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Lambrusco Maestri has all the answers

By Kim Chalmers, Chalmers, Victoria

Have you ever heard of Lambrusco Maestri? You may have already tasted it but not realised. Maybe you thought Lambrusco was just the name of a fizzy, pink drink. Well, that is correct, but there are also 13 or 14 distinct indigenous grape varieties in Italy called Lambrusco this or Lambrusca that. Lambrusco Maestri is just one of them that has found its way to Australia and is making a big impression.

Background
The spiritual home of most Lambrusco varieties and the typical sparkling wine styles made from them is Emilia-Romagna, in north-central Italy, although there are a few from Piedmont as well. Lambrusco di Sobrara and Lambrusco Grasparossa seem to be the two main varieties favoured by premium producers in Italy, while Lambrusco Salamino is more widely planted.
Lambrusco Maestri was traditionally a minor Lambrusco variety, originating from the Parma region and now cultivated in both Parma and Modena as well as much of the Reggio Emilia region. According to Ian D’Agata, author of the book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Lambrusco Maestri is rising in popularity, with many producers replacing the inferior Lambrusco Marani with the hardier and more adaptable Maestri. Surprisingly, the greatest planted area of Lambrusco Maestri in Italy belongs to Puglia with 2700 hectares, followed by Emilia-Romagna with 600ha.


Kim Chalmers

Outside of Italy, Lambrusco Maestri is known to be grown and made in both Argentina (approx. 100ha under vine) and Australia. As at August 2020 the total number of vines, including those due to be planted later this year, totals an impressive 1.1 million. By extrapolating those numbers to approximate hectares under vine we can surmise that the planted area of Lambrusco Maestri in Australia is now very close to that of Emilia-Romagna.

Lambrusco Viticulture in Australia
Records show that a Californian selected a UC Davis clone of Lambrusco (H9V12) to be imported into Australia in 1969 but there is no information as to which Lambrusco variety it might have been. The only known clone of Lambrusco Maestri in Australia is VCR 1, imported by Chalmers in the late 1990s and arriving out of quarantine in 2001. In Italy, Lambrusco Maestri VCR 1 is widely considered the best clone for both quality and productivity, a rare combination that makes the variety a fantastic commercial prospect.
Lambrusco Maestri VCR 1 has a semi-compact, cylindrical, medium-sized bunch which very often has a wing. The berries are small and high in colour with thick skins and excellent resistance to mildews and rot. It produces grapes of exceptional intensity of colour and flavour even at quite high yields and can handle hot summer conditions well.

 

The only known clone of Lambrusco Maestri in Australia is VCR 1 (pictured), imported by Chalmers in the late 1990s. In Italy, VCR 1 is widely considered the best Lambrusco Maestri clone for both quality and productivity.

 

We have been advised by some wineries who are purchasing Lambrusco Maestri grapes and vines from Chalmers that it achieves the highest colour scores for any Vitis vinifera ever seen in Australian viticulture.  It is a medium-high vigour variety best suited to spur pruning. At Chalmers’ Merbein Vineyard it’s grown at 2222 vines/ha on a commercial two wire vertical trained system with a foliage catch wire and also a single cordon VSP with an east-west orientation. In Heathcote it’s grown at 4545 vines per hectare on a unilateral cordon VSP.
All vines are spur pruned by hand. It’s a later ripening variety and in the Chalmers experience typical analysis at maturity for Heathcote Lambrusco Maestri harvested for sparkling production is around 11 Baume, 3.3pH, 8-9TA while dry red numbers at maturity in Merbein in the Murray Darling region are typically more like 14Be, 3.5pH and 6.5TA.

Lambrusco Wines in Australia
From the outset Bruce Chalmers was extremely impressed by the viticultural performance of Lambrusco Maestri in the vineyard. In 2005, when the first few tonnes of fruit were produced from the original mother row, Bruce Chalmers picked up the phone and convinced Anthony Murphy from Trentham Estate to take it in and have a go at making the first Australian wine from it. The resulting red table wine took out a trophy at the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show that year and set Trentham on the path to making what is now one of its most popular wines at cellar door, the Maestri Frizzante.
During a 2008 trip to Vinitaly I was lucky enough to be escorted on a whirlwind tour of the most exciting producers of ‘real Lambrusco’ wines at the Emilia-Romagna stand by a colleague, Dr Emiliano Falsini of Matura group. I was absolutely fascinated by the structured, dry and perfumed wines with great finesse and high drinkability. Nothing like the cloying pink stuff marketed as Lambrusco in Australia and often not made from Lambrusco grapes at all — which is now illegal. The real Lambrusco movement in Italy has been working hard to disrupt the stereotype of Lambrusco being simple, low alcohol, pink sweet fizz and promote the serious dry drinks over the last decade or so. The world is taking note, with more great examples of Lambrucso wines than ever available in Australia thanks to savvy importers.
On return to Australia from this trip we decided to plant Lambrucso Maestri at the newly-developed Chalmers Heathcote vineyard and we now make a serious, dry, aperitif style, Methode Traditionelle sparkling Lambrusco Maestri in the Chalmers range. Walter Speller, the Italian correspondent for Jancis Robinson, said of the 2013 Chalmers Lambrsuco, “delicious and dangerously close to the originals,” while Ian D’Agata mentions our 2012 Lambrusco in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy tome: “Outside Italy, try the very good Australian version by Chalmers…The 2012 is an excellent wine…you’ll love the heady vanilla, cinnamon and strawberry aromas and flavours that seem to jump out of the glass.”
Andrew Cottell, from Parish Hill Wines in South Australia, was quick to plant Lambrusco Maestri in the Adelaide Hills and was an early proponent of the wine, making some of the earliest sparkling versions in Australia. William Downie and Patrick Sullivan made a fun version called PAB Lambrusco, marketed on the back of TAB-esque ‘80s style branding for a while. More recently, Architects of Wine, in South Australia, and Tim Ward Wines, in Victoria, have been championing Lambrusco wines.
Tim Ward sources his grapes, both Lambrusco Maestri and Lambrusco Salamino, from the Chalmers Merbein Vineyard.
“I make two sparkling Lambruschi: a rosé made from whole bunch pressed Salamino and saignée Maestri; and a lighter style red from Maestri destemmed and left on skins for four days. My aim is to keep the wines fresh, highlighting the sour and dark cherry and strawberry fruits, and let those acids zing your brain to joy,” Ward said.
“To me, Lambrusco, from fresh rosé to full red, is a wonderfully adaptable drink that works well as an aperitif but is wonderful alongside food; from breakfast and all throughout the day to dinner.”

Lambrusco Maestri Incognito
If you added up all the bottled examples of Australian Lambrusco mentioned above, it may total a sum of something like 10-15 tonnes annual production at a guess. So, where do all the other thousands of tonnes of grapes produced on those million or so vines go? Good question.
The potential of Lambrusco Maestri as a high colour blending variety has been noticed by large-scale winemakers who traditionally utilised varieties like Durif, Ruby Cabernet or the Californian Teinturier Rubired to add colour intensity in commercial red wines. That is where the majority of Australia’s Lambrusco Maestri is ending up, and it’s a good thing according to those companies working with it.
Frank Mallamace, of Casella Family Brands, says: “We are happy with the quality we get from Lambrusco Maestri, especially in the warmer inland areas. Viticulturally, Lambrusco Maestri is good to grow as we see no associated issues with disease risk or fruit degradation toward the end of the season because the hardy grape can easily achieve the level of ripeness we are looking for without suffering quality losses. The fruit is able to achieve high colour but also with Lambrusco Maestri, it brings good tannin and acid too where other highly-coloured varieties don’t. This produces high quality wine allowing us to further improve wine styles.”
Mildura winemaker Yelena Richardson is red wine maker at Lindeman’s Karadoc Winery. She says: “We love Lambrusco for its amazing depth of colour, whilst retaining a softer tannin profile. The colour for us is its biggest drawcard.”

While other grapes utilised in blending may require special treatment to minimise off-characters and maximise positive impact, Richardson says of Lambrusco: “We don’t treat it any differently to other reds, so it’s fair to say that the variety does all the work in maximising colour extraction.”
Perhaps this purpose for Lambrusco in blending, and its success in warm growing conditions, is a clue as to why the hot southern Italian region of Puglia has so many hectares planted yet is not known for Lambrusco Maestri labelled wines. After almost 20 years of working with Lambrusco Maestri in Australia, what we can say with certainty is that in a grapegrowing environment challenged by climate change and a market demanding quality and sustainability, Lambrusco Maestri has all the answers. A great grape to work with viticulturally that is equally loved by winemakers. Perhaps the consumer will be the last over the line as we continue to work on breaking the stereotype left over from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Reference
d’Agata, I. (2014) Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press.

 

Lambrusco Maestri

By Peter Dry, Emeritus Fellow, 
The Australian Wine Research Institute

Background
There are many distinct Italian varieties called Lambrusco/Lambrusca ‘Something’, especially in Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. Lambrusco Maestri (lahm-BROOS-koh ma-AYS-tree) has been known since the end of the 19th century, probably originating in the province of Parma. Principal synonyms are Grappello Maestri and Lambrusco di Spagna. Today, it is widespread in Emilia-Romagna, particularly in Montecchio, Beretto and Gualtieri. It is used for varietal wine in Colli di Parma DOC and as part of the blend in Lambrusco Mantovano DOC and several other Reggiano DOCs. Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Grasparossa are much more important in Emilia-Romagna than Lambrusco Maestri, with 8% and 3% of the regional area, respectively. The former is the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties in Italy. Global area of Lambrusco Maestri was 2272ha in 2010 (66% more than 2000), mostly in Italy. There is a small area in Mendoza, Argentina. There are at least three wine producers in Australia (and more growers).

Viticulture
Budburst is mid-season and maturity is mid to late. Vigour is high with erect growth habit. Bunches are medium to large and compact with medium thick-skinned black berries. Yield is high. Medium to long pruning is generally used in Italy but spur pruning is successful in Australia. It has average susceptibility to diseases and is adapted to a wide range of climates. High acidity and low pH musts are possible in hot regions 
in Australia.

Wine
Lambrusco Maestri wines are well-structured with good colour and freshness and generosity of flavour. Acidity and tannins are good. Descriptors include strawberry, dark plum, ripe black cherry, milk chocolate and candied violets. Still, sparkling or frizzante styles can be found in both Australia and Italy, usually consumed when young. It is often used for blending in Australia.