Let’s get serious – Italy: Lambrusco
Apart from Ferraris, what is red and fizzes out of Modena? Top-quality red Lambrusco, some of which is turbo-charged with oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, says John Downes MW
They thought I was joking. Asked for my tasting highlight at Vinitaly, I answered â€œLambruscoâ€. Okay, Iâ€™d tasted some great Italian stuff but Iâ€™d never tasted top-drawer Lambrusco before. â€œThatâ€™s because UK Lambrusco isnâ€™t Lambrusco,â€ explained Maria-Teresa Ceci of Cantine Ceci.
Considering the UKâ€™s insatiable thirst for sparkling wines from every corner of the world itâ€™s amazing that thereâ€™s no demand for quality Lambrusco. We buy shed-loads of cheap, low-alcohol, medium-sweet, semi-sparkling white Lambrusco but this bears no resemblance to the exciting fizzy reds produced in the Emilia-Romagna vineyards of northern Italy. â€œLambrusco isnâ€™t white either!â€ snapped Ceci.
Although a little rosÃ© is produced, the best Lambrusco is red, vibrant, black cherry, rich and frizzante (lightly sparkling). Made from the Lambrusco grape, the top wines are produced in the vineyards around the towns of Modena, Parma and Reggio, and with Australian sparkling Shiraz now attracting a cult following itâ€™s puzzling why these wines arenâ€™t even in the frame.
The top DOCs of Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro and Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, are located around the â€œFerrari townâ€ of Modena. Sorbara, Grasparossa and Salamino are superior sub-varieties of the grape and each responds to its favoured terroir with an individual taste profile. Lambrusco Sorbara, grown on the sandy, potassium-rich soils between the Secchia and Panaro rivers, is light in colour with fine violet aromas and crisp acidity. Grasparossa, fuller in flavour and deeper in colour, makes sweeter wines, whereas Salamino, grown in lower-lying vineyards, produces richer yet broader, frothy red sparklers. Are you getting the picture? There is a serious side to Lambrusco!
The styles of top Lambrusco range from dry through medium to sweet and, not so long ago, were all part of the UK portfolio. â€œThat all changed about 15 years ago. Itâ€™s now sweet or medium-sweet, low price, low quality and inevitably low image,â€ notes Caâ€™ Deâ€™ Mediciâ€™s oenologist, Regolo Medici. Mediciâ€™s account ledgers tell the story. In 1996 the company sold 2 million bottles to the UK. Sales now stand at 150,000 bottles.
The UKâ€™s obsession with the dreaded price bands, together with punishing duty levels, has been instrumental in our plunge into poor-quality Lambrusco. â€œKeeping alcohol levels below 5.5% keeps the duty and, therefore, the shelf-price down,â€ confirms Medici. And here lies the first problem. The best Lambruscos are red and weigh in at between 10 to 11.5 degrees for dry and 7 to 8.5 degrees alcohol for sweet wines.
Many winemakers are now adding Cabernet Sauvignon to lift Lambrusco to greater heights. Ariolaâ€™s Marcello brand boasts 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, while Mediciâ€™s Oblio is enhanced by 40% oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. â€œThe 60 grams/litre of sugar are not obvious due to the wineâ€™s depth, frizzante and crisp balance,â€ explains Regolo Medici.
Probably after being bombarded by exploding bottles, the people of Emilia-Romagna have always known that they needed to tie down the corks of their bottles. They had little control of the fizz in the early days as brass-monkey winter temperatures blocked the fermentation leaving residual sugar to continue working as the spring temperatures cut in. Technology is now king and about 95% of production is by the Charmat method, where the frizzante (at approximately 2.5 atmospheres) wines are the result of a second fermentation in large pressure-sealed, temperature-controlled vats. Texts back to the 1300s show that, historically, Lambrusco was always light in colour. â€œTodayâ€™s technology now allows us to extract more colour and flavour,â€ adds Giulio Spallanzani, of Cantina Puianello.
The Italians take great pride in matching each of the styles with food. â€œDry, red Lambrusco is the typical choice with our local food as it cleans the fatty salami and sausage,â€ explains Claudia Ghezzi Ceci, of Vigne e Vini Ariola.
So could Italian restaurants around the UK be a springboard for top Lambrusco? David Gleave MW, MD of Italian specialist Liberty Wines, doesnâ€™t think so. â€œMany companies tried to bring the best Lambruscos into the UK during the 1980s and never succeeded,â€ he says. Waitrose buyer Nick Room is also pessimistic. â€œI canâ€™t remember when we last sold serious Lambrusco. The â€˜ordinaryâ€™ ones just chug along,â€ he shrugs.
The producers continue to scratch their heads when it comes to UK exports. Cantine Ceci produces 2m bottles annually and exports 15% of it, with France, Spain, Germany and Japan featuring strongly. â€œFrance takes 20% of our exports with wine-loving Paris and Bordeaux being big consumers of our top wines. Sadly the UK, and even London, only wants cheap white fizz,â€ bemoans Ceci.
While playing for Parma (2001-04) Japanese footballer Nakata fell in love with Lambrusco. He may now be playing for Bolton Wanderers in the English Premiership but his love affair goes on as he is now the Japanese agent for Ceciâ€™s BcO brand. Thereâ€™s evidently little demand for it in Bolton!
Mediciâ€™s US agent, Joe Talarico of Rose LLC, may have the answer to revive the UKâ€™s flagging sales. â€œDuring the 1970s and 80s the States were also buying poor quality Lambrusco but an educational programme linked to focused PR over an eight-year period means that sales of good quality Lambrusco are now rising strongly within a declining Italian wine market,â€ he explains.
As we left Vinitaly, Fraser Alexander of Alexander Wines in Glasgow challenged me to show him â€œone really good Lambruscoâ€. Oblio hit the spot and produced a broad smile. â€œThis is good. How much is it?â€ he asked. The attractive price reflected Lambruscoâ€™s low esteem in the UK and, after a bit of mental arithmetic, made his smile even broader.
So Scotland may be the first to get top-quality red Lambrusco back on the shelves. Hopefully the rest of us will follow because weâ€™re missing out on a unique tasting experience. Whatâ€™s that I see? Aussie sparkling Shiraz looking over its shoulder? db June 2006