Italy's northern region, Emilia-Romagna, is most famed for its Lambrusco wines. The heartland of the Lambrusco region lies between Montecchio, Gualtieri and Cavriago, extending from Reggio Emilia through Modena to Bologna and up to Mantova. Most of the vineyards sit on the flat lowlands; the soils rich in mineral salts nurture grapes that produce clean, refreshing, fragrant and dry wines. Those vineyards situated in the hilly and semi-hilly areas produce grapes that, after pressing, provide excellent olefactory notes and evanescent foam with purple hues.
The wine is made from the noble red-grape variety of the same name, which like many native Italian grapes dates back centuries (known in ancient times as vitis labrusca). It was once a wild-growing vine tamed by the Etruscans, and later the Romans greatly appreciated it for its level of productivity and high yields. Today there are many Lambrusco clones: the most common are Grasparossa, Maestri, Marani, Monstericco, Salamino and Sorbara. In the old days vine training involved using poplar trees so the vine could climb up them; over the years the tradition has been adapted so the vines are trained high on stakes to avoid mildew developing.
The Lambrusco grape itself does not have a sweet personality; partial fermentation, or the addition of sweeter Ancellotta grapes to a blend, gives this variety a sweet lift. Without these processes, Lambrusco can become a dry wine characterized by its strawberry notes, high acidity and slightly bitter finish. There are at least 60 varieties of Lambrusco, the most widely planted being Salamino.
Lambrusco is a lightly colored, low-alcohol and frizzante red wine, intended to be drunk young. Light in tannins and body, it is a particularly refreshing wine with a lively sparkle and a fragrant bouquet (fruity and floral with hints of violets and heather). The flavors are vibrant and clean with an underlying zesty acidity. Its most notable characteristic is its frothy 'head', which occurs through the Charmat process (dealing with bulk quantities and adhering to less-stringent standards) or the methode traditionnelle (producing a higher-quality wine).
Despite its long history, Lambrusco was hardly known outside the region until its commercial success in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. The wine has gained a bad reputation in subsequent years and is seen as a cheap, bulk-produced and low-quality wine. This is because co-operative wineries grow vast quantities of grapes in order to make more money, since they are paid by the ton – and as a result, quantity rules over quality. Additionally, the majority of vineyards are found on the flat lowlands in widely spaced rows, trained high off the ground for easy accessibility by tractor. The prejudices are also hard to escape since many people believe there is only one kind of Lambrusco on the market, when in fact there are five DOCs: Reggiano, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa and Lambrusco di Modena.
The wines may share common traits, but each has their own distinct personality and sensory characteristics thanks to a combination of natural attributes, soil diversity and different macroclimates. Despite the area's 'ordinary' image, there are a number of producers upping the quality stakes and making some very interesting wines – not just the sweeter non-DOC Lambruscos that seem to be most prolific on the international scene. The best Lambruscos are produced in the hillside vineyards near the medieval town of Castelvetro, in the province of Modena. This is also the home of Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, which gained its DOC status in 1970.
This area is the smallest of the Lambrusco DOCs situated south of the town of Modena. The production zone extends over Castelfranco Emilia, Castelnuovo Rangone, Fiorano, Formigine, Maranello, Marano sul Panaro, Prignano sul Secchia, Savignano sul Panaro, Spilamberto, Sassuolo, Vignola and San Cesario sul Panaro in the province of Modena, and parts of the commune of the town of Modena.
The Grasparossa varietal thrives best on slopes with good sunny exposure, which brings out the perfumed characteristics of the grape. It must make up at least 85% of the wine with the possible addition of up to 15% Brugnolo (locally known as Fortana and Uva d’Oro) and/or Malbo Gentile. The wines are full bodied and deep purple in color, with pronounced fruity aromas, fresh dark-fruit flavors and a good tannic structure (of all the Lambrusco clones, Grasparossa has the most tannins). With the lowest alcohol content at 10.5%, it is designed to match the cuisine of the area, such as zampone (stuffed pig's trotter).