Located in the centre of Emilia Romagna, Modena is famous the world over for Sassuolo ceramic tiles, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese, Balsamic Vinegar, the Ferrari and Maserati sports cars, and the opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. But there’s yet more to that list! Emilia Romagna is also home to four of the five DOCs of Lambrusco in Italy, Modena being one of them. A DOC, short for Denominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled destination of origin), is used as a quality assurance label for Italian wines.
Lambrusco is both a red wine grape and Italian wine produced primarily from that grape. It is the oldest wine produced in Emilia-Romagna and is popular not only in Italy, but also in world markets such as U.S., U.K., and Russia. The uniqueness of Lambrusco is the slightly frothy and frizzante (sparkling) nature of its wines. Meant to be drunk young, Lambrusco pairs well not only with the local foods but has also found favour among cuisines of the world. The wine itself is refreshing with fruity notes, especially those of berries. On the palate it provides a zesty taste with mostly a clean or sometimes a lingering finish, depending upon the wine.
The wine can be made in various levels of sweetness and in both sparkling and spumante styles. These levels of sweetness are secco (dry), amabile (off-dry/slightly sweet), and dolce (very sweet). The amount of sweetness is actually much higher than most wines but is not easily evident as it’s effectively masked by the high acidity of the grape. For example, the dry version would contain around 15 g/liter of sweetness, an amount that would be considered very sweet in a still wine.
Emilia-Romagna is the home territory of Lambrusco DOP (Protected Designation of Origin). The DOC regions producing Lambrusco are:-
Lambrusco di Sorbara: These wines are marked by flowery notes and a bright acidity. The wines are well-balanced with a mineral flavour arising out of the terroir. The DOC laws only allow for the Sorbara and Salomino clone to be used in these wines, of which 60% must be Sorbara.
Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce : The wines here are light-bodied, well-structured, and fruit-forward. The DOC law requires that this wine must be made from at least 90% of the Salamino grape clone while Ancellotta or Brugnola can make up the remaining 10%.
Reggiano : The largest of the DOCS, wines here are known for their sweet amabile and dolce versions, which contain up to 15% partially fermented Ancellotta grapes while the remaining 85% is made up of Maestri, Marani, Monstericco and Salamino Lambrusco.
Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro : The smallest of the DOCs, wines here bring out the perfumed characteristics of the grape. Lambrusco must constitute at least 85% with the balance of 15% consisting of Brugnolo and/or Marbo Gentile. These wines have the highest tannins amongst all five with the lowest alcohol content.
Dinner at Ristorante Europa 92
Gian Paolo Gavioli is the Export Manager of Cantine Reunite & CIV, a co-operative in Italy which has close to 2,000 grape growers under its umbrella. I was invited by him, along with Michele Shah (a top wine consultant and one of the key forces behind Grasparossa 2013) and several eminent journalists from all over the world, to Ristorante Europa 92 – a world famous restaurant in the heart of Modena. In fact, this restaurant was not only Pavoratti’s favourite but has also been frequented by the likes of Bono, the late Princess Diana, Sting, and many other known figures from all over the world.
During the dinner, Gavioli took us through a journey of taste by pairing several of his chosen wines with authentic local cuisine (prepared with pork, beef, and cheese) while explaining about Lambrusco. When asked about the sweetness, he explained, “20% of Lambrusco is kept as grape juice. It is not fermented. It is used to blend the wine totally fermented from the second fermentation. The juice has 150 – 180 g/l of sugar. Sugar is used in Spumante but not in Lambrusco. Lambrusco is made using the Charmat method.”
The Charmat method is a lesser expensive method under which the second fermentation happens in a large stainless steel tank prior to bottling, rather than in the bottle itself like the traditional ‘Methode Champenoise’, and best suits sparkling wines that are best drunk young. But Gavioli explains that this was not always the method of production, “In the beginning of the century, Lambrusco was a very expensive wine. The bottles were bigger than those of champagne and the cost was more than two meals those days. Unlike champagne, the esters were left in the bottle which caused an explosion while traveling when the second fermentation happened in the bottle. Then the Charmat method was brought in by Chiarli, which is the oldest winery in Italy.”
Cantine Reunite & CIV sells over a 100 million bottles a year, of which a little over 40% goes towards global exports. The company’s top markets are the U.S. and Russia.
Lambrusco has come a long way from its image of being a cheap, sweet wine, thanks to the brand-building efforts of Gavioli who travels extensively to promote Lambrusco across the globe. The wine has become Italy’s top-selling wine in markets such as Brazil, Spain, and Mexico, among others. It has become popular as a fruity bubbly that exudes freshness and youth and that is low in alcohol. However, despite its global appeal the wine is yet to find a loyal consumer base in India where it is distributed by Aspri Spirits.
Gavioli was in India several times and during several tastings, observed that Lambrusco was favoured by Indians. He feels that it’s the legislation which makes it difficult to make inroads into the country. He says, “In terms of sales figures, our numbers are not up to the mark. But if I judge from tastings and how people like the wines, the result was very positive. But India has a distribution and importing process which is complicated. Importers sell the wine that is easiest to sell. And we have to admit that we haven’t spent enough time due to different priorities.”
India has always been a beer and spirits drinking nation. However the youth is taking to wine in a big way, preferring it to other forms of liquor. This would actually work in Gavioli’s favour as Lambrusco is suited for young people who are not essentially wine drinkers. He says, “Lambrusco is an introductory drink which is not a beer or an aerated beverage. It is an unusual grape varietal with different styles. The Lambrusco we sell abroad is sweet and with lower alcohol.”
Gavioli realizes that for the Indian market, he would need a long-term plan as legislation changes in the country are known to take time. Till then he feels that that he would need to spend more time working on India as it represents a huge opportunity. He says, “For me, India is the most interesting market for two reasons. First of all, the culture of India is so interesting to me. And secondly, I do believe strongly that India represents a huge opportunity for sparkling wine, in particular.”
Gian Paolo Gavioli is right about the sparkling wine bit. Recognizing this opportunity, Moet Hennessey has launched its Chandon Brand recently and Sula launched its revamped version recently as well. Fratelli has also launched its sparkling wine whereas Grover-Zampa is stepping up to double the sales this year.
The dinner and conversation with Gavioli provided me with a wonderful insight both into the unique wines of Castelvetro di Modena and the local cuisine. But the following three days of Grasparossa 2013 was a packed program of fascinating events that took me not only to the main venue of Castle Levizzano, but also to various local wineries, balsamic vinegar producers, among others. More articles to follow on the fascinating Grasparossa 2013 in the coming weeks!
In the meanwhile, I feel that Lambrusco has a tremendous potential in the Indian market. It is a unique wine in that it is versatile with various cuisines, low in alcohol, with a very simple approach. The sweeter light-bodied ones pair well with the masala of Indian cuisine, chicken and fish dishes, and a variety of vegetables, especially eggplant. The drier full-bodied versions would make it a perfect companion to meat and paneer dishes, and even thick-gravied foods such as a heavy masala potato or egg curry. The possibilities are endless!
Lambrusco effectively represents the warm and hospitable Italian spirit. Gavioli says in his usual well-spirited tone, “This is what a good meal is all about. Good food, friends, and a delicious wine.”
In India, sparkling wine is drunk mostly on occasions. But I strongly feel that once Lambrusco gets the recognition in India that it deserves, it’s versatile and easy pairing could well make an occasion out of every meal!
Rishi Vohra, CSW
Rishi Vohra is the Mumbai Correspondent of delWine and is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators - USA. He has done an MBA in Sustainable Business from San Francisco State University and a Masters Diploma in Environmental Law from WWF-India. His debut fiction novel, ‘Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai,’ is a bestseller and was recently awarded an honorable mention in the General Fiction category at the Hollywood Book Festival, and was the only book from India to be awarded at the festival. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Castelvetro di Modena, Lambrusco, Gian Paolo Gavioli, Cantine Reunite & CIV Ltd, Emilia Romagna, Modena, Italian wine, Ristorante Europa 92, Italy, Michele Shah, Grasparossa 2013, Aspri Spirits