Close Menu

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 “Lambrusco”. Okay, I’d tasted some great Italian stuff but I’d never tasted top-drawer Lambrusco before. “That’s because UK Lambrusco isn’t Lambrusco,” explained Maria-Teresa Ceci of Cantine Ceci. 

Considering the UK’s insatiable thirst for sparkling wines from every corner of the world it’s amazing that there’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. “Lambrusco isn’t white either!” snapped Ceci.

Although a little rosé 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 it’s puzzling why these wines aren’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 “Ferrari town” 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. “That all changed about 15 years ago. It’s now sweet or medium-sweet, low price, low quality and inevitably low image,” notes Ca’ De’ Medici’s oenologist, Regolo Medici. Medici’s account ledgers tell the story. In 1996 the company sold 2 million bottles to the UK. Sales now stand at 150,000 bottles.

Duty bound  
The UK’s obsession with the dreaded price bands, together with punishing duty levels, has been instrumental in our plunge into poor-quality Lambrusco. “Keeping alcohol levels below 5.5% keeps the duty and, therefore, the shelf-price down,” 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. Ariola’s Marcello brand boasts 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, while Medici’s Oblio is enhanced by 40% oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. “The 60 grams/litre of sugar are not obvious due to the wine’s depth, frizzante and crisp balance,” 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. “Today’s technology now allows us to extract more colour and flavour,” adds Giulio Spallanzani, of Cantina Puianello.

The Italians take great pride in matching each of the styles with food. “Dry, red Lambrusco is the typical choice with our local food as it cleans the fatty salami and sausage,” 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, doesn’t think so. “Many companies tried to bring the best Lambruscos into the UK during the 1980s and never succeeded,” he says. Waitrose buyer Nick Room is also pessimistic. “I can’t remember when we last sold serious Lambrusco. The ‘ordinary’ ones just chug along,” 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. “France 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,” 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 Ceci’s BcO brand. There’s evidently little demand for it in Bolton!   
Medici’s US agent, Joe Talarico of Rose LLC, may have the answer to revive the UK’s flagging sales. “During 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,” he explains.

As we left Vinitaly, Fraser Alexander of Alexander Wines in Glasgow challenged me to show him “one really good Lambrusco”. Oblio hit the spot and produced a broad smile. “This is good. How much is it?” he asked. The attractive price reflected Lambrusco’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 we’re missing out on a unique tasting experience. What’s that I see? Aussie sparkling Shiraz looking over its shoulder?  db June 2006 

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No