Every article written about Lambrusco begins with an apology. A perverted, cloying version of the sparkling, dry red wine from Emilia-Romagna is how most Americans still remember it: Riunite on ice, so nice! Yuck. So all the wine writers and the increasing number of sommeliers who want to sing Lambrusco’s praises feel they have to start by saying, “No, wait, you don’t understand! It’s not Riunite! It’s not candy. It’s dry, earthy red wine that goes so well with fatty, garlicky foods. Please, please give it a try!”
The New York Times’ Eric Asimov wrote about Lambrusco in July 2012, July 2007, July 2006. He keeps trying, God bless him. Slowly, the young’uns are coming around. (And they’re finally young enough to have forgotten about Riunite, though “America’s All time Favorite Italian Wine” is now followable on Facebook and Twitter.)
Asimov is influential, but the latest article he wrote brought just a single inquiry at the store where I sell wine. (This boosted the schadenfreude of my friend, colleague and de facto Lambrusco-sales-competitor Joe Fournier of Rosemont Munjoy Hill: He stocks eight different sparkling dry reds, the majority of them Lambrusco.)
Good Lambrusco is like good Cru Beaujolais, its pleasures forthright with its very real complexities contentedly and slyly winking from the side. Pure, clean fruit flavors usually assert out of the gate; surprising savory elements — olives, herbs, cured meats — stretch out around the track.
Chilled Lambrusco, low in both alcohol and price, is splendid refreshment in hot weather, an enlivening after-work self-gift, a brilliant apertivo. It makes a terrific accompaniment at Thanksgiving as well, or all the other “gray-area” times, when things could and do go in multiple directions: picnics, restaurant meals where companions choose divergent dishes, groups of mixed wine interest. A bottle brought to a dinner party will be met with surprise, curiosity and, once the cork is popped, joy.
When fat is on the menu (as it usually is in Emilia-Romagna, where eggy, cheese-filled pastas, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pancetta and culatello reign), Lambrusco is ideal. But this summer, I’ve loved my time with Lambrusco alongside tomatoes, grilled fish and vegetables, cold chicken, falafel, tartare.
And some bold Portland restaurant should send out complimentary shot glasses of Lambrusco with its amuse bouche, just to show diners at no cost to them how delightful the wine can be. If the restaurant put a larger pour in a larger glass, there might be enough left to drink with the appetizer to cultivate some lifelong Lambrusco love.
Background info: Lambrusco is the name of both the grape (which comes in at least six varieties) and the various DOCs where the wine is made. There is good Lambrusco with sweetness, but the ones that play so well with food and have the best chance of gaining fans are vinified dry. They are almost always made using the Charmat technique, where secondary fermentation occurs in large pressurized tanks, but a few are made like Champagne where that fermentation takes place in bottle. The effervescence is usually almost frothy, ranging between spumante and frizzante, though a couple of wines carry a finer, more precise mousse.
Fruity but dry, light-bodied at times and medium-full at others, fun-loving and even fun-creating but often earthy and — I think this is the right word — intelligent, Lambrusco need not ever apologize. Nor need you.
Cavicchioli Vigna del Cristo Lambrusco di Sorbara 2011, $17 (National). A light pink Lambrusco with a soft, cloud-like mousse, it presents like a bone-dry Cava, or a rich but spicy Italian rosato. An enormous strawberry nose carries into the primary flavors, along with edible-flowers.
Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara NV, $18 (Wicked). Most Lambruscos taste bracingly fresh. This is even fresher than most, just so clean and alive. Sour cherry and dried cranberry fruit come at first, and then an Aperol-like bitterness redolent of rhubarb and orange peel. Lightly sparkling.
Barbolini Terre Estensi Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro NV, $17 (Wicked). This is the Syrah of Lambruscos: full-bodied and potent (though 12 percent alcohol), only barely bubbly, with a black/purple grape character, dryly grapey in a pure, luscious, deep way, like a preserve. The grape notes are followed by those of tar and black olives, with a bitter chocolate finish. The second day I drank it (yes, well-capped sparkling wines can have a successful second day), the wine had taken on coffee and caramel flavors. Amazing.
Luciano Saetti Vigneto Saetti Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce 2010, $20 (Mariner). Lambrusco Salamino is named for the salami-like shape the grape clusters grow in, and yes, Italians drink Lambrusco with cured meats, but I swear that this stunning wine, made with minimal manipulation and in traditional style from organically grown grapes, with secondary fermentation in bottle rather than tank, tastes like soppressata in liquid form. It’s gamey, herbal, cheesy and oily. It represents, therefore, the entire culture of Lambrusco at one fell sip.