, Emilia-Romagna may be the gastronomic heart of the country. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto di Parma ham, stuffed pastas such as tortellini and ravioli, sugo alla Bolognese and the balsamic vinegars of Modena and Reggio Emilia all have their origins in Emilia-Romagna.
The region is also home to many iconic Italian cultural and artistic names such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati, Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe Verdi, Federico Fellini and Arturo Toscanini. And the region’s best-known and often misunderstood wine, Lambrusco, is, thankfully, experiencing a renaissance.
Lambrusco may be misunderstood because it is not just one grape variety or wine. It is a family of grapes and each has typical characteristics, as do their respective resulting wines. Also, Lambrusco is a red sparkling wine, typically fruity with good acidity, sometimes savoury and tannic and generally, relatively dry. Over the years, the market saw mostly cheap, soda-pop-sweet versions of Lambrusco (remember the “Riunite on ice, that’s nice” commercials?), thus creating the perception that this was the typical style of the wine.
Traditionally, though, Lambrusco was made using the same traditional method as Champagne, where the fermentation to create the bubbles was done individually in each bottle. Over the past decade, it appears to have experienced a rebirth and the differences in the respective grape varieties and wine styles are being recognized and appreciated. As is, significantly, the wines’ versatility with and affinity for food. According to Alberto Medici of Medici Ermete, the catalysts for its resurgence were likely a mid-2000s article in The New York Times and the awarding of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses — the highest award given by the Gambero Rosso publication to Italian wines) in 2010 for the first time to a Lambrusco.
The Lambruscos are some of Italy’s oldest grape varieties and may be among the first to be domesticated from wild vines. While there are many different grapes, the main ones are:
Lambrusco di Sorbara
Lambrusco di Sorbara is the lightest in colour of them all (it may appear to be a rosé, but it is a red wine), as the grapes tend to have relatively thin skins with very little pigment. The grape bunches also have varying-sized berries which can lead to asynchronous maturation. When well made, the wines tend to be fragrant and floral, fresh and fruity, with bright acidity, finishing relatively dry. Interestingly, while cultivated vines are hermaphrodites and can self-pollinate. Lambrusco di Sorbara behaves as a female and requires a cross-pollinator (usually Lambrusco Salamino), perhaps an indication of the variety’s evolution from and closeness to wild vines. Sorbaras tend to be great pairings with seafood, fried cotechino, pizza and tortellini in brodo. Apparently, Lambrusco di Sorbara was the favourite wine of the late Luciano Pavarotti.
Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara shows strawberry and redcurrant with fresh acidity and a light fizz, while the Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara del Fondatore possesses loads of strawberry and raspberry aromas, with bright acidity and dry-ish but fruity finish. The delicious Paltrinieri “Leclisse” Lambrusco di Sorbara has an incredibly pretty and delicate nose, with a purity of red fruit flavours, mouth-filling, expansive, lifted and long.
Cantina della Volta’s Christian Bellei only produces bubbles using the traditional method. His father worked for years at Roederer in Champagne and believed the character of Sorbara to be similar to that of Champagne. His wines are elegant, refined, complex and fresh with great balance and wonderful texture. He’s a bit of a rebel in the area, but is making interesting wines and is attracting a considerable amount of attention to the area.
Lambrusco Salamino tends to result in wines that are ruby-purple in colour, fruity and grapey, effusive, savoury with good body, bright juicy acidity and finishing dry. It is grown mostly around Modena and Reggio Emilia. The bunches are long and cylindrical, resembling the shape of salami; the perfect match with salami, prosciutto and mortadella and perhaps the ideal wine for barbecue pork.
Medici Ermete’s “Concerto” Lambrusco Salamino may be the flag-bearer for this variety, but Alberto Medici is without question an ambassador for not just his wines, but for the region as a whole. His philosophy of raising awareness and working collaboratively with other producers is refreshing and bodes well for the long-term growth and sustainability of the wines and the region.
Lambrusco Grasparossa, also known as Lambrusco di Castelvetro, gives wines that are dark with a big, fleshy body, wild red and black fruit, firm but fruit-laden tannins, dry, savoury and bright. While most Lambruscos grow on the plains, Grasparossa also grows on hillsides. The hillside vineyards tend to contain more clay soils resulting in fuller-bodied wines, while the vineyards on the flats tend to have more sandy soils resulting in more elegant and graceful wines.
Cleto Chiarli makes a very good Vigneto Cialdini, which is big, fruity, dry and tannic but the fresh acidity would make it excellent with rich barbecue meats. Fattoria Moretto makes a mouth-wateringly delicious Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Rosato with loads of red fruit, full and elegant finishing dry, savoury, fresh and long. Moretto’s “Tasso” could well be the textbook example of Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro. A great match with pasta with meat sauces. Medici Ermete’s Le Tenute Bocciolo Grasparossa DOC Dolce has loads of blackberry and blueberry flavours and although it contains 60-plus grams per litre of residual sugar, the bright acidity keeps it fresh and lively.
Lambrusco Maestri grows predominantly around Reggio Emilia and Parma and gives the darkest wines that tend to be fruity, fleshy, round and effusive with an almost bubble-gum character on the nose. Plantings of Lambrusco Maestri are on the rise, perhaps due to the dark, accessible, fruity and creamy nature of the resulting wines. Maestri bunches tend to have small berries with thick skins which is not surprising given the deep colour of the wines.
Monte delle Vigne’s Lambrusco Maestri wines are great examples with the purply-bright Classico to the slightly more structured, but fruit-enveloped Selezione to the complex, bottle-fermented I Salici.
Lambrusco Marani appears to be on the decline as it results in wines that are not quite as fruity as those from Lambrusco Maestri.
Rinaldini makes a lovely DOC Reggiano Lambrusco using equal parts Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Salamino, Lambrusco Maestri and a splash of Ancellotta (provides colour and often used to soften the wine’s high acidity).
What do I suggest?
Buy Lambrusco, buy the different styles and types, drink them, drink them with food and all types of food. They are bubbly, fun, delicious, approachable and drinkable, versatile with food, sociable and, importantly, can make you smile. What could be better than that?