Prosecco, the festive sparkling wine from the north of Italy, has been on the rise for years. For the past six years, more prosecco than champagne was sold. Yet the wine makers in the hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene have not rested on their laurels. Traditional production methods like the fermentazione sui lieviti are rediscovered and for more sophisticated bottles the metodo classico is chosen more and more often. In addition, forty-three vineyards (“crus”) have now been identified, and the designation of origin Prosecco DOC Rosé has been created.
Barely 200 kilometres to the south, the Po Valley produces a sparkling wine that is becoming increasingly popular. Lambrusco, like Prosecco, suffered from a poor image for a long time, but in the last few years it has been on the rise. Although its popularity cannot yet be compared to that of Prosecco, the most famous red sparkling wine in the world has at least as much potential. Especially the diversity is an important trump card: from frizzante to spumante and from very dry to slightly sweet. Not to mention the white and rosé varieties.
Many people still think of lambrusco as the two-litre bottles on the bottom shelf of supermarkets, filled with a sweet bubbly wine that you can get drunk on the cheap. I too, bought these bottles in an enoteca with classmates during my high school trip to Rome in 1996 and then hung tipsy around the Fontana dei quattro fiumi in Piazza Navona until the police came to sweep the square.
But good lambrusco is a great aperitif and gastronomically versatile. The rosé variety, for example, goes very well with the local salumi such as mortadella, prosciutto di Parma, coppa di Parma, salame Felino, culatello di Zibello and salame strolghino. The combination with (matured) Parmigiano Reggiano is also classic. The red version is an excellent accompaniment to stuffed pastas such as tortellini in brodo, lasagna, zampone and bollito misto. The refreshing cherry fruit, the pleasant acidity, the usually modest mousse and the unique pink foam head provide an invigorating contrast to the rich meats, cheeses and sauces.
• Lambrusco descends from wild vines
The confusing thing is that lambrusco is both the name of several related grape varieties and the wine made from them. There are more than 60 known varieties of lambrusco throughout Italy, particularly in Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. Lambrusco” (the Etruscans spoke of “lambrusca”) means something among “wild grape” and research confirms that the entire lambrusco family indeed descends from wild vines.
• Lambrusco di sorbara, the most noble variety
The prodigy of the family is the lambrusco di sorbara. It is the most noble variety, named after the village of the same name in Emilia-Romagna. It is mainly planted in the plains around the city of Modena, known for Ferrari and aceto balsamico. It is the main variety in Lambrusco di Surbara DOC and is also widely used in Lambrusco Mantovano DOC. The wines of this grape are often pink in colour, smell like ripe cherries and have a fresh acidity and not too much tannin. Traditionally, they are drunk young as an aperitif, with or without cold cuts and cheeses.
• Lambrusco grasparossa, ideal with local dishes
Lambrusco grasparossa grows on the slopes around the village of Castelvetro, just south of Modena. The wines of this variety are deep and dark in colour. They usually have more tannin and a higher alcohol percentage. They are an excellent match with local dishes.
• Lambrusco viadanese, to be drunk on the spot
Lambrusco viadanese is mainly planted around the fiddlers’ town of Cremona and Mantova, the birthplace of Italian opera. Locally, it is also called lambrusco grappello ruberti. It is widely used for Lambrusco Mantovana DOC, which is mainly drunk locally.
• Lambrusco maestri and lambrusco salamino
Other noteworthy relatives are lambrusco maestri and lambrusco salamino. The former gives a large yield and, at best, somewhat rustic wines. The bunches of the latter somewhat resemble a sausage, hence its name. It is the most widely planted variety and gives the most full-bodied and aromatic lambruscos. It is therefore often used in a blend, but also makes up at least 90% of a Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC.
The wines that bear the name “lambrusco” are, as mentioned, produced in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. On the label, in addition to the general IGT Emilia, you can find nine DOCs. These designations of origin are all located between Modena and Parma in Emilia-Romagna and Mantova in Lombardy. Reggiano is the most generic DOC, Sorbara the most prominent. The remaining seven are Grasaparossa di Castelvetro, Modena, Salamino di Santa Croce, Mantovano, Colli di Parma, Colli di Scandiano e Canossa and Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa Montericco rosato.
• Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC must contain at least 60% lambrusco sorbara, supplemented by a maximum of 40% lambrusco salamino. Nowadays, some top producers use only sorbara. As said, this is an ideal aperitif wine.
• Lambrusco Grasparossa del Castelvetro DOC is the smallest designation of origin. The rules prescribe a minimum of 85% Lambrusco Grasparossa. The wines are darker in colour, with more tannins. For this reason, they are an excellent match with the local dishes.
• Lambrusco Mantovano DOC is the only lambrusco that does not come from Emilia-Romagna, but from Lombardy. Both lambrusco maestri, lambrusco marani and lambrusco salamino and lambrusco viadanese may be used. They are usually very good wines, but unfortunately they are mainly drunk locally and rarely exported.
Like most prosecco producers, many winemakers in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy make several types of lambrusco. The variation is mainly in the production method.
Since the 1970s, most Lambrusco has been produced using the metodo martinotti (or, as the French say, méthode charmat). The second fermentation does not take place in the bottle, but in a closed tank. This relatively cheap method is mainly used for export under the umbrella of IGT Emilia.
In 2010, Cantina della Volta’s winemaker Christian Bellei was the first local winemaker to rediscover the metodo classico. In recent years, more and more producers, with Paltrinieri as the driving force, have returned to the metodo ancestrale. This method results in a lightly sparkling wine with often some sediment. The wine is bottled before all residual sugar has been fermented. The fermentation continues in the bottle, where the released carbon dioxide cannot escape. No dosage is added. Whatever method is chosen, the current trend is towards secco (maximum 15 grams of residual sugar per litre of wine) rather than sweet.
Because Lambrusco can be used so widely in gastronomy, it is very interesting for specialist wine shops and sommeliers.
• For example, it is advisable to include a Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC (aperitif) and a Lambrusco Grasparossa del Castelvetro DOC (meal accompaniment) in the assortment of one producer.
• Lambruscos made by the metodo ancestrale are now in great demand worldwide among lovers of natural wines and Pét-Nats. Moreover, like many Italian wines, lambrusco meets the growing demand for indigenous grape varieties.
• A good place to get to know lambrusco better is Enoteca Lambruscheria in Modena, which has dozens of specimens on the menu.
• If budget allows, dinner can then be enjoyed at Massimo Bottura’s three-star restaurant Osteria Francescana. Bottura is a great lover of lambrusco and serves some fine examples.
• Interesting winemakers to visit next are Christian Bellei of Cantina della Volta, as mentioned before, the one who rediscovered the metodo classico for lambrusco, and Paltrinieri, pioneer of ‘crus’ and champion of the metodo ancestrale.
• Many winemakers, by the way, have a loft for their aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena DOP, which is made from grape must and matured in small wooden barrels according to the solera system. It says a lot about the culinary richness of the region. That is also the challenge: you can go there, but how do you get back?
Contributing author : Thijs Akkerman DipWSET