How the land of lambrusco suddenly returned to fashion

Writer Xanthe Clay sips lambrusco at Medici Ermete Winery
Writer Xanthe Clay sips lambrusco at Medici Ermete Winery

Despite the fact that Alessandro Medici looks like a Renaissance portrait, all flowing locks and brooding good looks, he is no relation to his namesake the 16th-century Duke of Florence. The 28-year-old wine maker is a thoroughly modern Italian: one of a new community of young lambrusco makers in the vineyards of Emilia bent on restoring the reputation of this undervalued wine.

Lambrusco has a venerable history. Made since Etruscan times, the wine was named by the Romans, joining the words labrum, or border, and ruscum, or wild, for the wild grapes that grew on the edge of the fields. But in recent years lambrusco has become a laughing stock, considered cheap sweet fizz, the WKD of wines. It didn’t help that a dodgy brand of perry is called Lambrini, another blended word, but this time a cheeky elision of lambrusco and Lamborghini. The two drinks are inevitably confused.

Writer Xanthe with wine-maker Alessandro Medici
Writer Xanthe with wine-maker Alessandro Medici - Laura Larmo

Back on the covered patio outside the slickly modernised tasting room of VentiVenti wines, run by Medici and his father Alberto, we sip cherry-red glasses of lambrusco, admiring the lively sparkle, notes of berry fruit and relatively low alcohol content. To eat alongside – in Italy aperitivi refers both to drinks and to the snacks served together, and the Italians would not countenance wine without food – there are trembling, thin pink slices of mortadella, and rough nuggets of parmesan.

This elegant, bone-dry lambrusco is one of the new wave of the wine championed by Medici. Most lambrusco is made by the Charmat method, a cheap and reliable way of getting bubbles in wine by fermenting it in steel vats. It’s the same way most prosecco is made, but a relatively new method for lambrusco.

Until well into the last century lambrusco was made by allowing it to ferment in vats until most – but not quite all – of the sugar had turned to alcohol. It was then poured into bottles, topped with a crown cap like a beer bottle, and left to finish its fermentation while also developing a fizz. This method, the oldest way of making sparkling wine that predates the methode traditionelle used in Champagne for 200 years, is sometimes called “pet nat” (short for pétillant naturel) or ancestral method, but in Italy has been known as col fondo until a few years ago, when the name was changed to sui lieviti.

Lambrusco is produced in the provinces of Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma
Lambrusco is produced in the provinces of Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma - Marco Parisi Fotografo

Medici, who also makes lambrusco by the methode traditionelle or metodo classico, would love to see a surge in popularity in the wine, similar to that seen for prosecco in the Noughties. But, he says, it may take a while for people to come round: “The problem is that lambrusco comes from a negative position, while prosecco was neutral: no one knew what it was.”

In the meantime, travellers can head to Emilia and rediscover the forgotten pleasures of il vero lambrusco, and a plethora of deliciousness besides. It’s hard to imagine a region more imbued with iconic foods.

But first, a little geography. Although almost always spoken of in one breath, in fact Emilia-Romagna is two areas. To the west is the inland region of Emilia, encompassing the districts of Reggio Emilia, Piacenza, Modena and Parma. Romagna, to the east, includes the coastal areas of Ravenna, Forlì-Cesena, Ferrara and Rimini. In the middle is Bologna, the capital, belonging to both regions, and home to the handiest airport for visiting the area.

I started my trip in Bologna, an ancient university city of colonnaded pavements, and with a food culture so fabulous it is known throughout the land as the La Grassa or the Fat One. My first priority was ice cream, or rather gelato, the Italian style made with less fat and sugar than other ice creams, and generally more intensely flavoured. Florence might self proclaim itself the capital of gelato, but here in Bologna is the world’s only University of Gelato (0039 051 6505457;

Bologna is home to the world's only gelato university
Bologna is home to the world's only gelato university - Getty

I hopped on a bus to the location on the outskirts, just past the Ducati motorcycle factory. Run by the revered ice cream machine makers Carpigiani, it is located in the factory building, and encompasses courses for both professionals and amateurs serious about the science of frozen desserts.

When I arrived, two dozen students from around the world were busily taking notes during a lecture on the physics of the freezing process. A huge lab next door houses a range of machines for testing, but for the less studious enthusiast there’s also a gelato museum (0039 051 6505306;, open to the public and packed with fascinating antique equipment, interactive exhibits and displays covering the history of gelato and ice cream.

The region is also famous for its parmesan cheese
The region is also famous for its parmesan cheese - Alamy Stock Photo

As I tested myself (could I spot the difference between a natural vanilla ice cream and a fake?) an Australian family of adults and pre-schoolers was deep in a two-hour hands-on ice cream making class. I’ve vowed to remember to book a place in advance next time.

Denied the opportunity to guzzle my own gelato, I bussed back into town to an unassuming little shop Sablé Gelato ( where the young gelataio Alessandro Cesari makes gelato with obsessive attention to detail, from the ingredients (meticulously listed in a big file that customers can leaf through) to an insistence on using a vintage Carpargiani machine which churns vertically, rather than the modern horizontal versions. The list of flavours is intriguing, and I settled on a Sicilian lemon and almond, and Bolognese saffron and rose water, produced with locally grown ingredients, and both exquisite.

Replete, it was time to head for nearby Modena, another historic town with an exquisite Romanesque basilica and a penchant for motor vehicles. The Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari factories are all nearby, and Emilia is fiercely proud to be known as “The Home of Slow Food and Fast Cars”.

Modena is known for its penchant for fast sports cars
Modena is known for its penchant for fast sports cars - Getty

Where these ley lines of food and cars converge is in a small hotel outside Modena. Casa Maria Luigia is the country pile of chef Massimo Bottura and his wife and business partner Lara Gilmore. Bottura’s restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, is twice winner of the World’s Best Restaurant Award (an award which I am part of the judging panel for). In the hotel “playground” – the converted garage – is the couple’s collection of modern art and sports cars.

One caught my eye: a Lamborghini given to Bottura by the company and decorated in a homage to his famous “Whoops I dropped the lemon tart” – a dish created when a chef really did drop the dessert. He doesn’t drive it though. “It doesn’t feel appropriate when people are struggling around here,” he told me, aware of his status as a local hero. Instead of a spin in a sports car, we tucked into sharing plates cooked in the wood fired oven from the hotel’s informal Al Gatto Verde restaurant.

Modena is about more than restaurants and cars. It’s also the home of some of the best balsamic vinegar: Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP, or (Protected Designation of Origin). Made from start to finish in the area, the DOP vinegar is produced by a complex process of transferring grape must from barrel to barrel of a set called a batteria, and aged for a minimum of 25 years.

Chef Massimo Bottura's restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, is twice winner of the World's Best Restaurant Award
Chef Massimo Bottura's restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, is twice winner of the World's Best Restaurant Award - Camera Press

The syrupy, intensely flavoured elixir is sold in distinctive bulbous bottles, which legally can be used only by DOP vinegar. It’s the perfect treat to bring home – and yes, it comes in 100ml hand luggage-friendly sizes. You can also buy balsamic vinegar IGP, cheaper but still good, which has had only part of the process carried out in the area.

Nor is Modena the only place for vinegar. I called in on Reggio Emilia, which has its own DOP for balsamic vinegar. In the historic Pasticceria Boni (0039 0522 437367 I sampled the local rice cake, torta di riso, with my morning coffee, not forgetting to pay the elegantly coiffured nonna behind the till first.

There was time for a stroll round Reggio Emilia, a quieter town than Bologna with the same exquisite architecture of terracotta roofed houses in every shade of tawny from buttermilk to treacle toffee. Stopping in a bar, the sleekly combed barman asked what I’d have. “Uno bicchiere di lambrusco, per favour.” Make mine a lambrusco. I fancy Alessandro di Medici, the Renaissance Duke of Florence, would have ordered the same.

Five regional specialities

Parmesan cheese

Called parmigiano in Italian – this is yet another portmanteau word, this time of Parma and Reggio Emilia, two of the areas of production. Meticulously monitored, the best is made from milk from local vacche rosse (red cows). Head to the factory shops to buy butter from the same cows.


The delectable thin pie: lard pastry stuffed with pancetta and greens, and the go-to after school snack and workers’ lunch for generations of Emilians. Find the oblong slices on the counter in bars and bakeries.

Torta di riso

A rice pudding that thinks it’s a cake, baked in huge rounds and with a delectably soft, rich texture. Traditionally this was made for the Christian feast of Corpus Christi, with the rice gleaned from nearby fields by local women.

Torta di riso
Torta di riso: 'a rice pudding that thinks its a cake' - Ainara Garcia / Alamy Stock Photo

Balsamic vinegar

Bottles of “balsamic” are stacked high in the supermarkets but the real deal is from Emilia, thick and treacly and aged for a minimum of 25 years, with a price tag to match.

Gnocco fritto

Not a misspelling of the soft gnocchi we eat with sauce, but crisp, light, deep fried pastry strips, eaten as aperitivi or a first course. Usually served with paper thin slices of lardo, cured air dried pork fat which melt seductively on to the hot gnocchi.


Staying there

La Razza (0039 0522 599342; at Via Monterampino 3, Reggio Emilia is an agritourism offering B&B accommodation.

Casa Maria Luigi (0039 059 469054; at Stradello Bonaghino 56, San Damso, Modena offers doubles from £407 per night. Read our full review here.

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