History has shown us that there are many Italian grapes that have achieved infamy almost as much as the wines they are used to produce. After all, without the quality of the grape the resulting wine will not satisfy those who drink it.
Lambrusco has come to stand as one of the more famous to emerge from Italy and can trace its history back over the centuries, perhaps making it one of the oldest grape varieties in the entire country.
Before we take a look at that, however, we are first going to examine Modena, which is a small province in Italy that is best known, at least in the wine community, for being one of the world’s foremost producers of this famous grape.
Like many territories in Italy, the area of Modena has been inhabited by the Etruscans at one point in history, though it has also been home to a number of other tribes and the Gaulish Boii, who overran the Etruscan settlement. We don’t know the exact date the province came to be, but we do not that it existed during the 3rd century BC, as it is one of the many that was attacked by Hannibal in that time. What we do know is that, following that attack, the city was rebuilt as a Rooman colony and used as a military base, which naturally means it came under more fire as the years progressed.
At one point the city was even attacked by Mark Antony, though it was defended. Unfortunately, in the 7th century AD it fell, not to war, but instead to a great flood that claimed the majority of the land and led those who lived there to flee.
The roots of the new Modena were planted just a few miles to the north and the region has been restored to its previous glory within a couple of centuries. As the Middle Ages rolled around, the city became even more infamous and it was during this time that the Song of the Watchmen of Modena, which is a beautiful Latin poem, was composed.
The city later fell under the possession of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who made it a free commune in the 12th century. However, the city eventually fell back under the control of a ruler, with the Este family taking the reins. Though there was a brief period in the 14th century when the commune asserted its freedom once more, the Esta family retook control and, under their rule, the Modena was a made a duchy.
Over time, the duchy grew and was fortified to the point where it became the main ducal residence of the Este family. However, towards the end of the 16th century, it fell to the Pope. The Este family still retained a great degree of prominence in the region in the years that followed. In the 19th century, the region fell under Austrian rule, which many considered to be the most just and fair period of the duchy’s existence.
Still, the European Revolutions and the ravages of war and cholera took their toll. In 1859, the revolutionaries finally stood victorious and Modena was made a part of the fledgling nation of Italy, becoming a territorial part of the new Kingdom. It has remained that way ever since.
The Lambrusco Grape
Of course, this is all well and good, but it doesn’t really tell us all that much about the grapes that Modena is really famous for. The Lambrusco grapes, for there are many, are used to produce the wine of the same name and can trace their history back just as far as Modena itself. Evidence shows that the vine was first cultivated by the Etruscans and mention of the grape crops up in the writings of Pliny the Elder, who was quick to point to the high yield of the grape as one of its strongest features.
Of course, a high yield means little without the quality to go along with it, which is why it is important to note that Lambrusco has become one of the more popular wines to emerge from Italy, particularly during the course of the last fifty years, when producers have been increasingly able to take advantage of international markets. In the 1970s and 80s, for example, sweet Lambrusco was the biggest selling imported wine in the United States and it still holds a fair degree of popularity around the world.
There are many varieties of Lambrusco grape dotting the landscape of Italy and it is certainly not limited solely to Modena. In fact, over sixty varieties have been identified, though Lambrusco Salamino certainly remains the most populous.
In many cases you will find that the Lambruscos you consume are made using a blend of different grapes of the same name, with Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Montericco, Lambrusco Grasparossa, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco Salamino, and Lambrusco Sorbara being the ones that are most likely to make their way onto the wine bottle’s label. As a general rule, the grape produces a rather dry wine that has a slightly bitter finish and often reveals notes of strawberry.
One thing that enthusiasts to watch out for is that the grape has been co-opted by a number of countries that produce wines using it that may not reach the standards of those produced in Modena or the other Lambrusco regions in Italy.
The grape has become particularly popular in Australia, likely due to the high yield that was spoken of by Pliny the Elder. Many of the cheap and boxed wines that emerge from the country are sold as Lambrusco, even though they usually only boast a 10% alcohol volume. Marketed as easy drinking wines, they are not to be confused with the real thing and generally will not reach the quality of Lambrusco wines that are produced in Italy.
The grape has also found its way to Argentina, where it is admittedly treated with a little more respect. In that country, Lambrusco Maestri is the grape of choice and there are a few hundred hectares of vineyards planted in Argentina that are dedicated to the grape.
The key point to remember here is that a wine labelled as Lambrusco may not actually come from Italy, so take some time to check the label to discern the origin before making your purchase.