Drink More (Great) Lambrusco

Written by Katie Parla on August 9, 2019

Wines (and a big ol’ hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano) at Vittorio Graziano’s vineyard.

Last summer I traveled to Emilia Romagna and southeastern Lombardy to report on Lambrusco for Imbibe Magazine. The wine I drank was made by tiny artisan producers and was nothing like that saccharine sweet mass produced Lambrusco that tarnishes this traditional wine’s good name. Read the piece, which appeared in the November/December issue of Imbibe, below, then seek out the delicious lambruschi of Vittorio Graziano, Quarticello, Corte Pagliare Verdieri, the Saetti family, and more…and don’t miss lunch at La Lanterna di Diogene, which has one of the greatest (and most affordable) Lambrusco cellars around!

IMBIBE (November/December 2019): Vittorio Graziano wasn’t a drinker. He’d pass up glasses of wine at meals, family functions and parties and was generally disinterested in Italy’s most iconic beverage. But that all changed when he met a wine-loving woman he fancied. Within a few years, Graziano transformed himself from a guy with a crush and an office job into one of Italy’s most opinionated winemakers. His approach to vino—specifically Lambrusco—has barely changed since his first vintage back in ’82. From the beginning, he’s been an artisan winemaker, practicing organic agriculture, growing grapes in symbiosis with their environment, and eschewing chemical intervention in his vineyards and cellar. Above all, he’s been committed to making Lambrusco the way it used to be, before mass production took over.

As Graziano and I wander among his rows of grape vines one July afternoon, mingling with spontaneous herbs and blooming wildflowers, he walks me through the history of Lambrusco,  made in the hills around Castelvetro di Modena in Emilia-Romagna. “This is the land of Parmigiano-Reggiano,” he says, referring to the local cow’s milk cheese that can be traced back at least five centuries. “Winemaking was secondary, so locals relied on late-maturing varieties like Lambrusco they could turn to after dairy work wound down. The wine they made would stop fermenting as the temperatures dropped, then begin fermenting again in the spring as the weather warmed, creating a bubbly wine in the closed bottle.”

Lambrusco, by definition, is a sparkling wine made from a family of grapes of the same name. Some Lambrusco varieties are blended with one another, while others are combined with grapes like Ancellotta and Malbo Gentile to impart color, structure or acid. Lambrusco encompasses nearly a dozen DOCs (Italian wine appellations) in two regions, and its production accounts for almost 50 percent of all sparkling Italian wine. The majority is mass-produced and engineered for homogeneity, so Graziano’s  traditional approach falls well outside the norm.

That ’70s Wine

Odds are that your first experience with Lambrusco was, like mine, in its mass-produced form: a syrupy, saccharine, intensely purple sparkler lacking elegance and character. It wasn’t always this way. Beginning in the 1970s, a number of factors propelled production away from centuries-old traditional methods toward a technology-driven industrial approach. Italian agricultural policies pushed farmers to join cooperatives, which supplied factory-like Lambrusco makers. While cooperatives allowed farmers to diffuse the costs of production and distribution, they were always hustling to satisfy demand, and Lambrusco’s integrity suffered as a result. The amount of Lambrusco flooding into the market increased precisely as its quality waned, debasing its reputation the world over. Meanwhile, large cooperatives and corporations sought cheaper and less labor-intensive ways to make Lambrusco, settling on the Charmat method, a technique in which wine is fermented in large, stainless steel, anaerobic tanks. Instead of being made in the bottle, the signature bubbles of Lambrusco are made in these autoclaves, resulting in a reliably jammy wine devoid of complexity.

“The Charmat method totally cancels out hundreds of years of winemaking in this region. You don’t even have to grow healthy grapes because you can manipulate the wine so much in the cellar,” Graziano tells me as we taste his Lambrusco “Fontana dei Boschi,” which was refermented in its bottle, as tradition dictates, in his dimly lit cellar. “Fontana dei Boschi,” like so many artisanal Lambruscos, is pink and cloudy and salty, without a hint of sweetness—the way Lambrusco used to taste. This complex and pleasant wine cleansed our palates as we let thin slices of guanciale, which Graziano sliced on a broad wooden table among his bottles, melt on our tongues in what is perhaps the world’s ultimate food and wine pairing.

Vines thrive when they are surrounded by other plants. Herbicides and even weeding contribute to inferior fruit.

A Different Path

Graziano’s wines, like many I tasted on the Lambrusco trail, didn’t fall under one of Lambrusco’s many DOCs. Most of the producers I encountered preferred to exit the mainstream appellations, choosing to declassify their wines in order to set them apart from the dominant industrial style. By freeing themselves of strict DOC rules, which favor the Charmat style, winemakers are free to use ancestral methods.

For a survey of declassified, old-school methods, I headed to a converted barn in the fields of Solara di Bomporto, just outside of Modena. At the end of a dusty gravel driveway, La Lanterna di Diogene is a working farm and balsamic vinegar producer that also serves meals on the weekends. Aside from visiting to support an important and inspiring place—La Lanterna’s staff is composed of developmentally disabled people and migrants—I go there to drink artisanal Lambruscos that are difficult to find outside of the area. Among them are bottles from Angol d’Amigo, hyper-natural sparkling wines made by Marco Lanzotti.

Seated beside the vegetable garden and bushes bursting with aromatic herbs, I order Marco’s “Celeste” to pair with the antipasto spread of simmered legumes, salumi and roasted vegetables. La Lanterna’s owner Giovanni Cuocci brings a water-filled basin to my table and places the neck of an inverted bottle of “Celeste” beneath the water—“Celeste” is stored upside down so the yeasts in this unfiltered wine sink into the neck. Using a pop-top bottle opener, he disgorges the Lambrusco, releasing pressure from the bottle along with the yeast into the water. He turns the bottle upright and pours a moussey (mousse like the texture, not mousey like the defect) stream of wine into my glass. “Celeste” is rife with bready and fruity notes and accompanies me through the rest of the meal, which concludes with a squash blossom frittata drizzled with La Lanterna’s own aged balsamic vinegar.

“Celeste” is one of a handful of Lambruscos meant to be disgorged by the consumer. Most others are subjected to this process in the cantina before being released into the wild. I visit Luciano Saetti and his daughter Sara at their cantina near Carpi, a 20-minute drive southeast of La Lanterna di Diogene, to see how they do it. Just inside the cantina entrance—and just about the only place in the whole building that wasn’t stacked high with bottles—inverted, unlabeled bottles of Saetti’s Lambrusco “Il Cadetto” sit with their necks chilling, the settled yeast forming a frozen plug of sorts near the cap. One at a time, Luciano removes the bottles, pops off their caps, releases gas and yeast, and corks the bottles again for their final rest in the cellar. All of Saetti’s wines are treated to this hands-on method.

Saetti is a small operation, and every step of the winemaking process is done manually, from the harvesting to the dégorgement to applying the foil over the lid, beneath which Saetti hides a message on a small square of paper declaring the artisanal nature of his Lambrusco. The fabric labels, too, are applied by hand, the work of local textile makers. “We believe deeply in the approach we have to making wine, and we want people to enjoy it and know how it’s made,” explains Luciano as he pours a glass of pink “Il Cadetto,” a wine made from Salamino di Santa Croce, a type of Lambrusco often blended to impart flavor. “Some people dismiss this grape, claiming it lacks aromas, but it expresses itself in this wonderful way if you let it,” says Sara. “It’s austere, but also smells of berries and it has a pleasant bitter finish that comes directly from the grape skins.”

The wine is indeed complex, a fact which the Saetti’s credit to their low intervention winemaking techniques, as well as the age of their vines. “Our Salamino vines are from ’64,” Sara says. “I can’t tell you how rare that is.”

The vast majority of Lambrusco was planted after the boom of the 1970s, when massive producers began dominating the market. Venturing northwest from Saetti toward Parma, it’s hard to miss one such producer, Riunite, one of Italy’s biggest winemakers by volume. The facilities occupy a sprawling airplane hangar along the highway between Reggio Emilia and Parma. Inside, Riunite makes their wine in autoclaves and ships it around the globe. In spite of their market dominance, they’ve taken notice of the small but increasingly popular artisanal Lambrusco that’s popping up throughout the region. The company recently launched a line of faux artisanal Lambrusco called “Senzatempo,” (Timeless), a wine crafted to evoke old-school Lambrusco through antique fonts and labeling.

Lambrusco and sparkling barbera at Camillo Donati’s vineyard.

Family Matters

Leaving the highway-adjacent factory behind me, I speed toward Parma, then turn south into the hills around Fellino to meet Camillo Donati, a third-generation winemaker. Set on a crest overlooking steep, vertical vineyards, Camillo’s cantina makes Lambrusco, as well as sparkling Malvasia and Barbera. Photos of his grandfather hang around the small tasting space, a reminder of a time before Lambrusco lost its identity. “If you look around the hills,” says Donati, gesturing toward the tractor-width rows of vines in the valley below, “you see a changed landscape packed with vines and stripped of the biodiversity that made the land so rich and varied. I’m afraid that won’t change, but neither will I.” His Lambrusco, mainly made from the Maestri variety, tastes of meat and cherries, flavors his ancestors knew nearly a century ago. “We [artisan wine makers] don’t produce much volume, but what we’re doing is a nuisance to industry. They can’t totally ignore that what we’re doing is historical and valid.”

While Donati has decades of family experience driving him, Mimma Vignoli came to winemaking through a different familial path. In the mid ’90s, her recently widowed mother-in-law Amadea Rosa needed help on her farm outside of Commessaggio, a village north of Parma and just across the Emilia-Romagna border in Lombardy. Vignoli, a fiercely driven woman, packed up her home in the village, moved to the farm, and took control of the family land and its 16 hectares. Within a few years, she’d transformed Rosa’s 18th-century rural compound into the Corte Pagliare Verdieri vineyard.

Vignoli envisions her farm as a holistic ecosystem of which grapes are only one component. Only three of her 16 hectares are planted with vines, while the others are dedicated to produce, herbs and grains. The land around her farm is flat, and the forest and river contribute to a humid microclimate, which she says makes the grapes unique to the place, as well as susceptible to blights. Rows of Lambrusco and Ancellotta grapes are visible from the front door of Vignoli’s stucco-clad farmhouse, which does triple duty as a cantina and tasting room.

As we inspect the vines early one evening, Vignoli prunes bunches by hand as we walk. She’s always moving and adjusting. While the vast industrial vineyards have killed any trace of life between their rows, Vignoli’s vineyard is teeming with vegetation. The grapes, mostly the Lambrusco Viadanese and Sorbara varieties, cohabitate with grass and herbs, all of which thrive as they share the nutrient-rich soil. These contribute to a mild herbaceous note in her critically acclaimed Ven Crud. The pleasantly puckering black cherry and plum notes further evoke the wild berries and heirloom fruit trees that populate the property.

I tell her how I love Ven Crud and its beauty and elegance; it’s tempting to cast this wine in a purely romantic light. Vignoli is quick to reply, “It’s not easy to make wines like this. It’s hard work you taste in that bottle! Now tell me,” she asks as she leans over and starts plucking wide green leaves from the garden near her vineyard. “How much kale can I send home with you?”

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