Most wine lovers dismiss lambrusco out of hand. It’s burdened by the notion that it’s pink, sweet and fizzy, like the cheap versions that flooded America in the 1970s and ‘80s. But only the fizzy part is consistently accurate.
Lambrusco is wine made from grapes by the same name and most appreciated here in its home, the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Though it lacks the complexity of the country’s most celebrated wines like Barolo, lambrusco is rarely sweet, and makes a fine partner for the region’s many pork specialties, including prosciutto di Parma, mortadella and zampone (sausage-stuffed pig trotters). Its bracing acidity and effervescence also provide balance to dishes like bollito misto (a mixture of boiled meats) and the sumptuous lasagna of Bologna.
The holiday season offers many reasons to open bottles of this bright, dry, yet fruity sparkling wine, whose color can be golden, like Champagne, but also ranges from pale gold to pink to deep violet. Pour a white or a rosé as an aperitif, or an intense red throughout a festive dinner or just at dessert. Consider a plummy lambrusco grasparossa di Castelvetro with that buche de Noël.
At around 11 percent alcohol, lambruscos are usually lower in alcohol than most wines. And at generally less than $20 a bottle, they are more affordable than many other sparkling choices.
But lambrusco requires some study because it is a complicated wine, perhaps even more so than riesling. There are at least three methods for making it. A typical producer may have a portfolio of six or more lambruscos, each one different.
The color and flavor depend on which of the many lambrusco grapes are used. (The name is usually on the label.) A grasparossa is invariably dark, redolent of blackberries and suitable for red meat. A sorbara is lighter, usually a hue of salmon pink to garnet, refreshing and a good choice for the uninitiated. A salamino, which is often used for blending, yields sturdy wines that are deep pink to purple, often more tannic and suited for a heartier meal. And there are several others.
During a recent visit to Emilia-Romagna, I welcomed lambrusco in my glass, as I dined on rich fare like mortadella studded with white truffles, seasonal tortellini plump with butternut squash and salama da sugo, a rich shredded sausage over mashed potatoes served in the city of Ferrara.
To fine-tune my appreciation and understanding of lambrusco, I visited a couple of wineries in the farmland just east of the city of Modena, the heart of the lambrusco region, where the wine is said to have been made since Roman times.
Like many lambrusco wineries, the Gavioli estate, owned by the Giacobazzi family, makes most of its wines using the bulk or tank method, also called Charmat, which induces a second fermentation by introducing yeasts into huge, pressurized stainless-steel tanks of still wine. It’s the most efficient and cheapest system. The results can range from well-crafted wine to the plonk associated with the Giacobazzi name decades ago.
Some lambruscos are made using the so-called ancestral method, in which yeasts are left in the bottle to create a fizz and leave sediment. And now, according to Giovanni Giacobazzi, the company’s director and the fourth generation of the family, there is an increase in the use of the classic Champagne method, in which bottles are turned and sediment is removed just before they are corked. This method of second fermentation is used to make white and rosé lambruscos, often sorbaras, to compete with prosecco and other Italian sparklers.
At the elegant Cleto Chiarli estate, founded in 1860 and said to be one of the oldest in the area, seven different lambruscos are made. Tommaso Chiarli, a member of the fifth generation of the winery’s family, said the estate strove for high quality at every stage.
“Mistakes were made by this industry in the 1980s by not stressing quality,” Chiarli said, “and we’re trying to correct them.”
Less vigorous pressing of the grapes at Chiarli helps keep the fruit fresher and brighter. Skin contact is carefully monitored for just the right amount of color and tannin in the wine. (In fact, it was a Chiarli wine, the Pruno Nero, that was the top choice of lambruscos at a New York Times wine panel tasting in 2012. I enjoyed its deep, plummy notes again, at its home base.)
In the United States, restaurants and wine shops still find that lambrusco is a hard sell. At Via Emilia, a restaurant in New York City that specializes in the food of Emilia-Romagna, the owner and chef, William Mattiello, has trimmed his lambrusco list because customers cannot be persuaded.
Bambi Ray, a sales manager at Astor Wines & Spirits in the NoHo section of Manhattan, which has 10 or so lambruscos on display, said that when people came in looking for bubbly starting around Thanksgiving, she often steered them toward lambrusco.
“I enjoy introducing people who have misconceptions to the category,” she said.
The Tarallucci e Vino restaurants, especially the one near Union Square, have probably the best selection of lambruscos in New York. “Our wine list is a little strange,” said the wine director, Lorenzo Baricca, who is from Emilia-Romagna. “We feature unusual grapes. And because we don’t pour cabernet by the glass, customers ask for suggestions and the staff can help. They’ll suggest a grasparossa that’s easy to drink.”
This group of restaurants has developed a following for lambrusco. “Now people come in asking for it,” Baricca said.