Authenticity in the bottom of the bottle: the new wave of ancestral method Lambrusco

One of the more memorable tastings from my Vinitaly this year was with Alessandro Medici (above), the current generation of the Medici Ermete winemaking legacy.

If you follow Italian wine in the U.S. (and especially if you like Lambrusco), you probably already know his family’s wines. Medici Ermete is one of the Lambrusco powerhouses and its wines are nearly ubiquitous in the states.

But the twenty-something Alessandro wasn’t interested in showing me the estate’s popular Concerto, its best-selling wine. Instead, he wanted to pour me a wine that he has created and launched this year: Phermento, an ancestral-method Labmrusco di Sorbara.

Most Lambrusco (like Prosecco) is made using the Martinotti method (sometimes referred to, however erroneously, as the Charmat method). A still “base” wine is produced. The wine is then transferred to pressurized tank. A sweetener and yeast are added to provoke a second fermentation. The resulting CO2 is captured and contained by the sealed vat. The sediment (from the dead yeast) is separated from the wine using a temperature control system. And then the wine is bottled.

Some Lambrusco is made using the classic method (also known as the traditional method or Champagne method, although it’s illegal in Europe to call it the Champagne method except for when used in Champagne). A sweetener and yeast are added to the base wine in bottle. The bottle is sealed. A second fermentation occurs. The CO2 is trapped in the bottle. The wines are “aged on their lees” (the dead yeast) for shorter or longer periods depending on the producer. The sediment is disgorged by storing the wines upside down at a 45° angle, thus causing the solids to be concentrated in the bottle’s neck. The sediment is generally removed by freezing the neck and then allowing the pressure of the CO2 to expel it from the wine once the seal is removed (although there are other ways to disgorge the wine).

But more and more Lambrusco producers are using the ancestral method to make their wines these days. And Alessandro’s is the first to be released commercially by his family’s estate.

The ancestral method is as simple as it is challenging.

A base wine is produced and then a sweetener is added at bottling. Although not everyone in the wine world agrees on what exactly “ancestral method” denotes, most Prosecco and Lambrusco producers concur that the addition of the sweetener at bottling distinguishes the method from pétillant-naturel wines (known in the vernacular as “pét nat”) because the latter is bottled before fermentation is completed. In other words, pétillant-naturel wines only undergo one fermentation while ancestral method wines go through two.

Ancestral method wines like Alessandro’s are not disgorged. You can see the sediment in the bottom of the bottle above.

It’s challenging to make wines like this because, as many winemakers have told me, you have to get the amount of sweetener just right to obtain a dry wine. Too much sweetener will lead to unwanted residual sugar and an off-dry as opposed to dry wine.

I enjoyed Alessandro’s Phermento a lot: fresh and clean on the nose, with delicious primary grape flavors and some berry fruit — just right for a wine like this.

But it also struck me that this new entry from a winery like his family’s marks a new wave of commodification of what was once a wholly rural tradition.

Sometimes these wines are called rimosso, a term you could translate as re-animated or revived (not removed or repressed, as the term is sometimes translated depending on the context). They are reminiscent of the days when most country-dwelling Emilians grew their own Lambrusco and made their own wines (before the EU reforms that enticed them to grub up their vines). Grandpa or dad (and yes, it was the patriarch who made the wine, not the matriarch) would add a handful of sugar to the bottle to attenuate Lambrusco’s bitter character (most people don’t realize that Lambrusco is a highly tannic grape). I remember drinking wines like that in the early 1990s when I spent time in the countryside outside of Reggio Emilia.

Today, winemakers like Alessandro are trying to appeal to a revived interest in ancestral method and pétillant-naturel wines among young American (and to some extent Italian) consumers. Beyond the fact that it makes for a good conversation starter, the rimosso wines seem to convey a richer sense of authenticity.

Are they more authentic than Martinotti-method Lambruscos? Do they taste better? They certainly cost more because they are more costly to make.

I’m confident that Alessandro is going to hit a long ball with this wine. At the fair in April he told me he was heading to New York for an exclusive launch of the new label. The wine is delicious, the packaging is fantastic (he tracked down an elusive local artist to create it), and Alessandro has all the right energy to make this label a genuine success.

But would grandpa recognize a wine in a clear bottle, with an artist’s label, and a sensational name like Phermento (a hypercorrective paronomasia playing on ferment fermentation)? I don’t think so. But then again I remember people, inspired by California’s new cuisine, putting boiled corn kernels into their salads in Italy in the late 1980s. Grandpa looked over and said, “in my day, that’s what we fed to the chickens.”

In other Lambrusco news…

I’m dying to read Alice Feiring’s article on Lambrusco in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine.

Have a sparkling weekend, everyone! Thanks for being here.

One thought on “Authenticity in the bottom of the bottle: the new wave of ancestral method Lambrusco

  1. Pingback: Wine Blog Daily Monday 7/9/18 | Edible Arts

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