Christine Austin defends the classic Italian wine from its cheaper namesake on a visit to Emilia Romagna.
Have you noticed how the nights are getting lighter? It may take another couple of weeks to really make a difference, but with the thought of longer days in mind it is time to put some effort into planning a spring break.
I recently visited the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, a place I have driven through on many occasions but this time I stopped, tasted the local wine, ate the local produce and gazed longingly at the local cars – Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini.
Emilia Romagna is the area towards the top of the boot, south of Venice and east of the Apennine hills that form the spine of Italy. This is agricultural land that has kept its major cities of Bologna, Parma and Modena fed for generations and with that has come stability and prosperity for the whole region. It has also turned the region into a food-lovers paradise.
The rolling landscape is dotted with castellated hilltop villages, there are chic cities with historic shopping arcades and it is the home of the oldest university in Europe. Perhaps less famous than the cities of Rome, Venice and Florence, this region is like the Italy of old with grandeur, history and style, giving a warm welcome to visitors but it is hardly on the tourist trail.
This is also the region of Lambrusco, and at this point I must ask you not to turn the page, despite your probable reaction to that wine. Several decades ago, in a crime of enormous proportions, the name of this quality wine was hijacked and used for cheap, fizzy-pop wine. The result was that the proper stuff, made from traditional grapes in the traditional way almost disappeared. But proper Lambrusco is fighting back and while it is still difficult to find it is well worth looking for this frothy, food-friendly wine.
Lambrusco is the name of both a grape and a wine from the areas around Modena, Parma and Reggio-Emilia in Emilia-Romagna and Mantua in Lombardy. The way to spot the good stuff is to look for DOC or DOP which tells you it is from the protected area of Lambrusco and to look for the zones of production, in particular Grasparossa di Castelvetro and Sorbara which I found to have the most style and character.
Real Lambrusco is a frothy, fragrant wine with cherry and bramble fruit to the fore, sometimes a touch of herbs and a clear, cleansing acidity that makes it perfect with the food of the region. Most Lambrusco is dry (secco) and it must achieve 11 per cent alcohol to be DOP Lambrusco. Low-alcohol wines at around 5.5 per cent are not the real thing and should be avoided.
Lambrusco acquires its fizz through one of two methods. Most of it is made fizzy in a second fermentation in tank, but in a sharp move away from the modern, the ‘methode ancestrale’ is coming back in favour with some small producers. This involves a second fermentation in bottle, but unlike the same procedure in champagne where there is a long process of removing the yeast sediment, the ancestrale wines remain on their yeast. As the wine is poured, it appears slightly cloudy but this doesn’t detract at all from the final taste, in fact these wines have more depth and flavour.
The real joy of Lambrusco is the way it can act as an aperitif, especially with charcuterie and then carry on through a meal. It goes particularly well with the rich food of the Modena region, where pork regularly makes an appearance on menus. Using most parts of the pig, from the trotters and (almost) to the tail, there are rich, succulent pork dishes that appreciate the cutting acidity of Lambrusco and its savoury, fruit flavours. Served slightly chilled it refreshes the palate and adds dark fruit with a hint of balsamic complexity.
And balsamic is another reason why you might want to think about visiting this region of Italy. Modena is the home of Aceto Balsamico, the dark, flavourful balsamic vinegar that I have been sloshing on my salads for years. Traditional balsamico takes at least 12 years of progressive evaporation using barrels of different woods and sizes to aid flavour development and concentration. My supermarket balsamic days are over as I have now tasted the difference between the real DOP version and the more commercial styles. If you go to the region, be sure to visit the Acetaia la Vecchia Dispensa at Castelvetro di Modena where sets of small barrels have been maturing balsamic for decades. The aromas from these barrels are amazing.
Also amazing is the sheer foodiness of the region. You can visit a parmigiano cheese factory and see how this famous cheese is made and matured, then settle down for some serious tasting, comparing 12, 18 and 24 months aged cheeses.
For another foodie experience a visit to a prosciutto factory is also essential to see how plain ham hocks are first salted then dried for over a year to produce the sweet, delicate, savoury ham. One of the best ways to start appreciating the food and wine of Emilia-Romagna is at Le Langhe in York (01904 622584) where you can sit down with a plate of prosciutto and a bottle of Lambrusco.
Try Medici Ermete Concerto, Lambrusco Reggiano, £10.64. Field and Fawcett (01904 489073) also stock a delicious Lambrusco, from Grasparossa di Castelvetro, made by the excellent producer Tenuta Pederzana (£11.95). Pick up some prosciutto from the deli while you are there. The other way to get your tastebuds around the combined deliciousness of Modena, Parma and surrounding areas is to go there. Fly into Bologna and hire a car. Spend time in the lively city of Bologna for its history and culture but then head to Modena for its 12th-century cathedral, its markets and the Ferrari museum. Then head to the hilltop town of Castelvetro di Modena for a step back in time.