I'll confess, I owe Lambrusco an apology.
A significant part of my wine career has been spent discouraging, at times even chiding, guests for blindly dismissing certain varieties (looking at you, Riesling) based on unfair preconceived notions (no, it's not all sweet). And yet here I was, faced with the request to research Emilia-Romagna's signature red sparkler, and my knee-jerk reaction was to give my editor all kinds of judgy, nose-in-the-air exasperation. The few examples I had had to date lacked complexity and intrigue; with either an out-of-balanced sweetness and thick texture or too harsh and austere, lacking any subtlety.
But spurning Lambrusco out of hand ignores the wine's long history, sophisticated production methods, and what's available on the market today. Like its compatriots Riesling and White "Cougar Juice" Zin, much modern Lambrusco has nothing to do with its '70s reputation of cheap, candy-sweet fizz. Lambrusco now is working hard to shed the decades-old scars of consumer contempt, and we owe it a clean slate to win the skeptics over.
Let's start with the basics. Hailing from North-Central Eastern Italy, Lambrusco is the name for both the grape and the designated growing areas in which it is produced. One of the country's oldest varieties, it boasts some 60-plus clones, the three most important and predominant of which are Sorbara, Salamino, and Grasparossa. Sorbara is thought to make more fragrant, aromatic wines, while Grasparossa is known for its more full-bodied, powerful tannic structure. Salamino, known for producing both full-bodied and intensely aromatic wines, if nothing else, deserves attention for the sheer fact that its name is derived from the salami-like shape of its bunches.
In addition to the range of grapes associated with Lambrusco is the range of styles. Reds, and to a much lesser degree rosés, dominate, and can be made either secco (dry), amabile (off-dry), or dolce (sweet). Though more rare, you can even find fully sparkling dry white Lambrusco, made from juice that has seen no skin contact.
The common thread among all of these variations of course is that they're vivace, literally "lively" from carbonation that is either frizzante (semi-sparkling) or spumante (fully sparkling). These days, most Lambruscos earn their light, frothy bubbles in the same way as Prosecco, undergoing secondary fermentation in pressurized tanks before being transferred to bottle, although some producers opt for the more traditional bottle-conditioning route, which adds a unique character of its own.
That easy, energetic, vivace spirit is also what gives Lambrusco its allure when served with food. Native to a land of rich foods—hard, salty cheeses; fatty charcuterie; hearty, meaty pasta sauces—the wine's bright acidity, nose-tingling fizz, and dark, often tannic fruit provide the ideal counterbalance. Though even in their more serious incarnations, these are not wines made for aging. Low in alcohol and consistently a good value, they are designed to be enjoyed young and served chilled, effortlessly, with good food and good company.
All of which is to say that when it comes to the spectrum of sparkling wine, well-made Lambrusco definitely deserves a place on the sparkling shelf alongside Champagne's blue ribbon bubbs as much as the pet-nat cool kids. Below are six diverse favorites that helped convert this former non-believer.
Lini 910 'Labrusca' Rosso Lambrusco, NV (About $15)
For those looking to slowly dip their toe into the Lambrusco pool, this friendly, traditional dry red Lambrusco is a great gateway bottle. Simple and rustic, it has an easy, not-too-tannic structure that is lifted by a tangy blend of musky plum, cranberry, and red currant. It's balanced in a way that not a lot of accessible, entry-level Lambruscos feel—too often the fruit seems over-concentrated and jammy or the astringency is too jarring, but not in this case. This is a straight-up, no-frills summertime porch wine (and priced to match), and it should be appreciated for that.
Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Secco del Fondatore, NV (About $19)
Poured blind, this electric magenta bubbly could easily pass more for a sparkling rosé than a classic Lambrusco. Made by the region's oldest producer of Lambruscos, this bottle-fermented Sobrara-based selection is distinguished by its lighter style. Gushes of tart strawberry, pineapple, green apple, and pomegranate combine with a light, prickly fizz to create a genuinely mouthwatering effect. The vibrant freshness of this bottle makes it the obvious choice to sit side-by-side at the table with a simple, market-driven summer salad.
Tenuta la Piccola 'Picol Ross' Lambrusco dell'Emilia, 2013 (About $24)
Billing itself as a "Lambrusco for Friends," this dark, concentrated bubbly celebrates the hallmark savory-mushroomy-earthy qualities of the style while maintaining its elegance and approachability. The stick-to-your-gums tannins and stemmy bitterness are smartly mediated by a zesty citrus acidity and ripe dusty red fruit. Given the relative intensity of the tannins, this is a wine that begs for some fat and meat to cling on to; think grilled sausages or a simple balsamic-marinated steak.
Cantina di Sorbara 'Nicchia' Lambrusco Amabile, NV (About $15)
This low-alcohol expression (it clocks in at a mere 8%) is a great example of how awesome off-dry, fruit-forward wines can be when done well. If you're not as keen on the dry-your-mouth-out intensity of a dry Lambrusco, this amabile offers plenty of ripe blackberry, black cherry, and plummy fruit to round out the wine's inherent astringency. In this case, a little residual sugar adds a smooth lushness to the texture, but there is still enough lively acidity and effervescence to prevent it from feeling fat and cloying. Save this for a plate of strong cheeses (blues and harder, salty varieties) or a bitter dark chocolate dessert.
Vigneto Saetti Lambrusco dell'Emilia di Salamino, 2013 (About $20)
Made from organically farmed fruit, fermented in bottle, unsulfured: This natural Lambrusco from Luciano Saetti has geek bait written all over it. But get it in the glass and you'll see it's not without good reason. The aroma is a bit of a trip; classic dusty red fruit and dried flowers give way to a macerated, ruby Port-like quality that makes you wonder if it will taste slightly sweet. And then you take a sip and any preconceptions fade away. The inky froth is bone dry and super refreshing, at turns tasting of pickled plums and blackberries, other times recalling a piece of green apple that has been sitting at the bottom of the sangria bowl.
Paltrinieri 'Radice' Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, 2012 (About $22)
Well, here's something I never expected to say: Consider this the perfect Lambrusco for the sour beer fanatic. Only lightly filtered and fermented using native yeasts, this bottle-conditioned bubbly distinguishes itself right out of the gate with its light rusty rosé hue. The aromatic intensity of the Sorbara variety is on full display here, shifting between yeasty baking spice notes, pickled fruit, and herbal, piney freshness. Decidedly dry and chalky-textured without being abrasively tannic, it has a commanding tangy green apple-pomegranate acidity that begs for a cheese and charcuterie partnership.