Lambrusco is back

No longer the sweet soda-pop wine of the 1970s

By
February 18, 2013

In winter, when snowflakes flurry or hard rains fall, I crave soulful comfort food and simple, satisfying wines. My first choice for warming up a winter’s eve is a sizzling wood-fired pizza and a glass of Lambrusco.

Yes, Lambrusco — the wine that’s still battling notoriety as a sweet, alcohol-kissed soda pop from the 1970s. I liken it to bell-bottoms before they made their comeback.

This fizzy red wine from northern Italy captures all the characteristics I’m seeking in the winter months, especially post-holiday. It’s bright, food-friendly, low in alcohol, and delightfully simple.

Somewhat fizzy, Lambrusco is best served slightly chilled, with food.

Lambrusco — the name of both the red wine grape and the wine made from it — has a rich history. It’s made from one of the oldest wine grapes in the world; archaeological evidence has indicated Etruscans first cultivated Lambrusco vines as far back as the first century B.C. The region the wine hails from, Emilia-Romagna, is an epicure’s dream, home to prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Despite storied roots, this lively wine lacks pretension; it’s made to be consumed when young, and sipped slightly chilled. My favorite pizza place serves Lambrusco in tumblers, not wine glasses. In the summertime, it’s the perfect picnic wine. Come winter, I can’t imagine a better wine to pair with pizza, or cheese, charcuterie, and good friends any night of the week.

Lambrusco is generally purple to ruby-hued, fragrant, fruity, and slightly sparkling (in Italian, frizzante). The wine can vary from dry to sweet, so if you have an aversion to sugary wines, be sure to check the label for secco (dry) or amabile (slightly sweet). Secco Lambrusco is the most food-friendly option.

What I enjoy most about Lambrusco is that it reminds me that simple pleasures really are the best — that wine doesn’t have to be complicated. When I asked Lambrusco-loving wine merchants why they champion this wine, the response was simply that it’s fun and endlessly food-friendly.

Alfonso Cevola

To tap deeper into the evolving appreciation of this wine, I posed five questions to Alfonso Cevola, the Italian wine director of Glazer’s Fine Wine and an award-winning wine blogger at On The Wine Trail In Italy. (You can also find him on Twitter @ItalianWineGuy, sharing wine and food stories from dreamy off-the-beaten-path regions in Italy.)

Once known as a 1970s soda-pop wine, Lambrusco is making a comeback. What do you see driving this resurgence, and how has the wine changed in the last few decades?
The move is toward a dry style, away from pop-wine. Lambrusco di Sorbara and Lambrusco Grasparossa are two styles that have driven new interest among sommeliers and wine buyers. Sorbara is a lighter style, and Grasparossa is a denser, heartier style.

What are some of the enduring characteristics of Lambrusco that set it apart from other wines? What do you most enjoy about Lambrusco?
Suppleness, ease of enjoyment, pure pleasure. I am crazy about the Sorbara style, as it is light, like a rosé wine, but with typical Italian style and definitely fit for food.

What are some of the characteristics of the region where Lambrusco is grown?
Emilia-Romagna is a culinary center in Italy — Parma, Modena — home to prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar. The diet there is heavy on animal protein, cheeses, and cured meats, but there is also a tradition of vegetables. Lambrusco is one of the perfect pairings with pizza, but I have had wonderful meals of roasted meats in rich sauces with polenta. Lambrusco pairs well with that kind of fare as well. It’s very versatile.

Cleto Chiarli is the oldest producer of Lambrusco in Emilia-Romagna.

When you uncork a bottle of Lambrusco at home, what are your favorite food pairings with the wine?
I love it with wild salmon that we have sent to us from Alaska; our friends and family fish there every year. We make a traditional eggplant Parmigiano casserole, which is rich in cheese, roasted eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, and tomato sauce. In the summer, when the eggplants are coming in and the weather is hot, the Lambrusco makes a hearty choice that isn’t too weighty.

If you had to convince a friend in three words to try Lambrusco, what would you say?
Versatile. Unexpected. Delicious.

Five to try

  • Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara Vecchia Modena ($16): A deep rose color with tangy strawberry-rhubarb on the palate. Sip as an aperitif with cheese and charcuterie.
  • Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Enrico Cialdini 1860 ($16): Bold and full-bodied with blackberry and black cherry fruit on the palate, this is from the oldest producer of Lambrusco in Emilia-Romagna. Pair with Nonna’s lasagna recipe.
  • 2010 Ca’ De’ Medici San Giacomo Maggiore Lambrusco Chiaro ($15): A delicate floral nose with wild strawberries on the palate and a deep raspberry red in the glass. It will woo the naysayer.
  • NV Fattoria Moretto Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Secco ($19): Ruby red, this dry Lambrusco has vibrant bubbles and an earthy palate with undertones of blackcurrant and bramble fruit. Good with pizza — preferably a mushroom pie.
  • Paltrinieri “Sant’Agata” Lambrusco di Sorbara ($18): Deep garnet with an aroma of rose petals and bright red berries and rhubarb pie on the palate. This wine calls for a winter picnic.
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If you like Lambrusco, try Gragnano

I first fell for fizzy Italian red wine four years ago at one of New York’s hottest pizza spots, the East Village’s Motorino. The wine, Gragnano, is a spritzy red that’s very similar to Lambrusco, but a little more off the beaten path. Both wines are low in alcohol, fun, and food-friendly. Motorino spotlights Gragnano on the menu as “the perfect pizza wine.”

I asked Jake Lobdell, the director of operations for the Bowery Diner and Motorino, why he thinks the wine pairs so perfectly with their pizza. “Neapolitan pizza and Gragnano have a particularly strong affinity with each other for a couple of reasons,” he said. “First, the wine comes from the same place as the pizza, Campania. Generally speaking, when food and wine are harvested from the same soil, they have a particular agreement with each other. The soil in Campania is especially fertile and distinct because of the volcanic ash left from Mount Vesuvius’ many eruptions.” Two of the key ingredients Motorino uses on their pizza — San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella — come from that soil, as do the grapes used in Gragnano.

The second reason the pizza and wine are a perfect match is their flavor profile. “The Gragnano is pretty juicy and slightly sweet,” said Lobdell. “The pizzas range from salty to creamy to spicy. The wine really complements the pizza in this range of tastes.”

A bonus: the bubbles are a great digestive aid for someone eating a whole 12-inch pie. “Plus,” he said, “everyone loves bubbles.”

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1. by Deborah Madison on Mar 19, 2013 at 11:53 AM PDT

I happen to love Lambrusco, so thank you for your article! People still look at me funny should I order it, but now we know there’s no reason for that anymore!

2. by Kerry Newberry on Apr 17, 2013 at 12:01 AM PDT

Thanks for reading Deborah! Lambrusco is such a great food wine--it’s fun to see it on more restaurant lists. There is a great spot in Portland called Xico--regional Mexican cuisine, with three lambruscos by the glass.

3. by Deborah Madison on May 6, 2013 at 2:26 PM PDT

Darn! I missed it but heard many things about Xico. Now I’ve got to come back in July - as hoped! Thanks for letting me know, Kerry - and for the descriptions.

4. by Maureen on Nov 13, 2013 at 5:46 PM PST

Just wondering how it compares to other red wines for actually being healthy. Does it have too much sugar to be “really” healthy. My weight was doing great with red wines, but I do like Lambrusco better. What’s better for me?

5. by Deborah Madison on Nov 15, 2013 at 10:23 AM PST

Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you enjoy it, drink it!

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Vine to Table

Kerry Newberry is a wine and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She believes a good glass of wine is a story of people, place, and time. Join her here as she seeks out the personalities, politics, and poetics that craft a wine from vine to table. Follow her online and on Twitter @KerryNewberry.

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