High and dry
A handful of pioneers are persevering with dry –some might say "grown-up" – styles of Lambrusco. But will they be taken seriously, asks Robyn Lewis?
AN INTERNET search for "Lambrusco" results in a surprising number of articles espousing the use of screwcaps. "Screw-caps, forever associated with cheap, weak Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch are actually a decent proposition for wine closures," appears to be the gist of most.
Those of us in the trade will be well aware by now that screw-caps are doing a grand job in overcoming their image handicap but will Lambrusco be able to follow suit? The perception of Lambrusco as a sweet, poor quality, fizzy Italian wine that many consumers bring to the table is certainly making life hard for those producers in the region that are working to produce good quality wines from the Lambrusco grape.
Rather than the above description these Lambruscos are dry, acidic and good quality wines. In Italy they are widely consumed, mostly with food, matching especially well with the local foods of Emilia-Romagna, which is famous for Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, among its many other delicacies.
However, translating this image to the export markets has not been easy. At Chiarli, a family-owned winery in Modena, the capital of the region, there has been much investment in being able to produce just this sort of good quality, dry Lambrusco.
The brothers that own the operation have invested around €4 million in the winery, on top of an extensive vineyard redevelopment, in order to achieve their goal. "It will be very difficult to recover that investment but it was our feeling that as the oldest producer in the area [the winery was established in 1860], we should be at the forefront of regenerating Lambrusco wines," says Anselmo Chiarli, co-owner of the winery.
"The work really started back in 1993 when we decided we wanted to give some innovative character to the wines and improve the image of both the product and the area. We don’t wish to be in the minority on this, we want other producers to follow suit and start a real revolution."
The business now produces some 25m bottles a year with a turnover of around €35m. Its biggest export market is the UK which takes about 20% of its total exports, though it is the domestic market that still currently drinks most of the company’s wine.
"In Italy we [Lambrusco] are a national wine and we are developing a very favourable position here. We are competing, I suppose, with only ourselves as there isn’t really an equivalent," says Chiarli.
Thus far the dry Lambrusco project has seen encouraging results in several markets, but as Rico Grootveldt, export manager at the winery says, it isn’t easy. "This is a very serious wine, a dry wine and that is something completely different to what people are expecting from a Lambrusco.
So when you are out trying to sell the wine it isn’t even as if you are starting from a zero reputation. You are working with a minus five disadvantage because of people’s perception of sweet Lambrusco.
To sell dry Lambrusco you have to have a certain level of knowledge of the market, people need to be open to experimentation and want to learn about wine. So, there are good markets like the UK but in others it is harder.
In Germany, for example, it is impossible to sell because, although Italy has a very positive image and they are curious drinkers, the expectation of Italian wine is more akin to an old Barolo."
In the UK Chiarli wines are imported and distributed by Enotria where, as head of marketing, Damian Carrington explains, the hard work has continued. "We have been working with the Chiarli family for over 20 years and have followed the new project since its inception.
We think that there is a desire in a growing segment of the UK market to return to natural, traditional products rooted in a sense of place. The dry Lambrusco project is one of these." The Enotria team has employed a strategy of "seeing and tasting" in order to dispel some of the misconceptions about the sparkling wine.
"We embarked on a tasting programme with our sales force and clients to break down the barriers that the name Lambrusco itself often creates," explains Carrington. "We have taken our entire sales force out there to experience the region, which has been an essential part of the launch strategy.
We have also taken the new Lambrusco around the country to various tastings and events and have done a fair bit of work pairing it with Parma ham and Parmesan, both of which are foods closely associated with the wine."
Carrington admits that it can be difficult to sell on to consumers but says that in a one-to-one selling environment it is often possible to persuade people of its merits. "We think it is all a matter of presentation.
If you ask a customer if they would like to taste a Lambrusco, nine times out of 10 they will say no. But if you ask them if they would like to taste a classic Italian wine that is great with food they tend to be more curious and more receptive. We also actively encourage selling by the glass to get trial."
Carrington admits that thereis no expectation to sell a million cases of the wine (though "That would be nice!"), but he does believe there is a niche market and serious growth potential for it – as long as it is sold in the right way and in the right environment.
"It is suited to restaurants with knowledgeable staff and/or a sommelier. It is also ideal for independent wine shops and delicatessens (with licences) where the product can be recommended," he says.
Lambrusco – from cheap, sweet plonk to top quality tipple! Whatever next? Consumers buying expensive wines in screw-cap?