A well-respected French Champagne producer was sitting in Gianluca’s farmhouse a couple of years ago expecting to have to be polite about her host’s wine but determined also to be firm in her rejection of the premise being advanced by their mutual friend, an Italian wine distributor, who had convinced this skeptical French lady to make the trip to Italy. So reluctant was she to travel to one of the least heralded wine regions of Italy but also so convinced of the merit of her trip was the wine distributor, that he paid for her trip himself.
As she neared the unremarkable village of Gargallo di Carpi the signs were not propitious. The French lady gazed out onto the flat Emilia plain with its fertile soil sprouting grains and vegetables and saw none of the rolling hills and thick chalk deposits of the countryside around Rheims and Épernay that has made Champagne unique and famous around the world. Her car swung into the drive and she got out to meet Gianluca.
Several months before this meeting took place, at the end of January when all his vines were in their winter slumber, Gianluca had been persuaded to make the same trip, but in reverse, traveling to Champagne at the urging of this same mutual friend to judge for himself what his friend kept telling him. The wine distributor, being something of an expert on Champagne, went with Gianluca as his guide and it was there, in the heart of Champagne country, that Gianluca discovered for himself what his friend had been badgering him about.
Gianluca’s Lambrusco di Sorbara sparkling rosé did in fact taste exactly like rosé Champagne. Not just any type of rosé Champagne however, but rather a very specific one made from 100% Pinot Meunier grapes grown in a hamlet in the Marne Valley called Paradis. Pinot Meunier for a long time was the forgotten third grape of Champagne, but today is increasingly used in purezza for both regular and rosé Champagnes and in the latter you will often read tasting notes by wine industry professionals that describe flavors of raspberries and rose petals underpinned by notable salinity and minerality.
Gianluca returned to Emilia and gave his 100% Sorbara Lambrusco sparkling rosé the name San Vincent because his trip to Champagne had coincided with the 22nd January feast of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winegrowers in France.
And so this was the bottle sitting in front of the disbelieving Pinot Meunier Champagne producer in Gianluca’s house and the reason why their mutual friend, the wine distributor, was so insistent that she should come. In the hierarchical world of wine it is one thing for an Italian producer of Lambrusco to boast that his wine tastes exactly like a high quality Champagne but it is quite another thing for a French producer of Champagne to admit that their wine tastes exactly like a Lambrusco.
You can guess the ending of course because the Champagne producer, to her complete astonishment and with unintelligible Gallic mutterings of disbelief, had to concur with Gianluca and their friend about the uncanny similarity between the two wines. We are certainly not experts on Pinot Meunier Champagne but recently, following in that French lady's footsteps and sitting in Gianluca’s tasting room loft with a glass of his San Vincent rosé, there was no doubt to us as to those same sensory characteristics of the Lambrusco or its obvious quality.
And the three people involved in this story are not the only ones that have come to recognize that there is something very special about Gianluca’s San Vincent Lambrusco because further west in Piedmont it has made quite an impression on the owners of several wine bars and enoteche whose customers seem to have adopted it as their favorite aperitivo. In fact Gianluca was first contacted by his new American importer a year ago when their representatives were in Piedmont and kept coming across Gianluca’s sparkling wines as they sought refreshment at the end of each day’s hard work schmoozing clients over glasses of Barolo. They quickly realized the need to track Gianluca down and find out more about him and very soon thereafter they had acquired a new client. The moral of the story being that if a vino Emiliano can find such favor with the Piemontesi, who know a thing or two about wine, then it has perhaps already passed its sternest test.
So how exactly did Gianluca create such a wonderful Lambrusco when all around him there is still so much poor Lambrusco being produced?
The answer is quite long because Gianluca’s journey to 2019 was also a long one and required a lot of self-belief along the way, but it’s a fascinating personal tale that weaves its way through the history of Emilia and Lambrusco wine. It starts decades ago when Gianluca was growing up not very far from where his vines are today.
He doesn’t hail from a family of winemakers, grape growers or even landowners, unlike many of the winemakers’ stories we tell, but his could have been a much more familiar story if not for the crash of 1929. His great-grandfather was a sharecropper under the mezzadria system, which in Emilia in the 1920s was already starting to allow landowning opportunities for the contadini and Gianluca’s bisnonno took advantage of this to acquire land and a mortgage, just in time to be wiped out by the fallout from 1929. So there was no land in the family to be passed down and Gianluca’s grandfather made his living as a regional bus driver covering all the highways and byways of Emilia.
Gianluca’s youth in the 1980s coincided with the the absolute worst period for Lambrusco when it was mostly sweet and resembled a modern day alcopop or wine cooler. This was the Lambrusco of big business, made for the export market with profits in mind, but at the same time and on a much smaller scale Gianluca’s neighbors and others from the countryside around Modena would make the traditional dry Lambrusco out of their houses, like true garagistes before that term was even invented in France.
His grandfather knew where to find the best stuff and he would take Gianluca around the region on his days off starting when he was just a boy and they would taste the garagistes’ wine and buy the best in bulk, then bottle it themselves and sell it. Pretty soon they were selling it to the rest of their neighbors in their apartment building and his grandfather's bus passengers would hear about it and want to buy some and word of mouth would do the rest. So throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was always good Lambrusco being made in Emilia but you had to know where to find it and it had nothing in common with the exported sweet Lambrusco. And Gianluca never forgot the taste of good traditional Lambrusco.
By the time he left school Gianluca knew he wanted to be a winemaker and he went to study oenology and viticulture at the University of Pisa, which is where he met his wife, Simona Zerbinati. She graduated with a degree in Agricultural Biology and is a Tuscan like Elena, from the historical seaside town of Viareggio that we wrote about here. She is a very engaging person who was incredibly helpful in getting us some quality time with Gianluca.
After graduating with an oenology degree it’s essential to get some real world winemaking experience so you can hopefully avoid making expensive mistakes later when you have your own vineyard. Gianluca went first to the renowned Tuscan estate of Castello di Ama which is set high up in the Chianti hills and, as he admitted, it was hard for a son of the Emilia plains not to instantly fall in love with such a captivating landscape. His next stop was at Piero Busso in the equally beautiful Piedmont wine area of Barbaresco, but by then Emilia was calling him home.
I have come to realize that Italians are not easily transplanted from the territory of their birth, much more so than English or Americans will ever comprehend in their very geographically mobile cultures, and though Gianluca was returning home to his roots, Simona was quite honest about still missing the food and atmosphere of her native Viareggio and of course its superb location sandwiched between the sea and the snow capped Apuan Alps.
It was 2008 when they bought the property in Gargallo di Carpi, after 7 years searching for the right location, and Gianluca reflected to us on the fact that buying the property at a good price in the midst of a global financial crisis in 2008 was in some small measure life repaying his family for the harm done 79 years earlier when a previous crisis of a similar magnitude had robbed his father and grandfather of their patrimony.
There was never any doubt for Gianluca that his land was going be farmed biodynamically and every step of the winemaking process would follow strict biodynamic principles which are a significant step beyond simply organic. But when you purchase land that has been farmed conventionally for decades it takes several years to fully restore and replenish the soil and allow it to recover from the use of chemicals and the compaction of the earth from heavy machinery. The newly planted vines also require time to mature so it wasn’t until 2013 that Gianluca could make his first wine but he knew even then that he’d have to wait several more years before he could make the type of Lambrusco he remembered so clearly from his youth.
For his Lambrusco di Sorbara and Lambrusco di Salamino vines to produce grapes with the necessary complexity and subtlety for the wine that Gianluca wanted to make he needed to encourage their roots to go deep below the fertile sandy and loamy topsoils and work much harder to find their nourishment and water in the clay and slightly chalky subsoils. It is in this sub-strata where the saltiness comes from in his wine, that attractive sapidità that Gianluca stresses should not be confused with mineralità. So he stresses his vines with closer spacing and also by denying them irrigation. For the first 3 years Gianluca made only sparkling wines by the classic Champagne method and then for a further 3 years until 2019 only small quantities of his traditional Lambrusco method sparkling wine were made.
Finally in 2019, a full ten years after planting the initial batch of vines, everything was in place to make 25,000 bottles of traditional Lambrusco di Sorbara sparkling rosé; a wine with creamy bubbles and completely dry. This is when his wine distributor instantly made the connection to that rosé Champagne made from 100% Pinot Meunier, which, not coincidentally, is also from grapes farmed biodynamically and grown in clay and limestone soils in the Marne valley. Furthermore, centuries ago the Pinot Meunier grape crossed into Germany and became known as Schwarzriesling and Gianluca believes that it also came south into Italy and some of its DNA potentially survives today in his Lambrusco di Sorbara R4 clone.
At this point readers may be confused as to the difference between the classic Champagne method and the traditional Lambrusco method of making sparkling wine. According to Gianluca everyone is confused, including most wine industry professionals he meets which is why he now teaches a part of the annual Sommelier course in Modena so the next generation entering the wine industry will be better informed.
Essentially both methods vinify the still wine in the normal way before bottling and then there are three distinct differences. With Champagne a small amount of sugar and yeast is added to start the secondary fermentation in bottle, at the end of which the Champagne reaches a pressure of 6 bar and then through remouage and dégorgement the residual yeast plug is removed (and replaced with a final dosage) leaving a completely clear wine.
The traditional Lambrusco method employed by Gianluca goes all the way back to the first introduction of glass bottles in the 17th century and is very similar to the description of the col fondo wine we came across in Abruzzo. Rather than adding a very sugary yeast solution as with Champagne, Gianluca adds additional wine must containing still active yeast but much less sugar and at the end of a 2-3 months long secondary fermentation in bottle the resulting pressure is also much reduced at about 2.5 bar (allowing it to be sealed with a beer bottle cap) and importantly the residue remains in the bottle leaving these spent yeast lees to continue to work their magic on the wine as it matures. In other words, there is no dégorgement as there is for Champagne so the resulting wine is cloudy and full of flavor.
Most people writing about Lambrusco also seem to be confused because this is not the same as the so-called Lambrusco ancestrale method which involves bottling a very fresh incomplete young wine even before its first fermentation has been completed, which means that the malolactic conversion will eventually take place later in the bottle leaving a residue that is very different (and not to Gianluca’s liking at all) to just the simple spent yeast lees from a secondary fermentation.
Most cheap Lambrusco today however is made using the Charmat or Autoclave method employed also for Prosecco and Asti Spumante where the bubbles are created very simply in a large tank and the wine then is filtered and bottled already carbonated. The Autoclave method is so antithetical to Gianluca, because it is a process without any Lambrusco history or tradition, that he has named one of his wines “No Autoclave” so as to leave no-one in any doubt about his winemaking philosophy.
For Gianluca today there is no need to continue with his stopgap Champagne method wines because his vines are now finally producing the high quality of fruit he has always deemed necessary to make top class Lambrusco di Sorbara sparkling wine in the traditional way.
In addition his entire highly diversified farm of just over 100 acres is healthy and fully biodynamic, meeting the strict standards set by the Demeter ecological association which is the oldest and most international body dedicated to biodynamic agriculture and whose logo now appears on Gianluca’s labels. Certification is an onerous process that requires a farm to be largely self sustaining with mandatory biodiversity and minimal use of imported materials, which for winemakers also includes the entire process from grape to bottle.
As one would expect from Gianluca, his winemaking approach is minimalist and after more than a decade doing what he clearly loves there is no detail that escapes Gianluca’s attention. He knows when his grapes are ready simply by tasting them and he uses the natural yeasts from his vineyards for his pied-de-cuve starter culture. He prefers concrete vessels for the primary fermentation and these are stored in an above ground bunker he built and then covered with earth and trees to mimic a natural hill. Going underground here with such a high water table would have been like trying to build a cellar in Florida but this structure serves his purpose by providing a constant temperature year round.
Gianluca shares some of the concerns with stainless steel that we also came across in our Abruzzo trip regarding the electrochemical cells on the the surface of metal (particularly the soldered joints) that have the potential to impact the organoleptic properties of the wine. Therefore he uses stainless steel for only a very short period in order to precipitate the naturally occurring tartaric crystals which, though not a problem for still wine, if allowed to form in a sparkling wine would in fact pop the bubbles.
I would never have guessed that and it just goes to show how many pitfalls lurk in unsuspecting places for winemakers that we as drinkers never even pause to consider. His wines are bottled unfiltered with no additional sulfites, preferring instead to add the absolute minimum amount of sulfur prior to the first fermentation.
To commemorate the long journey from the 2008 purchase of Terrevive (the formal name for his winery) to full scale production in 2019 of the wine he had set his heart on making, Gianluca commissioned several artists from Modena to design his labels and paint his fermentation vessels. His instructions to the artists were simple: taste the wine and draw whatever inspiration comes from the glass with no boundaries or limitations, so that is what they did.
It's perhaps invidious to rank our various visits to winemakers but suffice to say that the time we spent with Gianluca would be right at the top by any measure. He both educated us and entertained us and we ended our discussion by asking him 3 questions that were more light hearted but his answers were illuminating:
1. Favorite Italian wine from outside your area? Gianluca's answer: Monte di Grazia from Campania.
We had to look this wine up and found that it's made from some of the oldest vines in Italy, some of which are over 100 years of age. It is located up a mountain on volcanic soils in the town of Tramonti in Campania which is half way between Pompei and Salerno. Just the sort of answer we would expect from Gianluca and now we're going to have to track down a bottle out of sheer curiosity.
2. Most inspiring wine professional? Gianluca's answer: Stefano Bellotti of Cascina degli Ulivi.
One of the pioneers of the biodynamic movement in Italian wines, starting in 1984 in Piedmont, who sadly passed away prematurely in 2018.
3. Favorite Italian dish? Gianluca's answer: Tortellini in brodo.
Gianluca answered before I had even finished asking him the question! I think if you grow up near Modena or Bologna this dish will always be very close to your heart. Not easy or quick to make at home though, so we ordered some from Bologna for our Christmas lunch (see photo right).
I think the difference in the tortellini from the two cities is that the Bologna version includes more mortadella and the Modena one has more prosciutto, but whatever the small differences both require a rich meat broth.
(In the same order as the photograph of the 4 wines above)
To really appreciate these wines there are two things you need to do. First, don't serve them too cold and second give them a little shake before hand or gently turn the bottles upside down a few times. The leftover lees in the bottle are an essential part of the tradition of this Lambrusco and you really want them re-mixed back into the wine. When you drink these as Gianluca intended you'll never go back to super clean non vintage Champagne again. This is sparkling wine with gobs of flavor, a great story and beautiful labels. Seek them out!
'No Autoclave' Frizzante Rosato Biologico
(Sorbara, Salamino di Santa Croce and Pignoletto, aka Grechetto di Todi, 12% alcohol)
(Label design by Michele Bernardi)
A gorgeous wine to look at when pouring into the glass and if you've ever had a Prosecco or something else made by the autoclave method you'll immediately appreciate how much prettier and more long lasting the bubbles are with this wine, regardless of the 2.5 bar pressure. There's a real perfume here of red roses, pink pepper and sandalwood and it's loaded with tart flavors of bitter cherries and redcurrant. It's a great aperitivo that's for sure but you don't have to put it away when the food comes out. It makes regular Champagne seem a bit boring.
'San Vincent' Frizzante Rosato Biologico (100% Sorbara, 12% alcohol)
(Label design by Marino Nieri)
We will happily take this over Champagne anytime and at half the price to boot. It opens with aromas of fresh unsweetened raspberries and looks gorgeous in the glass with an exceptionally fine mousse and a perfect shade of salmon pink. Only lightly acidic, it's dry, subtle and elegant with pleasant sapidità (more accurately defined by this word in Italian than the word sapidity in English as having a slight saltiness rather than minerality) that comes from the deeper root structure of the vines. Hopefully the Wimbledon, Ascot and Hampton's crowd are too snobbish to ever give Lambrusco a try because it would all be gone in a flash as it's impossible not to love this wine at first sip. An absolute bargain at 15 euros.
'PerFranco' Frizzante Rosato Biologico
(100% Salamino di Santa Croce, 12% alcohol) (Label design by Insetti Xilografi)
This has the lightest color of his range of wines, somewhere between pink and peach. It was named in dedication to his grandfather and Gianluca's goal here in choosing the Salamino di Santa Croce grape was to create the flavor of his grandfather's favorite drink, another one of those early memories seared into Gianluca's memory.
There's a lovely whiff of yeast on the nose and on the palate a strong spine of bracing acidity with lemon and grapefruit notes. A little austere and quite subtle it's exactly the sort of sophisticated tipple that could easily become a favorite.
We left half of the bottle in the fridge with an appropriate stopper and finished it the second evening just to see what this wine is really made of. There was slightly less fizz (though still enough) but much more complexity with more impact from the lees, probably because we hadn't done a good enough job distributing them around the bottle on the first evening. Fabulous wine for 13.70 euros
Stiolorosso Frizzante Rosso, 'Casalpriore ha sempre ragione' (Casalpriore is always right), (100% Sorbara, 12% alcohol)
Grapes from 60 year old vines on a friend's organic farm about 10 miles west.
Sour cherries and rhubarb with a touch of nutmeg may not seem like a gung-ho description of this wine but find a bottle and sip this before dinner and watch your appetite rise, your mouth start to water and your tummy rumble. There's not a scintilla of sweetness here, nor should there be, but the very dry, slightly bitter finish will have you coming back for more at the same time as being perplexed by its attraction. This is a sophisticated adult beverage that is not for beginners.