Lambrusco has been produced by many generations of winemakers, but each seems to find it in a different guise. A century ago, vintners studied and emulated the methods of Champagne. More recently, they blitzed shelves with a sweet, fizzy, simple red. Today, as the popularity and diversity of bubbly around the world surges, many Lambrusco houses are returning to an emphasis on brut styles, old-school vinification methods, terroir specificity or all of the above, making frizzante and spumante wines of complexity, distinction and tremendous value.
Among the leaders of this new wave of old-school producers in Emilia-Romagna is Lini Oreste & Figli, branded Lini910, for 1910, the year the Lini family founded its operation, making both wine and balsamic vinegar. Associate editor Ben O'Donnell spoke with Alicia Lini, a champion for this emerging generation of boutique bubbly producers, about what makes an authentic Lambrusco, the challenges of upending her region's reputation for cheapness, and her own journey from ballet to bottling wine.
Wine Spectator: You are now the fourth generation to bottle wine for Lini910. Did you know from an early age that you were going to follow the family business?
Alicia Lini: No. I studied ballet for 12 years, and I dreamed of becoming a classical ballerina. Then I went abroad to take my master's degree in the U.K. Because I studied entrepreneurial management, I started to consider writing [my dissertation] about entrepreneurial wine businesses, winemaker stories. And then when I came back to Italy, I found the connection again with my family, my wine, my region, my environment. A deep connection.
But it was very, very difficult to go back and to discover that we were from a region that had been destroyed, in a way, in terms of image, in terms of communication, in terms of quality.
WS: When you began working in wine after university, a dozen years ago, what was the perception of Lambrusco?
AL: At that time, I started to realize that there was no space for what we were doing at Lini. We were still doing Champagne method, and others were doing $2 for a big, 1.5-liter bottle of sweet wine. I remember once when a journalist visited, a friend of mine, a wine producer in Veneto, told him, "She produces balsamic vinegar" [a Lini side project]. So it was not "cool" to produce Lambrusco.
WS: Has it been a challenge over the years to be a young woman championing, successfully, a less ubiquitous style of Lambrusco?
AL: It was difficult. The first thing my dad told me after university, I remember, it was not about wine. He looked into my eyes and said, "Remember that in 15 years, physically you will change [laughs]. There is no shortcut, and you will have to invest in your culture and your professionality." I'm very straightforward as a woman and as a person. But I think it's doubly difficult.
WS: Your winery makes a range of cuvées—from Charmat-method, easy-drinking Lambrusco rosso of the Reggiano DOC to traditional-method Pinot Nero aged for a decade. How do you aim to portray your vision of Lambrusco to today's wine lovers?
AL: My dad is responsible for production, but we quarrel all the time. It is about finding a good balance between being conservative in respect of 100 years of history and being modern and up to date with the new tendencies for the market. We didn't want to invent something that doesn't exist.
If you went back to 80 years ago and started to produce sparkling wine with no technology, and then you got inspired by Champagne, of course—because it was the [standard] at that time—then you started to realize that you can produce Lambrusco like a Champagne, and you started to produce Pinot Noir also. So at that time, [vintners sought] a way to measure their own selves and to invest in internal research and experiments, to understand what Lambrusco was.
That is the reason why our family still produces Champagne method with Lambrusco grapes, but also Pinot Noir. Just for passion, 10,000 bottles a year. It's something that belongs to the blood, like the balsamic. You would put away balsamic vinegar years and years ago for the daughters, so when the daughters were 20, 22, 23 and one was getting married, she had already her own balsamic vinegar.
You look around and say, hey, we don't have to fight with sweet Lambrusco. There are little wine producers that believe in such quality, and they receive international attention [now].
We are artisanal in the Lambrusco environment. I'm not saying that I'm better—please. But if you eat pasta and you make your pasta by hand every day, it's very difficult to understand the industrial entities that make pasta.
WS: What makes Lambrusco and the culture of Emilia-Romagna compelling and romantic?
AL: It's the food valley—a rich ham, a rich salami, a rich pecorino—but it's not just food. It's also about Ferrari, Pavarotti, the abundance born in Emilia-Romagna. We have a very rich culture. And this is the reason Lambrusco is really liked.