I’d never really heard of Lambrusco before I arrived in Emilia Romagna, Prosecco and Sangiovese had made it to England (the former is hugely popular over here), but sparkling red wine not so. I have never been much of a white wine drinker and so the idea that a fizzy red wine existed was particularly exciting. This was made all the more so by the fact that it seemed to be absolutely everywhere in Modena and the surrounding towns.
Lambrusco tastings, Lambrusco paired with pieces of Parmigiano cheese, even a festival dedicated to Lambrusco, the region has it all. Even the bottles are attractive, the mysteriously dark glass, the intricately designed labels, some come complete with gold font and are attractively embossed with metallic lettering.
Although very popular in Northern Italy, it doesn’t seem to be so well known in the UK. Some of my older relatives dismissed it as a drink that “doesn’t travel well” whilst reminiscing on their student days in the 70s and 80s, drinking cheap and sickly-sweet versions of the sparkling wine at parties. Meanwhile, British friends in their 20s had never even heard of the stuff, yet when I managed to track down a bottle, it appeared to be really very popular, both for its unusual flavour and ruby-red colour which went rather well with our pasta.
Lambrusco makes for a very complementary addition to a plate of Prosciutto and Salumi. Its acidity and fizz contrast well with rich and crumbly chunks of Parmigiano, coupled with a Gnocco Fritto (a type of savoury fried bread which is typically eaten and piled high with Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano).
Unfortunately, the cheap, mass-produced and relatively sweet Lambrusco drunk across Europe and America in the second half of the 1900s seems to have tarnished the wine’s reputation abroad. However, higher quality (and less sweet) versions of the drink are gradually making their way into both London’s Italian shops and its supermarkets. Meanwhile, the drink remains hugely popular in Modena and the surrounding regions.
There’s even a festival of Lambrusco every September in the hilltop town of Castelvetro di Modena. Here visitors can taste different Lambrusco wines and learn more about its production, both in the old town and at nearby farms in the area. Travelling towards the red-roofed Castelvetro you can really get a sense of scale. Field upon field of neatly arranged and carefully tended vineyards line the narrow country roads leading to the terracotta town. It’s so prevalent in the region that last year there was even a case of Lambrusco accidentally coming out of taps (instead of water).
For me, a glass of Lambrusco brings with it a sweet nostalgia for days as in Italy; for small plastic cups fizzing with cool, red deliciousness, reminding me of humid June evenings, when the air felt heavy and we didn’t leave the house until the sun had gone down.
To find out more about the wine and how it is made, I spoke to Tommaso Chiarli who is the fifth generation of the Chiarli family making Lambrusco. They are the oldest producer of Lambrusco in Emilia Romagna and have wineries in both Modena and Castelvetro di Modena.
How long has Chiarli been making Lambrusco for?
Chiari started in 1860 and it’s the oldest winery in Emilia Romagna, both in the Lambrusco and Sangiovese areas of Emilia Romagna. It’s still a 100% private business and has always belonged to the Chiarli family. My cousins and I are the fifth generation.
How did Chiarli start?
When the business began, Lambrusco was a very local wine, it was often produced by farmers and people would make their own versions at home.
My relative Cleto Chiarli had an Osteria in Piazza della Pomposa in Modena. Winemaking was where his passion lay, he shut the restaurant in 1859 and instead developed wine production into a business.
He started bottling the wine and fermenting it in the bottles. Later, in 1900, Chiarli went to the Paris Exhibition where he received a prize for the wine. This saw its popularity grow outside of Italy and in the rest of Europe.
The business was destroyed in the Second World War. My grandfather and his brother put it back together. They brought in the new Charmat technology, which meant that the business could grow and produce more wine.
The Charmat method, which appeared in the 1950s, meant that Lambrusco could be mass-produced and became well known around the US and Europe. In this period it may not have been taken seriously as it was sweet and of lower quality. However, in the last 20 to 30 years Lambrusco’s position has returned back to how it was in the first half of the 20th century, considered a more ‘serious’ wine.
How is Lambrusco made?
There are really two main methods used to produce Lambrusco, the Charmat method and fermenting the wine in bottles. There’s also the classic method, but this is very rarely used.
What is the Charmat method?
The most popular Charmat method is also used for making Prosecco and Asti wines. This method consists of fermentation of tcrushed grapes in an autoclave (a large, sterile, and pressurised tank), either with a base of wine and must (freshly crushed grapes and their skins) or just with a base of must. We use 100% must in our wine fermentation so we can preserve the main characteristics of the wine.
The liquid is then filtered before being slowly fermented at low temperatures (11C 14C) in a pressurised tank. The wine is then kept very cold for at least a week so that any impurities are removed before it is bottled.
What is the bottle fermentation method?
This method is similar to the way that Champagne is made. In the old days, the wine would be bottled in the winter around Christmas time when it had already fermented slightly. The warmer spring weather would allow it to naturally ferment within the bottles until it was ready to be drunk a few months later.
This method is still practised but in a much more controlled and scientific way, with temperature and taste monitored carefully.
Once the cork is in the bottle unlike Champagne Lambrusco isn’t filtered again, so sometimes residue from the fermentation process is left behind. Therefore it’s occasionally a little cloudy, like some natural wines.
How long does Lambrusco keep for?
If kept in the right conditions, the wine will keep for about one and a half to two and a half years, depending on the type of Lambrusco.
What would you recommend pairing it with?
Lambrusco has a high acidity so it’s good with fried, salty, and fatty foods. Anything with a very strong taste tends to go well with Lambrusco because it is a light-bodied wine, which when combined with high acidity it is perfect to cleanse the palate.
The cuisine of Emilia Romagna is excellent with it, but it can also go really well with Mexican and BBQ food.