Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

A deep dive into Lambrusco

December 2023 saw my first-ever visit to the Emilia part of Emilia-Romagna for a deep dive into Lambrusco. I was the guest of the Consorzio Tutela Lambrusco who drew up an excellent programme in response to my research requests. In my work for the WSET, I am responsible for the textbook for the Sparkling Wines unit of the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines, including its chapter on Lambrusco. This article summarises what I learned, focusing on the diversity of styles of Lambrusco. I have also studied the data about Lambrusco since my return. All the data in this post is from the Regione Emilia-Romagna’s agricultural reports, retrieved 15 December 2023. For my posts on Romagna, click here.

Vineyard land in Emilia-Romagna

The region of Emilia-Romagna has just under eight per cent of Italy’s land under vine with 53,236 hectares registered in 2022. It has roughly half the number of hectares as each of the country’s three largest regions, Veneto, Sicily and Puglia. It ranks just below Tuscany and just above Piemonte in the size of its vineyard.

Even at this statistical level, the complexity of Lambrusco is noticeable. In Emilia-Romagna, if you focus on individual grape varieties, the three main Lambrusco varieties come in as the fourth, sixth and eighth most planted varieties, as shown in the bar chart below. Further, there is more Ancellotta, a black grape variety mostly used to improve the colour of pale red wines across Italy, than any of them. But if you aggregate the plantings of the three varieties, at 8,400 hectares, they would come second in the entire region and above Sangiovese.

To complete the regional picture, the hectares of the white variety Pignoletto, typically made as a sparkling wine, have increased rapidly in the decade to 2022. Barbera and Croatina are also important in the region as a whole.

Vineyard area in Emilia-Romagna

Lambrusco–the basics

Lambrusco is the collective name of a family of grape varieties and of a number of wines. The most planted Lambrusco variety is L. Salamino, followed by L. Grasparossa and L. Sorbara. In total, there are eight related varieties (Ian d’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, 2014, p. 67, following a study by Calò, Costacurta, and Scienza in 2001 ).

As noted, the three most important Lambrusco varieties together amount to just under 8,400 hectares or 16 per cent of the vineyard area of Emilia-Romagna. They are overwhelmingly grown in the two provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Emilia, the western half of Emilia-Romagna. The main cities of the area are Modena and Reggio Emilia. Modena is 45 minutes by car from the city of Bologna. Three-quarters of those hectares are in the province of Modena. If all the Lambrusco varieties are considered together, there is twice as much Lambrusco vineyard area in Modena as in Reggio Emilia. To complete the picture, there is also a smaller Lambrusco denomination, Lambrusco Mantovano DOC in Lombardy, directly to the north of Emilia.

There are striking differences in the Lambrusco varieties planted in the two main provinces of Emilia. In Modena, there is nearly twice as much L. Salamino and five times as much Grasparossa as in Reggio Emilia. L. Sorbara is grown nearly exclusively in Modena. But there are also 1,330 hectares of other Lambrusco varieties grown in Reggio Emilia. In descending order of hectares planted these are L. Maestri, L. Marani and L. Oliva, The non-Lambrusco variety, Malbo Gentile is also grown and is used sometimes to add colour and fruit to Lambrusco wine. None of these are important in Modena. In summary, L. Salamino is grown extensively in both provinces but otherwise, the hectares of the varieties grown are markedly different between the two. In turn, this difference underlies the diversity of styles of Lambrusco which will be discussed further below.

Lambrusco varieties planted in provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia

The Lambrusco denominations

As wine students know to their cost, there are multiple DOCs devoted to Lambrusco, some of which include the name of a variety in their name.

To start from the bottom of the pyramid. Lambrusco (any variety or blend of varieties) is one option within wines labelled IGT Emilia or dell’Emilia.

The sub-regional provincial denominations are Lambrusco di Modena DOC/Modena DOC and Reggiano DOC.

Finally, there are the smaller denominations which include the name of one of the varieties and their principal town. These accurately encapsulate the diversity of styles of Lambrusco. From south to north, these are:

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC (min. 85 per cent L. Grasparossa)
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC (minimum 60 per cent L. Sorbara)
  • Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC (minimum 85 per cent L. Salamino)

In addition, the Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa DOC, in the south of Reggio Emilia, also has no fewer than five Lambrusco options within it. Finally, Colli di Parma DOC Lambrusco requires a minimum of 85 per cent L. Maestri.

Although the soil types in the region are complex, an important difference is that L. Grasparossa does best on the clay and silt soils that are typical of the low hills around Castelvetro in the south of the area. The other varieties thrive on the rich soils of the plain that leads to the River Po. The fertility of the soils contributes to the high yields that are allowed in the various denominations. All the Lambrusco varieties are highly productive.

The maximum yields in hectolitres per hectare are:

  • IGT Emilia Lambrusco: 232 hL/ha
  • Lambrusco di Modena: 161 hL/ha
  • Lambrusco Salamino: 133 hL/ha
  • Reggiano Lambrusco, Lambrusco di Sorbara and Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro: 126 hL/ha
  • Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa: 112 hL/ha

For comparison, though with completely different grape varieties, Prosecco DOC allows up to 125 hL/ha, the Prosecco DOCGs 94.5 hL/ha and Asti DOCG 75 hL/ha.

Eighty per cent of hectares under vine in the province of Modena and an even higher proportion in Reggio Emilia are trained to three main systems: Sylvoz (high cordon), Geneva Double Curtain or spurred cordon (see above). The last of these has become increasingly popular in recent years because it allows more mechanisation.

Key discoveries
Grasparossa/Salamino vs Sorbara: the key to the range of styles

The most common wine style of Lambrusco is deep red, semi-sparkling, high acidity, tannic and off-dry to medium-sweet. All the wines combine rose-to-violet floral aromas with red-to-black fruit. But it is the range of wines which is hugely underappreciated. Perhaps the biggest single influence on wine style is the choice of grape variety. This is hardly news in the rest of the world of wine. Bordeaux can be Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominant, with very different effects; wines made from Nebbiolo and Barbera are dramatically diverse. But for some reason, this obvious starting point is ignored when it comes to Lambrusco. Perhaps this is because all the wines are sparkling, plus the poor reputation from the past. Put very simply, L. Grasparossa or L. Salamino-based wines will always be deep coloured and have some black fruit notes while wines made from L. Sorbara will be pale to the point of being rosé and red fruited. This difference also gives rise to the remarkable range of colours in the world of Lambrusco. Even ignoring Blanc de Noirs white wines, there is a considerable spectrum. Below you can see a rosé and a red made with L. Sorbara, and then wines made with L. Salamino and L. Grasprarossa.

Shades of Lambrusco
Shades of Lambrusco: the diversity of styles of Lambrusco

While L. Grasparossa and L. Salamino produce similarly deep-coloured wines, the former is markedly more tannic and black-fruited. By contrast, L. Salamino has aromas of tart plum.

Ever drier

Historically, Lambrusco has been known as a sweet wine with a range of off-dry to medium-sweet. Today the trend is two-fold. There is still a vast amount of wine that is perceptibly sweet. At the same time, producers are increasingly making drier wines. Many of these wines are between 3–10 g/L of residual sugar. Traditional method wines are typically Brut and ancestral method completely dry. All the varieties have high acidity at maturity and it is normal to block malolactic fermentation. As a result, acidity in the final wine can be as high as 7.5–9 g/L. The combination of high acidity and dryness can make the wines very austere, completely different from the traditional image of Lambrusco. These wines suit the current trend in Italy (and elsewhere) for dry sparkling wines that demand food.

Traditional method and ancestral method wines

The diversity of styles of Lambrusco is also due to the different methods of making sparkling wine. The great majority of Lambrusco wines are made by the tank method to preserve vivid primary fruit and to meet low price points. A refinement on this is long Charmat in which the wine is kept on the lees for six months. Examples include wines from Fattoria Moretto or the co-operative Cantina Puianello. However, there is a trend to make traditional or ancestral method wines. These are often made with L. Sorbara as the pale colour suits the elegance sought in traditional method wines. Time on lees varies from 24–30 months at Cantina Settecani and at Cantine Cavichiolli to a remarkable seven and a half years for one bottling at Cantina della Volta. As in other regions of the world, a few producers are making ancestral method wines. With red wines this results in suitably murky outcomes visually.

The rise of rosé

The palest red wines made with L. Sorbara are midway in the depth of colour between a pale red wine and a fashionably pale rosé. To this style has now been added pale rosé itself, ever popular in many markets. You can see these two colours in the picture of the range of Lambrusco colours higher up this post. These wines are fully to off-dry, leaving the medium-sweet category to more traditional deep-coloured wines. After many years on the lees, L. Sorbara goes an attractive pale copper colour as you can see below.

Having said that, Rosato is still a very small part of the production. The traditional style and the great majority of the wines continue to be Rosso Frizzante. The Frizzante style accounts for between 88–98 per cent of all categories of DOC wine except Sorbara. The great majority of these Frizzante wines are red. In the case of Lambrusco di Sorbara, 72 per cent is Frizzante and thus 28 per cent is Spumante. While virtually all Sorbara Frizzante wines are red (though only pale red!), 45 per cent of Lambrusco di Sorbara Spumante is Rosato.

Cantina della Volte. Lambrusco di Sorbara, Rosé
Cantina della Volte. Lambrusco di Sorbara, traditional method rosé
It’s not all red wines: Pignoletto and Spergola

Emilia is home to two white grapes, Pignoletto and Spergola, both made as sparkling wines. While the first has achieved a certain fame, at least in UK supermarkets always looking for an inexpensive Prosecco look-a-like, the latter is little known. Pignoletto has very pleasant medium-intensity exotic fruit as its main point of interest. Spergola has high acidity and is versatile. Traditionally the style was frizzante dolce, today it is also made in drier versions. Cantina Alberto Bertolani, for example, makes a long Charmat version with four months on the lees and 7 g/L residual sugar and a traditional method pas dosé wine. The wine itself is gently aromatic with floral, pear and peach notes with a saline finish.

As elsewhere, quality shines

Given the historic reputation of Lambrusco for low to medium quality, it is important to note the generally high quality being achieved today by co-operatives and private companies alike. The top line of a large co-operative such as Cantina Carpi e Sorbara offers a textbook range of wines. Top private producers include Venturini Baldini, a historic estate now revitalised by Julia and Giuseppe Prestia. Lambrusco here reaches a level of refinement rarely seen. They also offer rare examples of an oaked-aged still Malbo. Another outstanding winery is Christian Bellei’s Cantina della Volta. Here the focus is mainly on second fermentation in the bottle, either the traditional method or ancestral method. These wines demonstrate that L. Sorbara in particular is highly suitable for dry wines (0–5 g/L) and for ageing on the lees for long periods. Explosive redcurrant to red plum fruit is joined by complex light tertiary notes to create wines which are a million miles different in style to much Lambrusco.

Structure of the trade

Emilia, like many parts of Italy, is a region of small growers with an average holding of around 3.4 ha. This has nudged up from just over two hectares ten years ago. There are of course important private wineries that vinify and bottle wine from grapes they grow themselves (e.g. Fattoria Moretto or Venturini Baldini). But the vast majority of grapes–95 per cent according to Giacomo Savorini, director of the consorzio–are delivered to co-operative wineries. The co-operatives in turn sell much of their wine in bulk to large private bottling companies. For example, Carpi e Sorbara is the product of a merger of the co-operatives of these two towns in 2012. With 1,000 members and five production plants across the region, they sell 80 per cent of their wine in bulk and bottle 20 per cent. On the other hand, the single company, Riunite & Civ, the product of multiple mergers of co-operatives and the largest wine producer in Italy, bottles about 40 per cent of all Lambrusco. As a result, Emilia combines small, family-run vineyards with large-scale production and distribution companies. The main export markets are USA, Mexico, Germany, France, Spain, eastern European countries, and central and southern America.

Levels of production in 2022
Number of bottles of Lambrusco produced in 2022

Source: Consorzio Tutela Lambrusco

All the DOC wines add up to just nearly 41 million bottles in 2022, mostly sold in Italy. But there were some 107 million bottles of IGT Emilia Lambrusco which is often sweet and is mainly exported.

The challenge of premiumisation

It is obvious to everyone that Lambrusco has to work hard to explain what is special about its wines. There is no doubt that the cheap, frothy, sweet and red wine of the region continues to have a market. Forty per cent of the wine is sold in Italy of which 60 per cent is sold in the region. The promotional challenge for the better wines is considerable. Having even three principal grape varieties, never mind the minor ones, and multiple DOCs, some with complicated names, does not help. The names of the varieties are not well known. In terms of price, IGT Emilia Lambrusco and ‘partially fermented must’ are typically even cheaper than the DOC wines. Finally, it is also difficult to connect the wine to the place. The city of Modena is beautiful but is far more famous for its sports cars (Pagani, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati), its balsamic vinegar, its gastronomy (including the much-lauded Osteria Francescana) and Luciano Pavarotti than for its wine.

Creating one voice for Lambrusco

But while the challenge is real, the first steps to promote high-quality wines have been taken. A fundamental move was to amalgamate the various consorzi (growers associations) into a single Consorzio Tutela Lambrusco in January 2021. It now protects and promotes all the Lambrusco DOC wines of the two provinces. This was a big step forward as it brought scale and clarity to the task of promotion. The ambition was on full display at a remarkable promotional event held in the Eiffel Tower in Paris in June 2023, which I was fortunate enough to attend. This brought together wine, wine and food, and travel journalists, again a breadth of participants that showed imagination. After all, as we have seen, the city of Modena is more famous for cars, gastronomy and music than it is (yet) for wine. Some further events on this scale are planned in Italy in Matera (Basilicata) and Venice before another international event in New York. If you are in the wine trade or a keen wine consumer, you are going to hear much more about high-quality Lambrusco in the coming years.

The challenges facing Lambrusco are great. Multiple grape varieties, historically a poor reputation for quality, many DOCs (some with long names), shaking off the idea that the wines have to be sweet. But don’t be deterred from discovering the full range of colours and styles–the diversity of styles of Lambrusco–and their versatility with food.

With thanks to the Consorzio Tutela Lambrusco. I am grateful to the director, Giacomo Savorini, to Alice Camellini and Chiara Crepaldi who arranged my visits and to all the producers I visited. It was a great programme that without doubt improved my understanding of the region and its wines. The WSET Diploma textbook will be updated in light of this visit.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Scroll to Top