Adrian Reynolds on Lambrusco

Oakland-based travel photographer Adrian Reynolds muses about travel, food, wine and the wonderful world of cured pork products on his blogs Piccolo Gastronomo and Culatello. Adrian also has a Masters of Science in Gastronomy from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Parma, Italy, aka "Slow Food U.," and developed a knowledge and passion for artisan lambrusco while teaching English in Modena. In this week's wino, he discusses lambrusco's usefulness both as a social lubricant and as a great match for the soulful cuisine of Emilia Romagna. There is a forthcoming lambrusco tasting hosted by Adrian, date TBD, at Local Kitchen and Wine Merchant in San Francisco.

The Terroir and Diversity of Lambrusco

Lambrusco, despite its au courant-ness amongst salumi hounds and food blogs looking for the newest new new thing, it is not a fine wine in the same league as compatriots Barolo, Taurasi, amarone, sagrantino, et al. The old paradigm was lambrusco as a cheap picnic quaff made in large quantities and mass marketed, but with the efforts of importers such as NYC's Lambrusco Imports and Oakland's Oliver McCrum, and Bay Area restaurants Oliveto and Perbacco, artisan lambrusco's reputation as the go-to cured meat and lusty pasta sauce-pairing wine is being established.

It still takes some getting used to: a red wine that not only must be chilled, but also lightly sparkling or frizzante. Lambrusco is from Emilia Romagna, which not coincidentally produces some of the most prized cured meats in Italy, especially prosciutto di Parma and its more upscale counterpart, culatello di Zibello. The secret to lambrusco, and a good lot of Italian wine, is that it is first and foremost a food wine, meant to pair with the autochthonous products of the region where the wine is produced.

Lambrusco is found all over Emilia Romagna, from a kitchen table in a humble apartment to the four-table dining room of a 400-year-old Michelin-starred salumeria in Modena's center, Hostaria Giusti. I taught English as a Foreign Language in Modena, lambrusco's home base, back in 2002-2003, and one of my students would pay me in lambrusco, in lieu of cash. He wasn't a rich man, but as Modena's overseer of agricultural production at the Camera di Commercio (or Chamber of Commerce), he was the connection to find a great lambrusco.

Before the teaching gig, my only lambrusco experience was at a drunken college party in Florence ten years earlier. That vile bargain-aisle tipple was sweet and syrupy, with an alarming corona of violet foam dancing on the edge of my plastic cup. That lambrusco was Italy's answer to hobo juice like Mad Dog 20/20 or a non-vintage Thunderbird.

For many years, Riunite's marketing muscle ensured the low-quality lambrusco spigot wouldn't shut off easily, and artisan producers struggled to sell their product. Only the most savvy winos and intrepid chowhounds knew of lambrusco's true bounty and variety. In fact, there are four main types of lambrusco: Sorbara, Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Salamino Santa Croce, and Reggiano.

A proper lambrusco tasting would start with the elegant, austere, and crisp Sorbara, named after the growing area that is slightly to the northeast of Modena's centre. It pairs wonderfully with cooked salumi such as mortadella di Bologna and the typical deep fried (with a splash of lard) bread puffs of Modena/Reggio Emilia/Parma, known as gnocco fritto (or torta fritta in Parma). Often served along with gnocco fritto are the small baked bread discs known as tigelle that have a texture similar to piadina, the signature flatbread of Romagna, the area stretching from Bologna to Fellini's hometown of Rimini on the Adriatic.

Another Modenese specialty that works beautifully with a Sorbara lambrusco is borlengo, a super thin flatbread similar to a papadam but rubbed with cured lard, rosemary, pancetta, and parmigiano. Sorbara lambrusco is also enjoyable on its own without food, as an aperitivo. It tends to be closer to a spumante (more sparkling) than frizzante, and whets the appetite for an unctuous supper.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is from the southwest of Modena, toward Maranello aka Ferrari-land, and shares a similar flavor profile to another type of lambrusco, Salamino di Santa Croce. The latter is named after the grape bunches that resemble a whole salame, and is grown on the opposite side of Modena, north of the town center going towards Carpi and Mantova. A lovely version of Grasparossa is made by a producer called Barbolini, and is more often than not the only lambrusco being sold in stores and restaurants in the Bay Area. The upside is that it is one of the finest examples of the Grasparossa typology, the downside is that Barbolini's excellence and ubiquity (thanks to a successful importer) makes artisan lambrusco seem monolithic, which it is not.

With Grasparossa and Salamino, there is a lingering spiciness and smoke on the palate, and in particular with Grasparossa, a bracing acidity at the finish that cuts sharply through the richness of prosciutto and salumi. Salame di Felino is a beautiful match, slightly garlicky and named after the town of Felino near Parma, not your whiskered companion.

Though pricey, seek out culatello di Zibello, which is similar to prosciutto but cured in wine, a spice mixture, and sea salt, and aged in the temperature extremes of the Parma lowlands. Culatello, meaning "little ass," is made from the hind quarter of the free-ranging Mora Romagnola breed, not the non-native "large white" pigs used for prosciutto di Parma. Mario Batali's dad Armandino makes a domestic culatello at his store in Seattle, but there is no substitute for bringing contraband from the low country near Parma (don't tell anyone about my secret plan for my trip to Parma next month). A more adventurous pairing outside the bounds of terroir would be speck from Alto Adige, a smoked prosciutto that harmonizes with the spice and smoke of Castelvetro and Salamino.

Lastly, to finish with a touch of sweet fruit and spices, and less acidity, is old school-nasty lambrusco's grown-up version, Lambrusco Reggiano, named after Reggio Emilia. Where old and nasty punches you in the jaw with sugary berries and too much purple froth, Reggiano is liltingly sweet and finishes with a slight tang in contrast to Grasparossa's striking acidity. It is a flavor match for prosciutto San Daniele's salty/sweet split personality, which shows that lambrusco can stray beyond its farmstead origins in Emilia Romagna and reward a curious and adventurous palate.

Cin Cin, buona bevuta, e buon appetito!

Some lambrusco links for you:

You can find Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro "Barbolini" at:
Oliver McCrum Wines
Paul Marcus Wines
biondivino wine boutique
Most Whole Foods sell it, as does Berkeley Bowl Marketplace.

Terre Verdiane by Cantine Ceci is another nice example of the Grasparossa di Castelvetro typology, and uses Verdi's mug affixed to a sleek, beveled bottle.

"Ermete Medici" is a top producer of Lambrusco Reggiano, but not sure who imports it.

By far the best selection in the country is from Lambrusco Imports in NYC and its sister restaurant, Via Emilia, on 21st near Park Ave. South in the Flatiron District. William Mattiello and his wife Tomoe import the wine and run a wonderful restaurant focusing not just on the cuisine of Emilia Romagna, but of Modena in particular. The wine is exclusively from Emilia Romagna, and there are about ten different producers of lambrusco on the list, representing the four main typologies.

Last but not least, your culatello connection. Indulge in the olfactory bliss of the aging cellar at Antica Corte Pallavicina in Polesine Parmense near Parma and dine at the restaurant, Al Cavallino Bianco, with both the culatello making and restaurant being owned and operated by Massimo Spigaroli. He is the great grandson of a sharecropper who worked on Giuseppe Verdi's farm, now the site of Antica Corte Pallavicina.