Natural Lambrusco Is Just the Beginning

Returning to old traditions, the frizzante wines of Emilia-Romagna are ready for their pét-nat moment.

The first thing you’re likely to learn about Lambrusco, the famous sparkling red of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, is that its name refers to both the wine itself and the family of grapes from which said wine is made. The second thing you’ll learn is how much of it you’d be wise to avoid.

Ever since the 1970s and ’80s, when an invasion of sweet, mass-market brands like Riunite transformed Lambrusco into American’s bestselling imported wine, the story of Lambrusco has centered on its lowbrow image. But over the last two decades, not only has Lambrusco reclaimed its reputation as one of the world’s singular sparkling wines, but Emilia-Romagna has shown that its prowess with bubbly goes well beyond Lambrusco. From its Adriatic coastline to the rolling foothills outside Lombardy, the area is now defined by sparkling expressions from a dizzying array of grapes and growing regions.

This new wave of Emilia-Romagna sparkling isn’t new at all, but a return to the old-school style of frizzante wines that were once more-widespread regional staples. These gently sparkling wines derive their bubbles naturally, via the ancestral method of refermentation in bottle, or rifermentato in bottiglia. In practice, it differs slightly from the French technique of the same name made famous by pétillant-naturel, but the underlying effect is more or less the same.

According to Jules Dressner of Louis/Dressner Selections, the iconic natural wine–focused importer, the Italian category shares all the chuggable, thirst-quenching qualities that transformed pét-nat into an overnight sensation—except that it lays claim to a cultural identity entirely its own. “On the one hand, you have all this history and tradition,” explains Dressner. “But on the flip side, these are wines that are designed to be consumed fairly quickly, within a culture that loves eating and drinking, so you can also just turn off your mind and enjoy them in the moment.”

Originally designed for local consumption, the rifermentato in bottiglia style fueled a thriving cottage industry for generations, but nearly vanished after the shift to industrial winemaking in Italy’s postwar economic boom. Much of the bubbly from Emilia-Romagna, up through Veneto’s Prosecco country, started being produced at scale using the Charmat method, whereby carbonation is created through a secondary fermentation in giant pressurized steel tanks. It wasn’t until the 1990s and early aughts that a small cadre of producers, including natural wine luminaries Vittorio Graziano, Camillo Donati and Luciano and Sara Saetti, actively sought to revive the rifermentato in bottiglia method. According to winemaker Vanni Nizzoli, whose family has been tending vines in the Reggio Emilia province for multiple generations, this shift has reopened a window into the land that decades of chemical-dependent agriculture and bulk production had all but obliterated. “With the rifermentato in bottiglia method, you can feel the terroir in the wine,” he says. “When you make a Charmat wine, that’s the first thing you lose.”

The wines that have come out of this revival have recast Lambrusco as a complex wine of place, allowing drinkers to pick apart the nuances between, say, the delicate strawberry-hued wines of Lambrusco di Sorbara, grown to the north of Modena, and the darker, more tannic examples from Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, to the south. “What most surprised me when I visited Emilia-Romagna is its diversity,” recalls author and natural wine advocate Alice Feiring. “There was so much variety in the textures and flavors of the wines—not only the Lambruscos, but across the entire spectrum.”

Many of the producers who are responsible for Lambrusco’s artisanal revival are also endeavoring to paint a more detailed portrait of the classic Lambrusco areas of Parma, Modena and Reggio Emilia. Consider Giovanni and Alberto Masini of the Cà de Noci estate, stewards of vanishing grapes like spergola, sgavetta and malbo gentile, which yield both still and sparkling wines. Or a luminary like Camillo Donati, who’s helped establish a new benchmark with his bottle-fermented Lambrusco, while also exploring bottle-fermented, skin-contact renderings of the trebbiano and malvasia di candia grapes. Each of the wines is proof that the area never had just one thing to say.

Beyond Lambrusco country, the remote Colli Piacentini area—a steep, hilly swath of vineyards in the region’s extreme northwest corner—has become an increasingly fruitful source of high-quality bubbly. “We always just had a strong local following that has been our clientele,” says winemaker Leonardo Bulli. Although much of the buzz the area has generated of late has centered around an experimental uprising of skin-contact whites from cult producers like La Stoppa and Denavola, Bulli’s frizzante represents a tradition as old as the Piacenza hills themselves. Along with rising stars like minimal-interventionist Massimiliano Croci, he’s highlighting the area’s distinct blend of native grapes, including barbera, croatina, uva rara, malvasia and the lesser-known ortrugo. Collectively, they comprise their own subgenre of Emilia-Romagna frizzante, which arguably has more in common with the sparkling wines of Lombardy’s Oltrepò Pavese, just a short drive away, than the Lambrusco strongholds of the central flatlands outside Modena. As Bulli puts it: “We’re different here in the hills.”

Down along the Adriatic, in the sleepy seaside area of Bosco Eliceo, Mirco Mariotti is crafting some of the region’s most idiosyncratic sparklers. “From east to west, you have so many sub-variations of terroir and grape varieties in Emilia-Romagna, it’s like a master class of its own,” says Mariotti. He should know. His tangy, frothy Sèt e Mèz rosé is composed of the virtually unknown fortana grape, which he sources from 100-year-old vines planted in beach sand just 300 meters from the sea. It’s got a subtle spice and strawberry brightness reminiscent of Jura poulsard, but with the same pungent, salt-tinged mineral bite found across so many of the whites grown up and down Italy’s Adriatic coastline. “It’s like drinking history,” Mariotti explains. “The taste that I’m trying to give you is the taste of a memory from years ago.”

It’s a romantic sentiment, for sure, but an authentic one—to which he might add that it’s also the taste of today.

Cinque Campi Lambrusco Rosso

A classic take on lambrusco grasparossa (with a smattering of malbo gentile and marzemino to boot), this undisgorged, unsulfured frizzante showcases the fleshy, dark-fruited depth that is the variety’s signature. Softly fizzy with a mouthful of blackberry, violet and damp earth, it’s guaranteed to convert even the most skeptical Lambrusco detractors.

  • Price: $24

Bulli Sampagnino Colli Piacentini Frizzante

In addition to a fizzy red from barbera and bonarda, Leonard Bulli produces two bottle-fermented whites: one focusing exclusively on ortugo, a grape traditionally incorporated into blends, and this kitchen sink mix of local varieties, including uva sampagnina (aka marsanne), moscato giallo and malvasia di candia, plus extreme rarities like bervedino and verdea. Yellow-fruited and salty with a whiff of flowers and herbs, it’s the sort of old-school frizzante once found only in the Colli Piacentini’s family-run restaurants and trattorias.

  • Price: $17

Cà de Noci Querciole Frizzante

Once widespread in Reggio Emilia, the spergola grape’s resurrection in bottles like the Masini brothers’ Querciole, which undergoes three days of skin contact, yields a bright yet savory quality, with a smack of tannin and aromas of chamomile tea.

  • Price: $24

Mirco Mariotti Sèt e Mèz Fortana dell'Emilia Rosato

You could ask for no greater testament to Emilia-Romagna’s current diversity than Mirco Mariotti’s fortana-based frizzante rosé, a wine that speaks more of the salty Adriatic coastline than the fertile plains around Modena. The fact that you can get this much depth and character out of a $17 bottle is nothing short of miraculous.

  • Price: $18

Croci Gutturnio DOC Frizzante Rosso

Part of the minimal-intervention cohort that is quietly remaking the Colli Piacentini into a hotbed of naturalist activity, Massimiliano Croci only produces three wines, all of them cloudy and fermented in bottle. His only bubbly red, this classic blend of barbera and croatina from the sandy soils of the Gutturnio DOC goes down easy, with a soft froth of sour cherry and a touch of farmhouse funk.

  • Price: $22

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