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160 million bottles of Lambrusco are replenished from Emilia to the shelves of the world's supermarkets every year. Most of it is worth its low price, but uninteresting for pampered palates. In the flood of mediocrity, one tends to overlook the fact that Lambrusco has an old tradition and that some labels can be great fun even for discerning wine noses. It really doesn't always have to be Bordeaux or Barolo, every now and then we can treat our wallets and palates to lighter fare, especially if there is something to go with it on the plate. Those whose prejudices are less than their curiosity could make a pleasurable discovery with Lambrusco. The chance of hitting the mark is one in fifty. Merum helps you win the pleasure game.

"Because it's dangerous!", Sandro Cavicchioli warned me. "A serious wine journalist risks his reputation when he writes about Lambrusco," the winemaker answered me when I asked why Lambrusco was so consistently hushed up by the wine press. Rico Grootveldt, export manager at Chiarli: "The Lambrusco region is a black spot on the Italian wine map. A taboo zone. No one talks about Lambrusco, everyone seems to be afraid of burning their fingers."
Lambrusco is produced, sold and drunk. Silently, because there is little to say about it; at least that is true for 98 percent of the production. But the other two percent - perhaps three million bottles - deserve attention, because they taste great, are prepared with love and care, have real tradition, are inimitable; those who have learned to appreciate them no longer want to do without them. These Lambrusco are worth talking about - and writing about.
Not all that glitters is DOC: even if, as a rule, DOC Lambrusco (around 40 million bottles) is superior to IGT in terms of quality - see also the chart "DOC and IGT Lambrusco" for maximum yields per hectare - the elite two-per-cent group includes not only DOC, but also IGT wines with fancy names and Lambrusco-based Spumante.
DOC gives the buyer clues about the origin, the varieties, the maximum yield per hectare, but not about the sensory quality. Unfortunately, not only almost all IGT Lambrusco, but also the majority of DOC Lambrusco are so loaded with residual sugar that they are unsuitable for higher demands.

Millions in sales without added value and image
The difference is striking: a Tuscan producer - even if he only produces a few hundred thousand bottles - is a proud entrepreneur. When he is not prevented from doing so by a presentation of his wines in New York or Singapore, he resides in his rustic-comfortable office, usually at a safe distance from the noise of work and clay-dirt work boots. The view of the vineyard is part of the obligatory office inventory. What catches the eye on a tour of the estate is expensive, sometimes ostentatious cellar architecture as well as skilful (also expensive) representation management with a luxury agriturismo and swimming pool for the guests.
The exact opposite can be experienced in Emilia. The masters of ten, twenty million bottles are still sitting in their unadorned cement dungeons, which were part of the construction of the cellar building in the seventies. With a few exceptions - namely where the investment capital does not come from the wine sector but from other activities - the latest investments of the Lambrusco entrepreneurs are also of a very modest nature, at least measured against the masses of wine they move.
The margin between grape and bottle prices has become thinner and thinner in the course of the last few years. If a kilo of grapes (Reggiano Lambrusco DOC) cost 14 to 20 euro cents ten years ago, the same grapes cost 35 to 45 euro cents today. But while the price of grapes has more than doubled, the corner price for IGT discount goods has remained unchanged at 60/65 euro cents a bottle.
Even if the serious wine houses claim that they are unable to deliver for less than one euro/bottle, large quantities of Lambrusco are going to the hard discounters at the old rock-bottom prices. Not the eight euros or the fourteen francs for which a top Lambrusco is sold in the Zurich Önothek or in the Munich wine shop, but the 60 cents of certain competitors are the reality with which the serious wine houses have to compete in the market.
Only far-sighted specialist retailers invest more than 3.00 euros in quality Lambrusco; the lion's share of their production has to be left to the supermarket chains of Italy, England, Germany and the USA for less than half of that. And at these prices they have to deliver good quality, good service and impeccable presentation if they want to set themselves apart from the 60-cent bottlers.
In the end, little remains. But the smaller the margin, the more the wine houses have to turn over. They console themselves with keeping the production machine running and being able to cover the fixed costs. No one has such a tight grip on their expenses as the Lambrusco producers. They know down to the penny what effect even the slightest price change has on the operating account.
Anselmo Chiarli illustrates the tight situation with the words: "If we could charge just five cents more for our basic products, we would really make money". But surely it should be possible to push through slightly higher prices? "No," says Chiarli, "Lambrusco is not only bottled here in Emilia, but also in Naples, in Brescia, in Verona. The only selling point in certain markets is price."
Rico Grootveldt, export manager at Chiarli, is even more explicit: "It all works. You can survive, but we can't put on any fat. If a pallet falls off the forklift in the cellar, I have to sell a hundred pallets to make up for the damage!"
Lambrusco producers are not only tired of talking about prices instead of wine, they are also struggling with their - if I may say so - self-inflicted fate as suppliers of a drink that has the function of a cola substitute in the market. The fact that they are increasingly suffering from not being taken seriously as wine producers is clearly evident in the conversations. They are greedy for rehabilitation, for a bit of respect. They want the market to be more willing to differentiate. They want the market to distinguish their Lambrusco into good and commercial products, that someone takes notice when they wring a top product out of themselves; even if it is called Lambrusco.

What is going on with Chiarli?
In Emilia, the tasks are separated: the winegrower produces grapes, the Cantina Sociale prepares wine or must from them and sells them to the private wineries. The latter take care of the second fermentation and the sale.
In recent years, the division of labour has become increasingly blurred. Cooperative wineries are striving for more direct marketing - usually through cooperative marketing structures like Coltiva or Riunite - and the wine houses increased the share of self-vinified base wines and musts. Their special lines are always based on their own grapes.
Sandro Cavicchioli has been producing the grapes for his top Sorbara "Vigna del Cristo" himself for years, and Alberto Medici (Medici Ermete) also produces his renowned Lambrusco "Concerto" in his own vineyard, but Anselmo Chiarli's latest step has pioneering character.
The Chiarli family has been producing Lambrusco for 140 years. As tradition would have it, Chiarli buys basic wines, bottles them and sells them; 24 million a year by now. When a traditional house like Chiarli, which in the past had its own grapes vinified in other cellars and always concentrated strictly on its traditional work as a producer and marketer of large quantities, now decides to invest in a large, technologically and architecturally perfect vinification and representation cellar for its top products, it is symbolic.
Anselmo currently puts the demand for top Lambrusco from his house at one million bottles (4% of production): "But the demand could soon become more." In a cellar designed for this purpose, the quality of top Lambrusco can be significantly increased.
Add to this the cost argument: Chiarli's bottling machines in Modena fill, cork, label and package ten thousand bottles per hour. If you have to bottle a special Lambrusco Cru with such equipment, you use half of it just to fill all the lines and a morning goes by to set up the machine for bottling.
Anselmo: "In a business like ours in Modena, 500,000 bottles have to be filled every year for each employee - from the night porter to the cellar master to the accountant - otherwise our bill doesn't add up. To be able to take care of niche Lambrusco in peace, we have to create our own conditions, especially structural ones. That's why this investment."
With the construction of the new cellar in Castelvetro, the Chiarli family is not only pleasing itself: the competition is also pleased! Small winegrowers as well as large wine producers are enthusiastic about Chiarli's investment; it is clear everywhere that this represents a glimmer of hope for Lambrusco, a new beginning.
A new beginning that will benefit everyone who has an interest in the good reputation of Lambrusco - not least those wine lovers who have always believed in Lambrusco!
Cavicchioli also announces investments in Castelvetro. The enterprising Sandro Cavicchioli, whose winemaking ambition not only comes to the fore in top-class Sorbara Lambrusco, but also in a Franciacorta DOCG (Castel Faglia), now wants to get to grips with the terroir of Castelvetro and is acquiring a vineyard in the immediate vicinity of Chiarli's new cellar in these weeks. Cavicchioli has set his sights on a model vineyard for Grasparossa with Guyot training.
Asked about his colleagues' activity, Gian Paolo Gavioli, export manager at Coltiva, hinted that his company, too, would soon have news to announce in this regard. Lambrusco country is on the move.
Anyone who follows the fortunes of Lambrusco will confirm the rapid quality development of this wine in the last few years. The best Lambrusco labels have not only become more perfect, they have also become more. New wineries have risen up the ranks - Zucchi, Corte Manzini, Pederzana, Villa di Corlo, etc. -, and new top lines are being produced by the best Lambrusco producers. - and new top lines are being developed by the wine houses as well as the cooperatives.
For a good year now, Riunite has been producing two new Lambrusco lines - Ottocento and Cuvée dei Fondatori - which are better than anything presented in the past. With this new generation of quality, the giant has placed itself at the forefront of the Lambrusco avant-garde. Quality, however, does not simply come about by chance in a company like this. Export manager Elena Lottici provides the strategic market reason for this: "In America, sweet Lambrusco is an entry-level wine. Thanks to it, young people find their way to wine enjoyment in the first place. We were missing the next level. With the new lines, we're finally filling a gap we've always had at the top end."

Why Lambrusco is a brilliant wine
Lambrusco has gotten much better in recent years. The top wines like the supermarket stuff. Unlike wine regions like Tuscany and Piedmont, however, the improvement in quality in Emilia does not stem from massively reduced vine yields, but from improved technology.
Lambrusco, even that produced in small batches, is at least as much a child of technology as of terroir. Let's forget for once everything we've learned, according to which wine is made in the vineyard and becomes better the lower the yield.
This is not wrong, but it is also not inevitable in every case: the sometimes uneconomically low yields per hectare of Tuscany & Co. were often unavoidable because high-quality wines had to be produced with plants with less than two thousand vines per hectare (instead of five or six thousand).
As paying wine customers, however, it makes sense to us that the fewer grapes per hectare harvested, the higher the costs. Those who value good wines, but not necessarily high prices, will only be happy about low yields if they are really unavoidable to produce a desired type of wine.
Lambrusco is a different story: Lambrusco produces good wines even at yields where Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera and co. have long been known for banality and green tannins. Here, too, the quality of the grapes is of course important; no quality wine can be "invented" in the cellar.
However, while the varietal character of other varieties begins to suffer from unmistakable signs of watering down and unripeness at yields of more than ten tonnes, the aromatic Sorbara, for example, which thrives in the middle of the fertile Po plain, retains its characteristic aromas and fresh, appetising acidity even at yields per hectare of eighteen tonnes.
A yield of eighteen tonnes of grapes per hectare for the production of a quality wine contradicts everything we have learned about wine science in the last twenty years, but in this case it does not contradict the pleasure of wine, nor the income of the winegrowers, least of all the budget of wine lovers.
The same applies to Lambrusco Reggiano. In the province of Reggio, too, worthy products can be obtained with yields of up to eighteen tonnes.
If you want to obtain wines of the kind of Concerto by Medici Ermete, however, you first need modern equipment, since pergola cultivation does not guarantee the desired complexity with sufficient regularity.
But you don't need to go below ten tonnes of grapes per hectare, even for a wine like Concerto. Giulio Caprari agrees: "Eighteen tonnes of yield here already give a good grape quality with 85 to 95 degrees of oechsle, we don't even want more."
Only the Grasparossa di Castelvetro has lower yields. The producers speak of twelve tonnes of grapes. In old Grasparossa vineyards in the hillside, the yield per hectare is often a scant eight tonnes, no more than what may also be harvested for a Barolo. The "Acino" from Corte Manzini or the Grasparossa from Pederzana, for example, come from such vineyards.
The wonderful thing about Emilia is that here Lambrusco does not drip, but flows in streams. Whoever produces a concentrated wine from super-low vine yields in Tuscany or elsewhere shows his ambition for quality, but it is not a sign of genius. It is not an art to make a great wine for twenty euros. Rather, genius is when a five- or six-euro wine is fun to drink. As long as it tastes great and its authenticity is established, it makes no difference that such a wine comes from a top-flat parcel and from yields that are double or triple those of a Super Tuscan.
Lambrusco is not only an ingenious wine because it is simply uniquely suited to certain foods and in certain situations; what is also ingenious is that even the best labels are available at absolute friendship prices.

How does discount Lambrusco get its price?
If 98 percent of Lambrusco production today is not suitable for discerning palates, then it is certainly due to the grapes themselves (too high yields per hectare, low-quality grapes), sometimes due to poorly stored batches of wine and must.
Almost always, however, both the lack of quality and the high quality of a Lambrusco are due to a business decision. Even a lack of quality is often not a coincidence, but the direct consequence of a short-term cost-benefit calculation. The prerequisite for high quality, on the other hand - and this does not only apply to Lambrusco - are long-term strategies and almost always irrational elements such as ambition and love of wine on the part of the producer.
On the positive side, the quality of Lambrusco has improved greatly in recent years, even among the lower-priced Lambrusco. The technology in the cellars of most Lambrusco vintners has reached a level of perfection that virtually eliminates any chance or accident. Lambrusco has thus become an almost perfect industrial product. ("Almost" because the initial product is still a natural product and therefore cannot be standardised).
However, anyone who takes a bottle of Lambrusco for 1.49 euros off the shelf in Germany must know that all they get for it is just the name "Lambrusco", a grape juice of indeterminate origin and must concentrate from Sicily. Such sparkling wines are bought by hard discount shoppers in Italy for around 60 cents. Bottle, label and cork included!
Buyers who buy at such prices must know that they are causing harm: they are tempting suppliers to disregard the law, they are blocking the development of quality in the region of origin, they are actively contributing to the bad image of Lambrusco, they are hindering the distribution of more expensive quality Lambrusco through their dumping prices, and they are shaping an image of Lambrusco among consumers that is not the right one.
In order to be able to offer Lambrusco at dumping prices, certain wineries not only sweep up all the leftovers from the Cantine Sociali, they also find other ways to help themselves: it is an open secret that, by means of a "paper carousel", plenty of wine from outside the region, one speaks of Apulian Lambrusco, is made into Emilian IGT Lambrusco in any quantity. Cheap must concentrate is used for the second fermentation and the sticky residual sweetness, which, together with the carbonic acid, is supposed to cover up the banality of the wine for undemanding palates.
With residual sweetness and carbonic acid, any drink can be made drinkable. Even the most awful frizzante, whether Lambrusco or otherwise named, still find their buyers. Such wine-based drinks hardly cost more to produce than other sweetened mineral waters. There would be nothing wrong with that if these products did not bear names like Lambrusco or Prosecco, thereby damaging them permanently.

The styles - for every taste

Reggiano Lambrusco DOC
The Reggiano DOC covers a large part of the province of Reggio. In terms of quantity, Reggiano is the most produced DOC Lambrusco. As a rule, it is a mixture of varieties in which the Salamino predominates. The local variety Ancellotta, better known as Rossissimo (a dye grape), is also permitted and usually provides Reggiano with a distinctly dark colour.
Often the best Lambrusco from Reggio bear other designations than "Reggiano DOC", the following recommendations therefore also concern "DOC renegades": Ca' De' Medici (Terra Calda), Caprari (La Foièta and Cuvée Riserva Brut), Lini (Rosso Secco), Lombardini, (Il Campanone), Medici Ermete (Concerto, Assolo), Moro/Rinaldini (Vecchio Moro, Picol Ross), Riunite (Ottocento Secco, Cuvée dei Fondatori Secco).

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC
Grasparossa di Castelvetro is produced in the south of Modena and is made from the Lambrusco Grasparossa variety. Originally, this strong, very tannic and always slightly sweet wine was produced exclusively in the hills. But as is the case everywhere in Italy, the DOC zone spread from the Apennine foothills in the south deep into the plain in the north, in the case of Grasparossa di Castelvetro to the gates of Modena.
A powerful, tannin-rich Grasparossa keeps well for two or three years and can refine. Recommended are the Grasparossa from Corte Manzini, Tenuta Pederzana, Vittorio Graziano, "Col Sassoso" from Cavicchioli, the "Righi Secco" from CIV & CIV and the "Villa Cialdini" from Chiarli.

Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC
Sorbara is the name of the town after which the DOC is named, but it is also the name of the Lambrusco variety from which the wine is made. Sorbara - at home in the plain north of Modena - is certainly the most characteristic of all Lambrusco.
Its delicacy, its aroma, its high acidity make it the perfect accompaniment to hearty, rather fatty dishes, such as those prepared in Modena. In the history books, the aroma of Sorbara is described as the scent of violets. Personally, the bouquet of Zucchi's Sorbara or Cavicchioli's Vigna del Cristo reminds me more of strawberries and raspberries, sometimes even raspberry yoghurt.
It is certain that a good Sorbara always has a very aromatic, refreshing fragrance. And it is also certain that a good Sorbara must be dry; sweet variants are a stylistic betrayal of this wine original. Sorbara makes an excellent base wine for classic bottle fermentation, as Francesco Bellei proves with his unique Sorbara Metodo Classico. Sorbara is the Lambrusco that is most difficult to sell abroad. "Light, thin, dry and sour", report unprepared senses used to "colourful, fat, sweet and mild". Therefore, Sorbara will probably be reserved for the real Lambrusco fan community. Sorbara is a fresh product and should be drunk as young as possible.
Recommended are Bellei Francesco, "Attimi di Fiorini" by Fiorini, "Righi Quattro Ville" by CIV & CIV and of course Zucchi as well as the "Vigna del Cristo" by Cavicchioli.

Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC
The Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC lies to the north of the Sorbara production area. The Lambrusco Salamino grape variety produces cherry-fruity wines that can taste very good.
Unfortunately, there is no quality movement in this area like in Sorbara and Castelvetro. Most Salamino are pappsweet and uninteresting. (The Reggiano Lambrusco "Concerto" from Medici, a pure Salamino, is quite different).

The above article was kindly made available to us by the Merum editorial team. Many thanks for this.

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