A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Know Your Lambrusco - Salamino, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Last week, I started a new series called Know Your Malvasia where I take a look at different Malvasia-named grapes and explain where they're grown and how they do or do not relate to other Malvasia grapes.  Today I'd like to expand that concept a little and start to talk about the various Lambrusco-named grapes.  There is a lot of bad information out there about Lambrusco grapes and over the next few weeks, I'd like to try to set as much of it right as I can, starting with the Salamino grape today.

The two most common bits of misinformation regarding the Lambrusco grapes are pretty much the same as for the Malvasias.  Some people will tell you about the Lambrusco "family" of grapes, while others will tell you that the various Lambruscos are made from "sub-types" or "sub-varieties" of a single Lambrusco cultivar.  The people that tell you this are wrong.  A study done in 2005 (citation 1 below) analyzed most of the Lambrusco-something cultivars grown throughout Emilia-Romagna and while they found first degree (parent/offspring) relationships between a few of the grapes in the study, pretty much none of the major of Lambrusco cultivars were found to be that closely related to one another.  Which isn't to say that they aren't related at all.  When the team analyzed genetic similarities for all of the grapes in the study, they did find that most of the Lambrusco grapes clustered together, indicating that they probably share a common ancestor at some point along the line, but how distant that relative might be is difficult to say. 

As we learned in my last Know Your Malvasia post, there really is no such thing as "sub-varieties" of grapes.  But one might wonder, if there isn't any direct familial relationship and if they aren't "sub-varieties," then why do they all have the same word in their name?  The word "Lambrusco" means "wild grape" in Italian, and it was long thought that the Lambrusco grapes were domesticated from wild vines around Emilia-Romagna.  A study done in 2009 (citation 2 below) analyzed many wild grape varieties in Piemonte and compared their DNA with several Lambrusco varieties as well as several other cultivated grape varieties of the region.  They found that the Lambrusco grapes had more DNA in common with the wild grapes than the other cultivated varieties, indicating that they were more closely related to the wild vines and may have been domesticated more recently.

It's worth noting that here in the United States, when we think "wild vines" we think of Vitis labrusca or some of the other "foxy," native American varieties.  In Europe, the situation is a little bit different.  Wild vines in Europe are still Vitis vinifera, but there is actually a sub-species of the vinifera species called sylvestris.  Please note, this is a sub-species, not a "sub-type" or "sub-variety."  Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris is differentiated from Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera mainly by the fact that vinifera flowers are hermaphrodites, meaning that they have both male and female organs and so can pollinate themselves, while sylvestris flowers are dioecious, which means that some flowers are male and produce pollen while others are female and need to receive pollen from males in order to produce fruit (unpollenated flowers just fall off a vine and die, while pollinated flowers produce berries). One can easily understand why hermaphroditism was selected for by early farmers, since the ability to self-pollinate produces a more reliable and a larger crop.  Interestingly, there are a handful of Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera vines that are not self-pollinating, but which are not necessarily dioecious.  Lambrusco Sorbara, for example, only has female flowers, so it must receive its pollen from other vines.  As a result, Sorbara is often inter-planted with Lambrusco Salamino so that the Salamino pollen can pollinate the Sorbara flowers. 

What all this means is that though many of the Lambrusco grapes may be distantly related to one another, they're not exactly a "family."   Furthermore, they are all separate grape varieties and are not "sub-types" of any single Lambrusco grape.  So how do you know which Lambrusco grape you're drinking?  Like Malvasia, it often depends on where you are.  Some of the Lambrusco grapes are easy to spot, since their names are typically printed right on the label.  Lambrusco di Sorbara is made from the Sorbara grape, while Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetto is made from the Grasparossa grape.  Lambrusco Salamino can be found in the Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC wines, but can also be found in basic Reggiano DOC wines as well as the wines of Lambrusco Mantovano and the Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa.  You can always check the DOC regulations for the region of wine that you're drinking, but if there are many different varieties authorized for use or if your wine is labeled as IGT, then you may just have to live with the mystery.

Lambrusco Salamino is the most common of the Lambrusco varieties and is planted on over 10,000 acres of land (mostly in Emilia-Romagna, though a little bit is surprisingly found in Sardinia).  The name "Salamino" comes from the fact that the grape bunches are long and cylindrical and thus thought to resemble little sausages, or "little salamis."  There are at least five different clonal variants of Salamino that are recognized by ampleographers: tender, red-leaved, green-leaved, red-stalked, and green-stalked.  Salamino grapes are naturally very high in sugar and so they lend themselves to the production of sweet and off-dry wines, though bone-dry wines made from the grape are also widely available. The berries are deeply colored and can provide quite a bit of tannic grip to the finished wine, and Salamino-based Lambruscos are typically heavier-bodied and more aromatic than those from other Lambrusco grapes.

For those who might object that Lambrusco is far too common for me to write about here, I would counter by saying that the first of the three Salamino-based wines that I'll be reviewing is actually a Lambrusco Bianco, which is made from 100% Salamino grapes that were crushed and rapidly moved off the skins before picking up any coloring, as in a Blanc de Noirs Champagne.  The wine was the NV Lini 910, which I picked up from my friends at Curtis Liquors for around $16.  In the glass the wine was a fairly pale silvery lemon color with nice frothy bubbles.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of toasty bread, apple, green apple candy, toasted nuts and a touch of raspberry.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with high acidity.  There were flavors of toasted nuts, toasted bread, ripe apple, pear, fresh cut lemon and lemon peel.  The fruits were a bit subdued, but there was a lot of secondary fermentation aromas and characteristics that were quite nice indeed (which is interesting, since this is a tank-fermented wine).  I found the wine both interesting and delicious and thought that it was a really great value for the money.

I also had the opportunity to taste Lini 910's regular Lambrusco bottling ($17), which their website says is 85% Salamino and 15% Ancelotta, which is a common Lambrusco blending grape that tends to soften the tannic edges of other grapes and round out the flavor profile a bit. In the glass this wine was a fairly deep purple ruby color with lots of fizz.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of blackberry and black cherry fruit along with grape soda and leather.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  It was dry with flavors of black cherry, blackberry, cola, grape soda and a touch of smoky charcoal.  It was very fresh and very fruity, but also dry and very refreshing.  This wine is also tank-fermented, and I definitely think it helped to accentuate the fresh fruit flavors.  I had this wine with an Italian cold-cut calzone, and it was absolutely perfect, cutting through the oily meats while also standing up to and complementing the tomato sauce I was dipping into.

A few months ago, I wrote about a wine being imported by my friend Matt, who is a co-owner of the Wine Bottega in the North End of Boston, and his new company Selectio Naturel.  Matt brings in wines from all over Italy (and some from France too), and he has a handful of really killer Lambruscos in his portfolio.  One of them is the 2010 Fondo Bozzole "Giano," which is made from 100% Salamino grapes ($18 at the Bottega).  In the glass this wine was a deep, inky ruby-black color with bright purple fizz.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of grape soda, black-berried fruits, dark chocolate, cocoa and char.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  It was dry, but absolutely loaded with blackberry and black cherry fruits and dry grape soda flavors as well.  There was a savory edge to the wine as well and I thoroughly enjoyed it with some ground-turkey lasagna.  It is versatile enough to pair nicely with a variety of foods, but is also delicious enough to just drink on its own. 


1)  Boccacci, P, Marinoni, DT, Gambino, G, Botta, R, & Schneider, A.  2005.  Genetic characterization of endangered grape cultivars of Reggio Emilia province.  American Journal of Enology and Vititculture, 56(4), ppl. 411-416.

2)  Schneider, A, Marinoni, DT, Raimondi, S, Boccacci, P, Gambino, G.  2009.  Molecular characterization of wild grape populations from north-western Italy and their genetic relationship with cultivated varieties.  Acta Horticulturae, 827, pp. 211-216.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I know the focus was on the grapes but really found the blurb on vinifera subspecies most intriguing.

My question is mostly for clarification on the applied use of the nomenclature. Is a vine classified as sylvestris solely based on dioecious flowering or is it given to a vine that is classified as "wild" (i.e., not domesticated). Or put another way, are there domesticated sylvestris vines?

Unknown said...

WK - as far as I know, there are no domesticated sylvestris vines, by which I mean that I am not aware of anyone who has taken a wild vine and tried to grow it commercially to make wine. If someone were to take a sylvestris vine from the wild and grow it in their backyard as a tame plant, it would still be sylvestris, as the subspecies designation is based on morphological differences and not simply where and how the vines are cultivated.

Sylvestris and vinifera vines have morphological differences in pretty much all parts of the plant, but the most important is the flowers. There's a great article by Harold Olmo called "The Origin and Domestication of the Vinifera Grape" published in _The Origins and Ancient History of Wine_ that has a really handy chart showing the differences in various parts of the plants.

Also interesting is the fact that sylvestris vines are currently endangered, because the same diseases that came to Europe from the introduction of North American vines in the mid 19th century which so seriously affected cultivated vinifera vines also attack sylvestris vines with the same lethality. Wild vines are not grafted or sprayed, so the populations of wild vines in Europe has suffered since the introduction of these molds, lice and other parasites from North America.

Lambrusco Day said...

Very nice info.

BTW, it's quite amazing that one can still run into producers in Emilia and Mantova telling you that Ancellotta is a Lambrusco variety.

It looks like "news" travels a lot slower in Emilia and Mantova. :) And that's probably not that bad at all.

So far, 13 out of possible 17 Lambrusco varieties have been DNA-ed: http://www.lambruscoday.org/facts-or-fiction.html

(I will add a link to your great post.)