It’s the sparkling red par excellence, an integral part of the great gastronomic tradition of the Po valley in Emilia-Romagna. A light, flavorful, and zesty wine, it’s perfect for a picnic or every day meals and goes well with cold cuts, pasta dishes, and grilled vegetables.
Lambrusco is many different wines. As many as the landscapes between the plains and hills in the provinces near Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Mantova.
There are eight DOCs, including— Sorbara, Salamino Santa Croce, and Grasparossa Castelvetro, each with different characteristics.
Sorbara is similar to a rosé, with a light color and a fresh taste. Salamino is the Lambrusco par excellence, sweet and soft. Grasparossa is full-bodied and contains more tannin and alcohol, it’s also the wine that keeps the longest, the only one that can last more than a year.
A short history
The grape has a long wine making history. There’s archaeological evidence that the Etruscans cultivated the vine. In Roman times, people valued Lambrusco for its productivity and high yields – Cato the Elder said that two thirds of an acre could yield enough wine to fill 300 amphorae.
In the 1980s, Lambrusco was introduced in the U.S. as a cheap, sweet red wine. At the time, it was a mass-produced best seller. Both the production and the advertising focused on outselling the wine coolers and street wines categories.
That’s not what Lambrusco is, nor what it tastes like. The best Lambruscos are dry (secco) and barely sweet (semisecco) and are almost always made in a semi-sparkling, frizzante, style. Today, it’s become easier to find several varieties in restaurants and stores, especially in California and New York.
I was at the state store in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago and spotted a Sorbara. If you like rosé, Sorbara is a bright and crisp light-bodied wine, with a sharp first note and a great finish. It’s dry and fruity to the palate, and soft.
Areas of production
Most Lambruscos are made from more than one Lambrusco variety and often blended with a number of specific blending grapes (max. 15 percent.) Growers train the grape vines high above the ground to prevent mildew. Historically, they trained the vines to climb up poplar trees, a common sight in the region.
You can see the areas of production within the yellow outline in the map above. From north to south, in order are the areas of Salamino (purple), Sorbara (muted orange), and Grasparossa (light blue) production.
Salamino gets its name from the shape of the grapes that looks like a sausage. This intense red-berry wine is well balanced and has the highest production in the region. Sorbara is second in production volumes, and Grasparossa is third.
Perfect for the summer
Real Lambrusco is back in the U.S., but it’s always been on Italian tables. It should be served slightly chilled. Lambrusco combines the fruitiness of a young red wine like a Barbera with the crisp bubbles of a dry champagne.
The super versatile, easygoing wine is a wonderful option for those, like me, who prefer reds. At home in Modena, we buy Grasparossa di Castelvetro at the local Coop for €5. This variety is the only one that does well on the hillsides. It’s among the top 4 percent of Lambrusco Grasparossa and the top 9 percent in the world. You find these fuller bodied sparkling reds in California for $12.99.
A few producers still make Lambruscos in the traditional method used for Champagne – bottling the wine with yeast and sugar for a second fermentation that produces the bubbles. Most producers use steel tanks.
This is a wine that goes well with rich fish like salmon and tuna, cured meats and pork as well as meat-filled pasta like tortellini or earthy tagliatelle con ragu’ di carne (Bolognese meat sauce), poultry, and hard cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano.
Imagine being in Piazza Santo Stefano in Bologna, sitting at the café by the same name, and savoring a glass of lightly chilled Lambrusco while watching children run around and play, and people talk in small groups.
They served my Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce as aperitivo with chips, but it could easily go with a mortadella mousse, a few chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano with a drop of Aceto Balsamico on top, and small pieces of home-made bread.
Look for the DOC, denomination of controlled origin designation, when you select Lambrusco. This wine goes with everything, including barbecue and pizza. Its lightness makes it ideal as aperitivo with light snacks. It’s a great alternative to other beverages in the warmer months.
Try it, and let me know how you make out.