Person holding grapes used for Lambrusco production

The Legacy and Rebirth of the Sparkling Lambrusco

Lambrusco has a bit of a bad rap. Mass-produced and affordable in the 70s, it hit its peak in the 80s when it was sold as a cheap party drink. Marketed at young women who cracked open a bottle while getting ready for a night out or grasped the neck of Lambrusco while they made their way to a house party. It was a lot of fun, but the wine itself left a lot to be desired.

And so, Lambrusco was in a tight spot, doomed to be forever known as a fizzy, fun, sweet wine that was cheap, but not taken seriously as an actual wine. Fast forward to today and all that is changing.

Tastes alter over time and now sweet wines are much less popular—another reason most consumers probably wouldn’t think of buying Lambrusco. But serious Lambrusco producers were never interested in churning out that sweet party drink we all knew and loved. They left that to mass production (which is still alive and well). 

Serious Lambrusco producers always knew they had a premium wine on their hands, which the Italians appreciated, just not so much over here. For Italians, Lambrusco is part of their heritage and definitely not some light fizzy party drink.

lambrusco

What is Lambrusco?

Lambrusco describes a variety of black grapes that are indigenous to the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The grapes are old, very old, so old in fact we don’t know for sure how old, but the production of Lambrusco dates back to the Bronze Age. There are twelve grapes used to make Lambrusco—Marani, Maestri, Salamino, Sorbara, Grasparossa, Montericco, Reggiano, Ancelotta, Malvasia, Malbo Gentile, Fortana, and Trebbiano Romagnolo. Most Lambrusco producers use a blend of some of these grapes, though some, mostly in the Modena area, prefer to focus on a single grape. Lambrusco is available in dry (secco) semi-sweet (semisecco) and sweet (dulce). 

The good Lambruscos being made today are dry or semi-sweet and are very fruit focussed. Blackberry, cherry, and raspberry are all very apparent in the flavours. The colour can vary from a light red to a bold and deep red. It’s often low in alcohol, though many Lambruscos are 12% ABV, and usually lightly sparkling, in the frizzante style. Some Lambruscos do rival Prosecco as a full-on sparkling wine, though mostly Lambrusco is a lightly sparkling red wine. It’s these many different varieties of Lambrusco that make it so interesting.

lambrusco

Progress and Protection

But Lambrusco still has a way to go over here, to shake its party identity and be taken as seriously as the Italians take it. That’s why, in 2021, three previously independent protective organisations came together to form one Consortium for the protection of Lambrusco Wine, Consorzio Tutela Lambrusco. The aim of the consortium is to build better communication strategies and marketing projects, to take Lambrusco forward internationally, leave that reputation behind once and for all, and be reborn as a high-quality, serious, and quite remarkable wine.

Consorzio Tutela Lambrusco Director, Giacomo Savorin, says, “Lambrusco is the wine of colours, each different from the next. It is known around the world as a dark red sparkling wine, but we need to make people aware that there are many varieties of Lambrusco, with diverse colours and scents. They can impart completely different experiences and, given their versatility and wide range of quality references, they can pair perfectly with many various types of cuisine”.

Even the method of making Lambrusco differs from producer to producer. Although most have been using the Charmat method, some do use the Champagne method, which is why most Lambruscos are only lightly sparkling, but not all. Today’s young Lambrusco producers, however, favour the Metodo Ancestrale, which takes the wine all the way back to how it was traditionally made in Italy, long before we got hold of it in the 70s.

lambrusco

From Racy to Rare

Our evolving palette can’t be denied, and it is true that where we once loved the sweetness of a cheap bottle of Lambrusco we now prefer a dryer wine, and Prosecco is definitely the new Lambrusco with party girls. But it’s also true that in the 1970s production of Lambrusco in Italy slowed due to root rot on the vines. Production more than halved pretty quickly and it’s now at around 10% of what it was in its heyday.

Whether it will build back up to where it once was remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Lambrusco is gaining itself something of a cult following. There’s an element of nostalgia for some, and for young wine lovers, it’s about discovering something they’ve never tried and in many cases, not heard of before. For these young wine enthusiasts, the reputation Lambrusco had doesn’t matter.

What matters is the wine, and the wine is very good.

lambrusco

Recommendations for Best Lambruscos

  • L’Occhiolino—Deep red and very lightly sparkling, L’Occhiolino, meaning ‘the wink’ is perfect with a barbeque and a light lunch.
  • Rinaldini, Vecchio Moro, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro NV—Rich and fruity, with purple bubbles, this refreshing Lambrusco pairs well with cold meats and is ideal as an aperitif.
  • Cantina della Volta, Rimosso, Lambrusco di Sorbara 2012—Quite pale in colour, the taste is delicate and the dominant flavour is cherry, but with a creamy element to it.
  • Cleto Chiarli, Pruno nero, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro—A slightly more affordable choice, without being cheap, it’s also slightly sweet, without taking us back to the 80s! Pairs well with any pasta dish.
  • Medici Ermete, Concerto, Lambrusco Reggiano 2013—A lovely dry, ruby red Lambrusco with flavours of blackberry. It’s light and fresh and pairs well with any vegetable dish.

So, perhaps, after all this time, Lambrusco has finally shaken off its old cheap and sweet image and is being reborn as something sophisticated, complex, and intriguing. It may have taken a generation to do it, but it’s been worth the wait.

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