Liquid history: Learning about the background of Lambrusco in Italy

By Celia Strong
It’s interesting how we remember certain wines that we’ve loved. Just as interesting, but much less discussed, are some of the wines that we remember drinking too much of and the suffering that came afterwards. The wine we’re going to learn about today is one of those less discussed for me.  Fortunately, the drinking of it, and, yes, a horrible afterwards, are so long ago I can claim they were part of a different life.
We’re in Italy for this wine, the region of Emilia-Romagna. This region is in northern Italy, with the city of Bologna as its capital. The hyphenated name of this region tells us the two sub-regions that make it up. Today, Emilia-Romagna is one of the richest and most developed areas in Europe and has the third highest GPD per capita in Italy. The region is a major cultural and tourist center — it is a major food center, home to much of Italy’s car production (including Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati), has a beautiful coastline with resorts and is full of history with three well known Renaissance cities (Modena, Parma and Ferrara).
The name “Emilia-Romagna” itself is a piece of history. It’s legacy is from ancient Rome. The “via Aemilia” was the highway that connected Rome with northern Italy. It was completed by the Roman consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 187 BC and named for him. During the Middle Ages trade, culture and religion all flourished in the area. The numerous monasteries and the University of Bologna (one of the first in the world) were centers of learning and the development of civilization. With all the growth, though, there were lots of politics in the region also. During the Renaaissance, many noble families lived in and around Bologna. After the Renaissance, the ruling of the region was divided between the church, the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza; and the Duchy of Modena and Reggio. (Is anyone besides me seeing a lot of well-known food names in all of this?). In the 16th century, most of these separate entities were included into the Papal states except Parma, Piacenza and Modena remained independent until Emilia-Romagna came into the Italian kingdom in 1859-1861. (We tend to forget that Italy was not a unified country until the mid-19th century.)
Backing up to the food thing for a moment — the Renaissance was more that just about art, literature and architecture. Part of making life better had to include fancier foods and better wines. Emilia-Romagna is known for its egg and filled pastas. Soft wheat flour is used for the pasta here instead of the semolina more common in southern Italy. The city of Bologna is known for such wonders as “tortellini” and “lasagna.” There is a piece of history that says tortellini pasta (little knots filled with various meat and cheese) was invented by a chef in one noble’s kitchen. It was modeled after the noble’s wife’s beautiful navel with whom the chef was having an affair.  On a less romantic note, great cheeses are made here, the most well-known being Parmesan-Reggiano.  It is obviously named for the cities of Parma and Reggio. Duh! And let’s not leave out all the sausages and salamis the region is known for. Guess where our bologna was first made?
The best-known wine from Emilia-Romagna is Lambrusco. And I know you just groaned. Out loud.   But hang on. Having talked last week about how Americans, by nature, have sweet palates and that there is a massive trend in wine in this country toward more sweet wines, I figure we should take a look at this one. Of course, many of us remember Lambrusco as a cheap, sweet red wine that we drank when we didn’t know any better or couldn’t afford any better.  If we try it again, now, maybe we’ll find that it’s a perfect warm weather quaffer, just right for grilling menus, fried seafood and much more.
Lambrusco is the name of the wine, but it is also the name of the grape variety that makes it. There are many versions of where the name came from. My favorite is the story by Luigi Bertelli who wrote a verse about Lambrusco. This version says that during the war between Bologna and Modena over the possession of the Stolen Bucket, Venus, Mars and Bacchus all came to support the Modena side. On their way to the fighting, the three deities stopped at a local inn to eat. When Bacchus ordered the wine, the inn keeper asked him if he preferred sweet or dry. Bacchus replied that he loved dry- “Io l’amo brusco.”  Lambrusco.  (True or not, that’s a great story and I’m sticking to it! And who fights over a stolen bucket anyhow?)
There is archaeological evidence that shows the Etruscans, who pre-dated the Greeks and the Romans, cultivated Lambrusco vines. In Roman times, these vines were highly valued because they produced such a large amount of grapes. Lots of grapes means lots of wine. The ancient romans used the term “labrusca vitis” to describe the wild vines that grew around the borders of cultivated fields. Virgil, Cato and Varro all mentioned Lambrusco vines in their writings. In the 14th century, a Bolognese author, Pier de’Crescenzi, was the first to discuss the wine that came from all these vines. From that point on, Lambrusco became one of the most important wines in Italy.  And one of the most widely consumed wines in the world.
Our Lambrusco comes from the Cavicchioli family. This family has been growing grapes in the Modena province of Emilia-Romagna for over a century. In 1928, Umberto Cavicchioli started using his family name on their bottles. The bottles now have that date on them  His two grandsons, Sandro and Claudio, are still part of the business today. (Sandro runs the commercial side of things and Claudio is the wine maker.) They are one of the largest land owners in the area with 95 hectares (1 hectare is 2.471 acres). Of the six varieties of Lambrusco grapes, 70 hectares are planted in the prized Sobrara variety. The family focus is on vineyard ownership, low yields from their vines and DOC (the top legal level for Italian wines) production.
The Cavicchioli Lambrusco we have is designated “Lambrusco di Modena.” It is slightly frizzy, “frizzante,” semi-sweet, “amabile,” and, truly, quite good. It is made from five varieties of Lambrusco grapes, each bringing its own flavors to the wine, and vinified with a short, cold fermentation. The slight foam that forms when you pour it is violet colored and the flavors are berries and flowers. I happen to have (not really, I always have) some spicy salami in the house today. Sliced up and sipping the well-chilled  Cavicchioli Lambrusco, I have an excellent Sunday afternoon. I plan on doing this again. Be brave and try it yourself. Go back all those years. Now that we’ve learned how to control our drinking, there’s no need to worry about the afterwards.

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