We’re on a food tour with Italian Culinary Adventures. At dusk, we find ourselves skittering along the rural strip of road in the Modena hinterlands in a minivan. The van doesn’t seem so mini on these narrow strips of tarmac winding serpentine around hills. Wine hills. The best hills.
I’m about to continue my Lambrusco education, which started years ago at our village’s annual saint’s day eat-and-drink-to-excess day. My neighbor and best friend in Italy, Armando, had popped the cork on some bubbly.
Lambrusco isn’t common in our neck of the Tuscan woods. But I had to try Armando’s great find. Glug-glug it went into a water glass, foaming briskly. Ok, I was a little disappointed when I saw it. Red, nearly black, fizzy. Then I raised the glass and let some dribble down my throat. OMG your local twitter influencer might type into her phone with flying thumbs.
I’m pretty sure the amazing liquid was called Otello Nero di Lambrusco; Othello, you know, for the deep, almost black, color. But later I was to find out that this Lambrusco wasn’t named after Shakespeare’s Othello, It was named after Otello Ceci, a restaurant owner who made the wine to please the guests of his restaurant in Parma.
It was said to be good with salted pig parts, and that was what Armando was good at, too. He raised pigs as a sidelight. He won awards, one of them almost as tall as he was. Armando butchered a pig every December, as one does in rural Italy. Yeah, he and a few friends had crafted all manner of good things to eat in his mother’s garage that were now piled upon our table—salami, pancetta, and mortadella Lunigianese among them. Lambrusco was perfect with them, the fizz just right to cleanse the palate between bites.
My Lambrusco education continued years later with dinner at another neighbor’s house. Isa was from Modena, and cooked her native food for us. Besides Lambrusco pairing well with pig parts, it was great with white bean dishes as well.
So here we are, piling out of a van and people are running everywhere like they’ve just been released from solitary confinement for a crime they didn’t commit. “It’s soooooo beautiful” folks exclaim when they see the hillside covered with vines lit by the waning rays of the setting sun.
We were at a winery called Opera 02. But let me tell you, it’s not just a winery. You can stay in their agriturismo, the Agriturismo Opera 02. You can eat at a restaurant or a bistro. They’ll let you ride their bikes. It’s like a little village for people who appreciate the good life.
By the way, the cellar tour was one of the best I’ve had, and I’ve stood through many.
In the cellar were seemingly endless bottles of Lambrusco. There were also a few racks of bottles just for them, the employees. These were the experiments, pushing the wine further into OMG territory. I like these people and the enthusiasm they put into the business.
At dinner, we would consume more Lambrusco with some great food. You can’t let the education stop.
We didn’t stay. We had things to do, wine to drink, pasta to consume and discuss. Off drove our van, a sober Italian piloting it.
So How Did You Find This Place?
Wandering Italy was engineered for the independent traveler who has the free time to explore, to sometimes fail, and to interact with locals when possible. It also recognizes that many people in this “work more, travel less” culture don’t have time for travel planning or making reservations in restaurants many months in advance. Well, this one’s for you. The answer to the question of Martha and I finding Opera 02 is—we had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
I’ve already mentioned Italian Culinary Adventures. They’ve managed to put together this fine plan to introduce you to the traditional foods and wines of Modena so that all you have to do is pay and show up. How cool is that? They hosted Martha and me for three glorious days of culinary discovery I couldn’t have done on my own. Not on a moment’s notice at least.
For example, it’s unlikely you could just walk up and get a table at the miniscule Hosteria Giusti. Yeah, they make it easy to reserve online and all, but here’s the Lambrusco we drank at lunch:
500 bottles of this 50th vintage anniversary edition were bought and cellared in the Hosteria’s cellars. We sipped the last bottle the Hosteria had left. You couldn’t have reserved that. You can read the label and find that it’s Lambrusco Gasparossa, called the “noble” Lambrusco from the higher valley and foothills of the hills around Modena. Here’s what the consorzio says about these wines in general:
Intense ruby hue, with bright violet highlights and a perfume that recalls freshly pressed grapes, blackberries, cherry, violets and fresh almonds, which is one of the characteristics of this grape.
With planning and developing relationships, the crew of Italian Culinary Adventures can hunt down the best suppliers, negotiate for special favors, like the wine, and all you have to do is eat a bit more than you’re used to.
What’s a “real” Lambrusco?
I can still remember the time when television presented fuzzy moving pictures punctuated by Reunite Lambrusco commercials. The ad deluge started around 1965. The huge industrial supplier of sweetish fizz targeted cola drinkers with a low-alcohol grapey version of their favorite beverage. It was successful in that it made industrial Lambrusco makers a good bit of money, but it didn’t do anything for the small producers of traditional red Lambrusco. It took until 1994 until the traditional small producers fought back in what is now called the ‘Lambrusco Revolution’ (1994-2010) that eventually brought traditional Lambrusco into the cellars of fine dining restaurants in the US.
So here’s what the Real Lambrusco folks say about what makes a real, traditional Lambrusco.
(Real) Lambrusco is NOT sweet (semisecco/abboccato, amabile or dolce= 12 to 90g/l sugar), BUT secco (= 0 to max. 15g/L sugar; local preference: 0-8g/l sugar), frizzante (1-2.5 atm, never spumante: 3.0+ atm), red (never white), minimum 10.5% alcohol (not 4-10%), and twice fermented (it’s not a pet nat AKA “wine soda”) in a pressurized tank (charmat= modern classic) or bottle (metodo rifermentazione ancestrale= classic).
I’ve tasted some very interesting sweet, white versions of Lambrusco on this trip, and when “small Lambrusco” gets tinkering with traditions, that’s fine with me as well.
So come to Modena and see what you think about real Lambrusco. May you have an OMG moment.