The Lambrusco Revolution
How the new generation of Lambrusco producers is setting the record straight for one of Italy’s most historic wines
Wednesday 08 December 2021
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Emilia Romagna, the home of parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar and Massimo Bottura, is also the home of Lambrusco. Now, you might be thinking - Lambrusco? That sweet soda-like wine? I’m here to tell you no, it’s not like that at all. Let me ask you: Why would one of the top gastronomic regions in the world, dedicated to the relationship of food and terroir, offer a wine that doesn’t uphold the same standards? That wouldn’t make sense at all, would it?
The 60 Shades of Lambrusco
Heavy production and marketing in the 1970s and 80s totally tainted Lambrusco’s reputation, presenting it as a silly, sweet wine that resembled coca-cola. The most ironic part is that Lambrusco is a traditionally dry wine, with a history older than pasta and more varieties than you can count on your fingers.
Fortunately, the new generation of Lambrusco producers is taking the stage to steal Lambrusco’s identity back.
Lambrusco is the oldest grape in Emilia Romagna, with history showing us it was much adored by some of Italy’s greatest thinkers, like Pliny the Elder (did Lambrusco boost their brilliance? Maybe that was their philosophical secret…)
A long, ancient history gave this grape time to grow a family tree of multiple varieties. This is actually one of the biggest misconceptions about Lambrusco - that it’s just one kind of wine.
Nope, not at all.
“You cannot say this is Lambrusco and it is one type of wine. It is so multi-faceted,” says Julia Prestia, co-owner of Venturini Baldini, an organic Lambrusco producer located just south of Reggio Emilia, a city that lies just between the historic foodie towns of Parma and Bologna. She and her husband took over Venturini Baldini in 2015.
Prestia precisely hits the nail on the head. Lambrusco has many personalities, 60 to be precise.
Of this 60, there are six most commonly planted varieties. These are Grasparossa, Salamino, Sorbara, Maestri, Montericco, and Marani. These grapes typically grow within the six appellations surrounding the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia but are cultivated in other areas in Emilia Romagna as well.
“Working with different [Lambrusco] grape varieties is the key to the future,” says Tomasso Chiarli, 5th generation leader of Cleto Chiarli, the oldest Lambrusco producer in Emilia Romagna. And, he’s absolutely right. Each grape offers its own character that needs its own attention.
Take Lambrusco di Sorbara. It grows just North of Modena, a place most famous for its artisanal balsamic vinegar. There, you’ll find hills rich in sandy soils, providing the necessary drainage to concentrate all of Sorbara’s delicate floral flavours.
“I believe the Sorbara grape variety is the most modern, most young, most approachable for everyone, especially for young people,” says Chiarli. That’s because Sorbara is quite the opposite of what most think Lambrusco is.
Lambrusco di Sorbara will have you smitten by its beautiful ruby-coloured juice and rose-y pink froth. Each sip is light, refreshing and floral, sending your mind blissfully away into the green rolling Italian hills.
Getting Back to the Roots of Production
Fermentation is everything for Lambrusco. The way to make a delicious Lambrusco is in its humble origins, rather than choosing the fanciest method.
“For us as a young generation, it’s really about going back to the roots of what Lambrusco should be and should have always been,” says Prestia of Venturini Baldini. Prestia believes that Lambrusco’s original winemaking methods are what make it shine.
The in-bottle fermentation or ancestral method is the most original. Today, the cool kids call this ‘pet-nat.’
Venturin Baldini is channeling Lambrusco’s roots by mastering the ancestral method. Their T.E.R.S. wine, oh so charmingly named after the initials of Prestia’s children, is a homage to what Lambrusco was hundreds of years ago. Instead of going for Grasparossa or Sorbara, the more popular Lambrusco varieties, they are using Lambrusco Montericco, the “forgotten sibling” as Prestia calls it.
“The idea behind this wine was really to show the most genuine part of winemaking in Emilia!”
It wasn’t the Charmat method that was the problem - it was the abuse of the method
Yet, the ancestral method sorta disappeared in the 1950s, with the rise of mass-produced Lambrusco, made with the Charmat method.
“Something that kinda led to Lambrusco’s bad reputation was the production techniques,” remarks Chiarli.
For Cleto Chiarli, it wasn’t the Charmat method that was the problem - it was the abuse of the method. This all inspired Cleto Chiarli to advocate the real Charmat production of Lambrusco, with traditional one to two-month fermentations. For many Lambrusco producers, this long primary fermentation is essential to capture the brilliant aromatics of each variety.
Cleto Chiarli even takes it a step further. They advocate for long cold soaks of grape skins and juice before fermentation for as long as possible. This helps wake up all those dazzling flavours and aromas hidden in the Lambrusco grapes.
A natural-born food-loving wine
Lambrusco is an honest grape, but it’s still very cosmopolitan. It can find a place at any table, anywhere in the world.
This wine and its many personalities can pair with all kinds of global dishes. The bold Grasparossa, with its red-wine body, makes an amazing fit for American BBQ or roast duck. A Sorbara has the acidity and just a hint of sweetness to pair with a delicious korma.
If I know one thing for sure, Lambrusco is a wine of the future. It can only get better with time, as the new generation of producers works diligently to show Lambrusco’s true colours to the world.
I can still hear Julia Prestia’s words lingering in my ears:
“This is only the beginning,” she said. “We’re still in our baby shoes.”
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