Lambrusco; legit wine or bottom shelf plonk?

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 12th Sep 2018

Lambrusco is the name of a slew of grape varieties, grown in many places but most importantly in Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy. It is also the name of the wine made from the grape. Emilia is arguably Italy’s most famous region for cuisine. The city of Bologna is famous for its sausages and salamis. The American name baloney is derived from Bologna, as is the South African name polony along, with Bolognese sauce.

Lambrusco predates White Zinfandel in bag-in-box and such bottom drawer jug wines as “Hearty Burgundy”, as the tipple of choice for our parents when they were college students. Why was it so popular? Well, it was light red, frothy, lowish acid, relatively low alcohol, somewhat sweet, all too easy to drink and cheap! What’s not to like? In the 1970’s and 1980’s sweeter styles of Lambrusco formed the largest volume of wine imported into the USA. I remember, many years ago, fleeing my taxi jammed in New York streets, and jogging to Times Square, jug of Lambrusco in hand, to watch the ball drop ushering in a new year. It was a freezing winter’s night and I shared my wine with fellow revelers. Not a great wine, not even good, but perfect for the occasion and, as you can see, the stuff of which memories are made. There is no doubt in my mind some of our parents’ memories of copious Lambrusco consumption are less fond….There is a place in the world for this kind of “amabile” (semi-sweet) wine and entry level Lambrusco fits the bill. There are dark pink Moscato’s with the same profile and even the supposedly more serious and expensive, Brachetto d’Acqui from Piedmont in Italy. So is Lambrusco just a fun, party, poolside wine or can it be more serious? How about Lambrusco for gastronomy?

In Emilia and to a lesser extent in Piedmont, there is also some much more serious Lambrusco made. There are different types of Lambrusco vines and the more important wines are usually named for the specific Lambrusco variety. There are some 60 different species of Lambrusco. Some of the better known are: Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco di Grasparossa and Lambrusco di Salamino. The more serious wines have Italian DOC appellation status and there are rules for their production, encompassing the varieties of Lambrusco to be used, blending rules and of course areas of production. In the dryer styles, Lambrusco has a cherry character, can be anything from pale pink to dark red, will have balancing, sometime bracing, acidity and just a flick of an attractive bitterness on the finish. Most are sparkling or “frizzante” and the Charmat, or tank method, of second fermentation is used to create the sparkle. Lambrusco is not Champagne, is not intended to be like Champagne, or consumed like Champagne; the entire philosophy is different.

I will comment here on the above three Lambrusco types.

Lambrusco di Sorbara: This is often the palest and usually, in my opinion, the best of the Lambrusco DOC’s. This is a wine for gastronomy; good though not frivolous fruit, firm acidity, some minerality. Try with your favorite Salami. A perfect match for the air-dried beef of Lombardia, Bresaola.

Lambrusco di Grasparossa: Darker in color than Sorbara and perhaps a touch less serious with respect to cuisine. A delightful tipple with a hint of almonds and that characteristic flick of delightful almond bitterness on the finish.

Lambrusco di Salamino: With Lambrusco, you just can’t get away from Salami! Why would you want to? The Lambrusco di Salamino variety derives its name from salami as the shape of the grape bunches is reminiscent of salami. The wine is paler than Grasparossa.

So, to answer the question I posed; Lambrusco, legit wine or bottom shelf plonk? Lambrusco got a bad rap when the bulk of what was sold was cheap jug wine. Today’s more serious Lambrusco wines are well on their way to rehabilitating the image of Lambrusco. Many of the Lambrusco wines imported today are simply not “your grandfather’s Lambrusco.” Yet, the appeal both culinary and visual remains, and the price is still very reasonable. Seek out and enjoy!

Want to try a good Lambrusco amabile? 

Click on the bottle below.

Selected by Peter Koff MW


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