Do you remember your first experience with Lambrusco? If you’re about my age, it probably involved a few illicit sips siphoned from an unsuspecting adult’s glass at a family party. Or maybe it was when you and your high school buddies pulled one over on the waitress at the local Italian festival, convincing her that, “Yes ma’am, we are definitely 21.” While we had no real expectation of what the fizzy red liquid would taste like, it hardly mattered, right? Anything earned by duping an adult was delectable, regardless of its ingredients or provenance. And I think the TV ads for mass-market brands like Riunite only added to the allure. They led us to believe that we, too, could disco dance through the park, stopping just briefly to accept a marriage proposal. “Riunite on ice; that’s nice!”
Yes, technically that was Lambrusco, the red sparkling wine from Emilia-Romagna, home to gastronomic delights like Prosciutto di Parma and Pasta Bolognese. And, although the marketing campaign did a good job of ramping-up sales in the US, in the end, it short-changed the wine’s reputation. Ultimately, many of us who grew up during the Riunite Age learned to dismiss Lambrusco as a sweet, fizzy kids’ quaff. Fair criticism during the 70s and 80s, perhaps, but no longer. Today’s Lambrusco wines can be anything from light, fresh, and aromatic to highly-pigmented, tannic, and structured. And they might be dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, or sweet. It’s definitely time to re-examine our prejudices toward Lambrusco and look at it in an entirely new light.
Italian Food, Wine & Travel Group
On the first Saturday of each month, a handful of wine writers from around the world participate in #ItalianFWT — or Italian Food Wine Travel. That means the host comes up with a theme to prompt us to taste, learn, and write, then we all do so and share the results. For May our topic is Sparkling Wines of Italy. We meet on Twitter this Saturday, May 6th, at 11 am EDT. Please join us! All you need is the #ItalianFWT to follow the discussion. We welcome anyone who’s interested in the topic. At the end of my post, you’ll find a list of all the participants and what they’ll be contributing to the chat. It’s always good fun all around!
Family vs. Variety
The word Lambrusco actually represents an entire family of grapes calling Emilia-Romagna home. (There is some grown in other regions, but the bulk is found in this part of Central Italy.) Under the Lambrusco family crest, four varieties are responsible for the majority of wine made today.
Lambrusco di Sorbara
Perhaps the lightest and most floral of the family, Lambrusco di Sorbara favors the sandy soils around the city of Modena (of the famous balsamic vinegar.) While the most prevalent of the vines, its cultivation can be difficult, requiring as it does, pollination from another Lambrusco variety. Sorbara wines are renowned for their intense aromas of violet (Cab Franc lovers, take note!) They make great apéritifs and would pair well with mild cheese, charcuterie, or salad.
Also known as Lambrusco Castelvetro, for the town where it grows most prevalently, Grasparossa prefers hillside vineyards and clay-based soils. Favorable placement at higher elevations allows this variety to ripen fully even in the coolest years. Wines made from Grasparossa are noticeably more tannic and concentrated than other Lambrusco wines, and many of its fans consider them superior in quality to others. These deeply colored wines, with their heady aromas of black cherry and fuller bodies are perfect accompaniments for robust meat dishes and hearty stews.
Plantings of this variety are on the upswing, with acreage under vine doubling in the last ten years. It is a reliable friend to the farmer, due to its hardiness and adaptability, probably big factors in its popularity. Growers far beyond Italy’s shores have experimented with Maestri as well, with particular enthusiasm in Australia. The wines themselves brim with fruit aromas and flavors, and tend to exhibit a creaminess and roundness on the palate. They are easily approachable, if not complex wines, and are meant to be enjoyed young.
Named for the sausage-shaped grape bunches it produces, Lambrusco Salamino may be the most aromatic of all the Lambrusco varieties. According to Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Salamino wines “combine the grace and fragrance of Lambrusco di Sorbara with the power and body of Lambrusco Grasparossa.” These well-balanced beauties give off effusive aromas of red fruit and violets and have real tannic structure. Many Salamino wines are made in an off-dry or sweet style, which can be quite appealing.
The last time I drank a Lambrusco was in 1980 and it left me with a miserable headache the next day. I sure didn’t feel like the carefree girl in the commercial! But times have changed and we wine lovers are constantly challenged to revisit wines we think we know. Last year I studied for the Italian Wine Professional certification and, quite honestly, the biggest revelation (aside from the astounding number of autochthonous Italian grapes) was that Lambrusco was a Serious Wine. I successfully kept my bias hidden until a few weeks ago, when I came upon a bottle at my local Whole Foods. It was all alone, nestled alongside a massive Italian cheese display. I couldn’t help but rescue it.
NV Donelli Lambrusco Reggiano Demi-Sec ($17.99 retail; 9% abv)
A blend of Lambruscos Marani, Maestri, and Montericco (45%) Lambrusco Salamino (20%) Lambrusco Grasparossa (20%) and Ancellotta (15%), this wine is deep red-purple with violet bubbles racing to the top. Red fruit aromas waft from the glass, along with a hint of the famous violets. On the palate there are cherries and wild strawberries, bright with acidity. Tannins are faint, which suits this wine just fine. Although it is classified as Demi-Sec, it tastes much less sweet than I expected. Rather, it is fresh, light, and crisp, balancing the sugar with acidity in much the same way a German Riesling does. Dare I say I like this wine?
As for my food pairing, it was simple: white pizza with sliced salami. And it worked like gang-busters with the Lambrusco! I’d call the combination my Adult Happy Meal because it was cheesy, salty, fruity, bubbly, and just plain fun. And it has convinced me that I owe the Lambrusco family a little more respect; that I need to sample some more of its wines. Challenge accepted. Who knows? One day you might see me on TV, skipping through the park with a picnic basket in one hand and a bottle of Lambrusco in the other!
Check out what my Italian Food Wine and Travel friends have prepared on the sparkling wines of Italy:
Jennifer Martin of Vino Travels says “There is Prosecco and then there is Valdobbiadene Prosecco”