Luigi Cavalli Lambrusco Dell’Emilia
One of the many nice things about studying wine is that there are a good number of very knowledgeable and interesting people who are writing about it. I’ve made no secret of how important Jancis Robinson was in my Diploma studies, and I mentioned Victoria Moore back in December with regards to writing good tasting notes. Another writer I especially respect and enjoy reading is Eric Asimov, which is how I ended up with this bottle of Luigi Cavalli Lambrusco Dell’Emilia.
Back in 2006 he wrote a column about Lambrusco, singing its praises and lamenting how its image had been all but ruined by the likes of Riunite in the 1970s. I hadn’t even started to study wine, but I remember the column because it allowed me to tuck away the fact that sparkling red wine was produced in Italy and I made use of it several times in the face of people who insisted that it was an Australian innovation. It was purely academic, however, as I did not have an opportunity to actually try one.
Since then, despite numerous wine courses, Lambrusco has remained nearly mythical. I did encounter it once in a large bottle shop, but the packaging was so dubious and the price so inexpensive that I thought I should wait for a better example before having my first sip. Further years have passed since, and a few weeks ago Asimov published another column in which he again championed the wine. (He also has a book due out in October, How to Love Wine.) As I am currently on a string of wines which will not make my (temporarily) non-drinking wife jealous, I decided now was the time to actually see what Asimov was writing about and so I sought out a huge wine retailer and finally bought a bottle.
For those not familiar with Lambrusco, it is an Italian red grape found largely in the north of the country. When I say grape, I really mean grape family, and it’s commonly said that there are 60 subvarieties or clones of the grape. More recently though, advocates of the grape have put forward that there in fact 13 (possibly as many as 17) different varieties of Lambrusco, with the vast majority of wines being made from a subset of only six, Lambrusco Salamino, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Grasparossa, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Maestri, and Lambrusco Montericco. The grape is especially productive in the vineyard, and is typically used to make sparkling red wines that vary from dry to fairly sweet. It’s used in wines across eight DOCs (and four sub DOCs) around Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma and Lombardia, and is also made into Indicatione Geografica Tipica level wine in Reggio Emilia and Lombardia.
Unfortunately, most Lambrusco is tank fermented and very cheaply mass produced. As a wine it is best known for having flooded the USA market in the 1970s in the form of a frothy red wave of sweet Riunite. After years of popularity, the wine’s reputation is now largely bound up with that industrial style and not looked upon kindly by most people who are serious about wine. Asimov though is on a mission to revive the wine by highlighting quality producers, and has had some success in New York and Los Angeles. Good examples, often with the secondary fermentation in bottle, are being imported by specialist merchants and promoted in Italian restaurants, particularly those featuring flavours of Emilia-Romagna.
Sadly, his influence has not yet reached Adelaide (as far as I know). My quest for a bottle last week was rewarded with a choice of three options, and my selection was the most expensive at just under $8. I’m guessing from its appearance that neither the label nor the contents have changed since the 1970s. Speaking of the label, it’s worth spelling out the information on it. This is a Lambrusco Dell’Emilia Indicatione Geografica Tipica, which tells us the grape (family) and that it’s from Emilia-Romagna but a step down from DOC quality. Vino Amabile Frizzante lets us know that this is a sweet, bubbly wine. There is no indicated vintage. The label also says “di San Ruffino” ® which I cannot claim to fully understand, other than that there are areas within Emilia-Romagna by that name which the producer, Luigi Cavalli, has apparently trademarked. I do not believe that it has anything at all to do with Ruffino, a highly regarded producer in Tuscany.
A quick word about Emilia-Romagna – it is a huge region in the north of Italy that spans 240km east to west. Within it are at least 22 DOCs and 2 DOCGs, though they account for only 15% of wine produced. The Lambrusco family of grapes, if taken as a whole, makes up roughly 40% of production, with Sangiovese being the second most popular grape at 23%. The area is geologically diverse, from hills and peaks in the west down to coastal plains in the east. The climate likewise is much cooler in the mountainous zones than on the milder plains as they stretch toward the Adriatic. I’ve also read that the region has officially dropped the hyphen between Emilia and Romagna but can’t find a corroborating source, so I’m sticking with it for now.
I’ve also been unable to find very much information regarding this producer, not even a website nor a physical address, so if anyone has more information please drop me a note or leave a comment. Fine print on the top label suggests that the company has been passed from father to son since 1901. Beyond that though, all I’ve been able to determine is that it’s made for Cantarella Bros., a company based out of Sydney (though with offices throughout Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore) that imports a range of products, largely food, from Europe. It’s best known brand in Australia is Vittoria Coffee.
Diving into the wine itself, in the glass, it is clear and bright, with a deep purple colour, quick legs, and some bubbles around the rim but no overt carbonation. You can only tell there is any fizzing whatsoever by putting your ear to the glass, at which point you’ll hear the odd bubble breaking the surface. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium minus intensity, and notes of cough syrup, some bitter herbs, and a splash of Campari. On the palate it’s off-dry and you can tell that there is some prickliness of carbonation, but no real fizz. It has medium minus acidity, medium plus flavour intensity, medium body, low alcohol, low soft tannins, and a medium minus length. There are notes of cola, red cherries, bitter herbs, some bitter orange, and cough syrup. It has a very sour finish that made me shudder a bit on my first sip.
I really don’t know what to make of this. I’ll go with acceptable in terms of quality, and I cringe to think what I would have made of either of the two lower priced bottles next to it on the shelf when I bought it. It has an interesting flavour profile, with some amount of complexity, but not one that I associate with wine. Beyond that though, I hesitate to judge a wine style that is so completely new to me. I don’t expect I’ll be rushing out to buy another bottle of Lambrusco until I can find one from a producer that Asimov specifically recommends. Sadly this wine is more of the tradition that has caused many to dismiss Lambrusco rather than of a quality that might have them reconsider.
Pin in the map is approximate only to Reggio Emilia where the producer is based, and I’m calling this a varietal “Lambrusco” as I don’t have any better granularity of which specifically.