Lambrusco in a New Light
The many facets of a misunderstood sparkler
In the past, I ignored Lambrusco. Snubbed it, in fact. I equated this fizzy, slightly sweet red wine from Emilia Romagna with soda pop—nice on ice, as the Riunite jingle goes. The fact that Lambrusco was sometimes sold in cans clinched my prejudice. So I never even tried it.
Then came my conversion. It happened at Via Emilia, a New York restaurant named after the ancient Roman road running from Rimini to Piacenza. Specializing in Emilia Romagna’s comfort food, the place offers deep-layered lasagna, puffy fritters folded around cured meats, tortellini swimming in fragrant chicken broth. My perennial favorite, though, was tortelloni di zucca: pasta filled with nutmeg-scented pumpkin. At Via Emilia it achieves perfection, a ying-yang of sweet pumpkin spice and savory sage and butter sauce.
I’d had tortelloni di zucca before, but never in a restaurant that served only wines from Emilia Romagna. That forced my hand. Perusing the list, I was surprised to find 10 types of Lambrusco. Descriptors ranged from “light, floral” to “muscular, dry, dark.” The wine could be sparkling or frizzante, dry or semi-dry, and from various DOC zones around Modena and Parma. Who knew?
I ordered a Lambrusco di Castelvetro by Balugani. The blurb said “rich, ripe, full-flavored dark fruits.” In the glass, it was deep violet and pretty as a jewel. Its aroma was appealingly grapey, like a backyard trellis brimming with ripe concord grapes. In the mouth, the residual sugar was barely detectable, just enough to complement the pumpkin’s subtle sweetness. And its refined fizz was a perfect foil to the rich butter-sage sauce. This is a love match, I thought, a perfect regional pairing. It convinced me that Lambrusco deserves a place on the wine-lover’s table.
Weeks later, I sat down with Via Emilia’s chef and owner, William Mattielo, for a crash course on Lambrusco. A native of Modena, Mattielo admits the wine’s a tough sell. “They think it’s sweet, then eat their words as soon as they have a taste,” he says. “Outside of Modena, not many people care about Lambrusco. It’s becoming a bit more popular, but as a summer wine and aperitivo. It still has a long way to go.” So much so that Mattielo’s wife, Tomoe Nakamura, had to start a wine import company, Lambrusco Imports, to bring a range of quality Lambrusco into the U.S. Now, says the chef, “there’s a very big following here at Via Emilia. People come to the restaurant for Lambrusco.”
Tasting through his list, I’m struck by the variety of styles, ranging from Bellei’s Lambrusco di Sorbara Brut, a dry, pale strawberry sparkler (top photo), to Vittorio Graziano’s Lambrusco di Castelvetro, whose earthy funkiness has me positively smitten. “He’s the Last of the Mohicans,” says Mattielo of Graziano, a long-haired, motorcycle-riding Lambrusco icon. “He’s the kind of guy who does everything himself—picks the grapes, squeezes the grapes, bottles the wine.”
To be sure, the vast majority of Lambrusco is still mass-produced. “You can find a 50 cent bottle of Lambrusco in the supermarket, and it’ll taste like you expect it would—sweet, crappy stuff,” says Mattielo. But the boutique wineries on his list—Ariola, Balugani, Barbolini, Bellei, Cavicchioli, Graziano, Manicardi, Saetti, Vezzelli, and Villaboni—are all family-run properties where quality comes first.
One month later, I’m in a car heading north on the real Via Emilia. To my left are the snow-capped Apennines, cutting through Emilia Romagna like a serrated knife. To my right, the land flattens out into a plain that stretches to the Adriatic, a checkerboard of vineyards and orchards. My plan is to visit Lambrusco’s two best zones—Sorbara on the flatland, and Castelvetro in the foothills—to delve into their contrasting styles.
My first stop is Bellei, a fourth generation winery in Sorbara. The chef had advised me, “If you want to look good and show off to your friends, you say, ‘Let me have a Bellei.’” The reason why is evident as soon as I step into the winery. It’s filled with riddling racks, one phase in the laborious champagne-style carbonation process, here called metodo classico, whereby secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. When everyone else was modernizing with pressured autoclaves, Bellei was the first winery to adapt the metodo classico for Lambrusco, thus achieving more finesse in the bubbles while getting rid of sedimentation. “My father had a great love for champagne,” Christian Bellei explains, “and worked for [champagne producer Jean] Penet in the 1960s. He went to France to increase his knowledge of the metodo classico, thinking that lambrusco sorbara has a great affinity with champagne.”
To understand Lambrusco, know this: It’s an ancient grape that evolved into three subvarieties, each confined to a specific territory. In the sandy alluvial soil of Sorbara, flanked by two rivers, there’s lambrusco sorbara. “This is the lightest in color, with stronger acidity, low alcohol, and lots of minerality, so it’s very tied to the terroir,” says Bellei. Further inland dwells the darker, more tannic, salami-shaped lambrusco salamino, while up in the foothills one finds lambrusco grasparossa (“red stalks”), the most intensely colored, full-throttled version.
While sorbara’s strength lies in its elegance and minerality, grasparossa is all about fresh, dark fruit. Grown around the medieval village of Castelvetro, this variety does best on sunny slopes. For quality Lambrusco, says Maria Livia Maricardi, “you begin with the zone. The grapes in the sunnier exposures have more perfume, more prestige.” She and her sister, Raffaella, run the Manicardi winery, founded by their father. Like many Lambrusco producers, they make dry, amabile, and rosato versions (as well as the region’s other famous product, Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale di Modena). But the jewel in the crown is their cru Vigna Cà del Fiore, grown on a well-exposed plot. Dry, dark, and intense, this is a perfect accompaniment to Bolognese-sauced pastas or roasted meats. Maria Livia loves it with zampone or stuffed pigs foot. “It’s not light,” she says of the regional dish with a laugh. “Lambrusco is good with this because it cleans the mouth.” Indeed, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is one of the few reds that has low alcohol—a modest 10.5%—but works well with roasts and other meat entrees thanks to its degreasing sparkle and dark, intense fruit. As with any Lambrusco, it’s best drunk young—within a year of its vintage, before its fruity perfumes disappear.
Down the hill is Corte Manzini, another quality winery run by an extended family of parents, siblings, and cousins. Here the flagship is also a dry cru—L’Acino—made from old grasparossa vines planted in 1966. The Manzinis recognize the specialness of these vines and are propagating clones for their new vineyards. Meanwhile, the Italian wine world is taking note. Since 2000, Corte Manzini has been racking up national awards, even outscoring prestigious contestants like Amarone. “It seems strange, but when you make a wine that’s really redolent of fruit, it gives a certain emotion,” says Enrico Manzini. In 2004, L’Acino won its first Due Bicchieri (Two Glasses) from Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most important wine competition. Like every winery with ambitions, their goal is Tre Bicchieri, the top category. “If Tre Bicchieri is given to a Lambrusco,” says Manzini, “it’ll unleash a revolution.”
Published in the October 2009 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.