Trattoria La Busa, on the southern outskirts of
Modena, is a window onto Emilia-Romagna's traditions: Italy's fastest cars,
fantastic food and its most misunderstood wines.
Ferrari-racing memorabilia cover the walls, platters of melt-in-your-mouth salumi lap around the dining room, and the kitchen turns out delicious handmade pastas drizzled with thick traditional balsamic vinegar. And dominating the wine list is fizzy red Lambrusco.
This Lambrusco is not the sweet red fizz that became Italy's most exported wine in the decades after the 1970s. It's the good stuff: dry, not-quite-sparkling, easy-drinking wine crafted from select grapes and offered at reasonable prices.
Fausto Altariva, 41, is the fourth-generation Lambrusco maker at his family's Fattoria Moretto in the rippling hills of Castelvetro di Modena. "Our goal is to make a wine of terroirs, like other fine wines," he says.
I visited the Moretto farm after helping drain a bottle of Altariva's delicious bone-dry, deep violet–colored Lambrusco at lunch. Altariva, working from the winery below his family farmhouse, is part of the new wave of 21st-century winemakers redefining Lambrusco, shifting away from its image as the vinous equivalent of Coke.
Lambrusco is not the easiest wine to understand because the name refers not only to a wine style, but also to a family of ancient grape varieties (seven are commonly used today) and a dozen wine-production zones in Emilia-Romagna and lower Lombardy. The fine Lambrusco scene is a tumult of production methods, wines that vary in color from pink to violet, and even different closures—from bottle caps to those requiring a corkscrew. (Altariva favors corks.)
Altariva, a small, energetic man with a salt-and-pepper beard, once studied mechanical design. But after school in the 1990s, he joined his father making traditional Lambrusco from the family's 30 acres of Lambrusco Grasparossa, the dark grape that dominates south of Modena.
The Altarivas made Lambrusco as it had been made for centuries—by adding fresh grape must to bottles of dry still wine, provoking a second fermentation. But the bottles were corked right away and soon shipped, instead of being cellared and disgorged as in Champagne; as a result, the wine kept slowly fermenting in transit or on store shelves. Quality varied wildly from bottle to bottle, and many exploded in transport.
Altariva was frustrated. "For export," he says, "it was impossible."
In 2001, when he took over winemaking from his father, he approached the problem like an engineer: How could he make a simple, traditional-style Lambrusco that had the same amount of effervescence, but was stable?
He began experimenting and soon converted all his production to modest-size (4,000-liter) pressurized steel tanks. The tanks, also known as autoclaves, had a bad image; in the 1950s, the introduction of the bulk Charmat method of secondary fermentation to Italy, using larger tanks, paved the way for industrial Lambrusco.
But instead of using the tanks in an industrial fashion with commercial yeasts, sugar, concentrated grape musts and other additives, Altariva stuck with traditional fermentation using only grapes and native yeasts. "It is really using the autoclave in an artisanal way—like a big bottle," he said.
Altariva farms organically and harvests low yields to produce about 5,000 cases in the Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro D.O.P. He even produces two single-vineyard crus: the more structured, tannic Canova and the softer Monovitigno. He only recently began exporting to the United States, where his wines (not yet rated by Wine Spectator) retail for about $15 to $25.
At these prices, the Lambrusco scene is well worth following—particularly from a ringside seat at country trattorias like La Busa.