Lambrusco: It’s Not Riunite on Ice, But It Is Nice

by Jeff Harding
Antoinette Bruno & Vicky Wasik
May 2012

We're not calling it a trend, but we are seeing more Lambrusco these days, and thinking about the cold, bubbly, red wine a little differently as the temperature rises. Just recently Eric Asimov himself declared Lambrusco a great accompaniment to cheese and pizza, and nearly every inoteca and osteria features at least one Lambrusco on their wine lists. Fittingly, May 14 to May 20 is the launch of Mondo Lambrusco 2012, an event to showcase the wide variety and high quality of Lambrusco—and dispel the wine's circa 1980 sweet and fizzy reputation.

Digging into the archives, we may have found the root of Lambrusco's deserved comeback. Back in 2009, we surveyed wine professionals and found that the recession had indeed hurt Champagne sales and increased sales of lower-priced bubbly such as Cava and Lambrusco. And adventurous drinkers who tried the modern Lambrusco found delicious artisanal wine, not the cola-flavored grape juice of yore.

Lambrusco became a bit of a joke in the 1980s, with an onslaught of poorly-made, mass-produced sweet wines, and a corny, ubiquitous advertising campaign by Riunite. But in fact, until about the 1970s, Lambrusco was held in high esteem and treated like Champagne in Italy, enjoyed on special occasions and sipped by celebrities such as Maria Callas. Ironically, another opera singer, Pavarotti, helped popularize the wine internationally, which led to its industrialized, commercial production.

Lambrusco was traditionally made by the farmers of Emilia-Romagna, who made small amounts of wine for home use. The grapes used to make Lambrusco ripen late, so when the wine was pressed it was already pretty late in the year, and the cold weather slowed down—and eventually stopped—the fermentation. In the spring, when the wine was bottled and the weather warmed up, the wine still contained residual sugar, which continued fermenting in the bottle and integrated the carbon dioxide into the wine. Modern Lambrusco production often uses the Charmat method, wherein the second fermentation is done in a tank, but many small producers still use the old, artisanal method of bottle fermentation.

At a recent tasting at the International Culinary Center in New York City, Wine Writer Giorgio Melandri explained that Lambrusco is a family of wine styles and grapes including: di Sorbara, which yields a lighter body; Grasparossa, which is darker, more tannic, and has more structure; and Salamino, which get its name because it looks like a salami hanging on the vine. Melandri also explained that just as Bordeaux wines change from vineyard to vineyard due to variations in soil, Lambrusco wines vary in style depending on their location in the four Lambrusco DOCs in Emilia-Romagna.

Part of the beauty of Lambrusco is that its bold flavors, high acidity, and tannic structure make it an excellent pair with fatty foods like salami and pork. We found a perfect example at a recent tasting at Parish Food & Goods in Atlanta. Chef Joe Schafer (who has since moved onto JCT. Kitchen & Bar) put up a variety of charcuterie samples designed with a component of acidity or bitterness to contrast the game or fat in the meats. Parish Beverage Director Justin Amick's challenge thus became a little greater, but he aced the pairing with Ca' De' Medici's Lambrusco di Sorbara. Charcuterie and Lambrusco is a classic pairing for a reason: the residual sugar in the wine complements the salted meats and highlighted the sweet notes in the lamb, garlic, and, in the case of this Southern-version, sorghum. The earthiness of the wine brings out those same notes in the nuts and gamey qualities, and the bright acidity clears the palate of the meats' delicious fattiness. The easy-drinking wine was a beautiful "welcome" to our tasting, just as antipasti are a lovely welcome to any Italian meal.

Pairing of Fabio Lini's Lambrusco Bianco "Labrusca" with Green Asparagus, Fried Egg, and Ricotta Salata

Amick likes to pair structural elements, keeping in mind weight, body, and mouthfeel. So while di Sorbara is a lighter grape than some Lambruscos, its bold, fruit-forward character held up to Schafer's variety of meats. The Garlic Salami with Ale Mustard yields warm spice, and a tangy, malty mustard, and is countered by the fruity acid in the wine. Lamb Rillette with Toasted Hazelnut shouts lush game flavors, and the toasty nuts complement the whisper of sweet acid and earth tones. Lardo-wrapped Pink Lady Apple is already balanced in its acid-fat combination but the wine highlights the acid, and even further mutes the fat in the lardo. Thick-sliced Bacon with Coffee-Sorghum Syrup found its smoke, coffee, and sugar-cane brother in symbiotic balance in the wine.

We tasted an equally nuanced but exact counterpoint to Amick's pairings in 2009 at L'Artusi in New York City, where Rising Star Restaurateur Joe Campanale treated us to a pairing of Fabio Lini's Lambrusco Bianco "Labrusca" with Green Asparagus, Fried Egg, and Ricotta Salata. Lini achieves a white Lambrusco by not allowing any skin contact with the juice, and Campanale explains that the wine has a light fruitiness but is herbaceous and faintly aromatic, which plays off the asparagus flavors. Additionally, "the wine's bubbles clean the palate off, the light dosage cools down the slight heat from the chilies, and the bubbles cut through the richness of the cheese, achieving a textural pairing as well," says Campanale.

A Sampling of Favorite Lambruscos:

"Vigna del Cristo" Lambrusco di Sorbara

"Vigna del Cristo" Lambrusco di Sorbara
Pale rosé color and tiny bubbles evoke classic violet aromas, followed by notes of tangy raspberry jam on toast. Beautiful aperitif-style wine made from the light di Sorbara varietal.

Cleto Chiarli, "Pruno Nero"

Cleto Chiarli, "Pruno Nero"
This is a "Spumante" style, meaning the mostly bubbly of these wines, and this version is completely dry, rich in black cherries, with a touch of black pepper. The big tannins are balanced by the bubbles and even though there are 20 grams per liter of residual sugar, the acidity and tannins keep the wine dry, and left us wanting more.

Cleto Chiarli "Centenario"

Cleto Chiarli "Centenario"
The bubbles of the Lambrusco Grasparossa de Castelvetro wake up the tongue to the big fruit so one initially finds sweetness, but the heft of the tannins and full body finish up with earth notes to leave a dry finish. Surprisingly, this means that some "amabile," or semi-sweet styles, can also pair with food or serve as an aperitif.

Medici Ermete, "Assolo"
Huge initial fruit in this wine immediately calls to mind sweet flavors, but the rush of earthy flavors and long finish remind us that this is "Rosso Secco." Soft yet fresh on the palate, the wine begs for accompaniment, and luckily Riccardo Bilotta of Tarallucci e Vino had a delicious pork terrine on hand at the International Culinary Center's Mondo Lambrusco preview.