Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Lambrusco


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Is it just me, or does every girl love bubbles? When I watch my female friends scan through a wine list, there's a moment when their eyes pop, a slight smile starts forming, and it's clear what's happening—we're going to be drinking sparkling wine tonight. When I started telling my friends that we're tasting Lambrusco this week for the Taste-Along, I've gotten a resounding "Oh, awesome!" from the ladies. From the dudes? Just, "What's that?"

Well, now it's time to level everyone's playing field on this sparkling red wine from Italy. Although some people might still think Lambrusco is just Riunite, the cloying fizzy juice that was popular in the 70's, we're getting into some serious Lambrusco this week—mostly dry to semisweet and full of flavor. And unlike that 20-degree drop in temperature we had in NYC last week, this wine should actually make for a smooth and easy transition into fall.

How It's Made

So how is this fizzy red made? Lambrusco, which refers to both the grape and the wine, is most well known from the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy. There actually are over 60 clones of the Lambrusco grape, but fortunately for us, there are only a handful that end up making it into bottles—mostly Salamino, Sorbara, and Grasparossa.

On its own, the Lambrusco grape yields a dry wine, sometimes with a slightly bitter finish. So in order to sweeten things up, winemakers have a couple of tools at their disposal. First, they can blend in other, sweeter grapes, such as Ancellotta. Second, they can use a technique known as partial fermentation—rather than converting all of the sugar in the juice into alcohol through fermentation, this process can be halted in order to leave residual sugar. If this is the case, you would expect to be able to taste the residual sugar on the tip of your tongue. Partly as a result of partial fermentation, you can also expect lower alcohol levels for Lambrusco (usually around 8 to 11 percent). And since we've got a whopping list of 10 wines to taste, I know we'll be grateful for this the next morning.

Lambrusco can take on a few several different styles. While the majority of Lambruscos are red (rosso), resulting from full contact and processing of the juice with the pigmented skins, rosé (rosato) or even white (bianco) wines can be made by limiting this skin contact. We're lucky enough to get to taste at least one of each this week, and we hope you can track down some of those bottles too.

What about the bubbles? Where do they come from? With some special exceptions, Lambrusco usually gets bubbly from the Charmat process or Metodo Italiano. In this process, the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation to encourage the creation of the carbon dioxide. This takes place in a sealed stainless steel tank, and in order to keep these precious bubbles in the Lambrusco, the wine is transferred to bottles under pressure [insert Queen and Bowie reference here]. This is the same method that's usually used for prosecco and moscato d'asti.

In select cases, however, Lambrusco is made using the same techniques as Champagne (the méthode champenoise) to create tiny, long-lasting bubbles right within each bottle.

Lambrusco makers can also differentiate their different wines by varying the level of sparkle—either full sparkling wine (defined as 3 atmospheres of pressure or greater) in Spumante style or semi-sparkling (between 1 and 2.5 atmospheres of pressure) referred to as frizzante. And are we tasting one of each this week? You bet!

Major Regions

Five major DOC regions in Italy produce Lambrusco. We'll get a little into each of them and the bottles we're trying, but it's helpful to note that the first three regions we'll talk about include the most prominent clone in their respective names. Starting with Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, you can find dry or semisweet red or rosé made from Grasparossa, which is known for its prominent tannins.

The Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC appellation produces mostly dry, medium-bodied reds or rosés although some bottles are semisweet. The use of the Sorbara clone in this region tends to yield wines with more body and deep, concentrated flavor.

Wines from Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC are considered very aromatic and are usually either dry or semisweet. Bottles with this DOC on the label will tell you that at least 90% is composed of the Salamino clone.

Lambrusco Reggiano DOC produces dry to semisweet wines in a frizzante reds or rosé style. Wines from this appellation are thought to be the lightest of DOC Lambruscos and are commonly exported.

The last DOC appellation to mention is actually in Lombardy (What?! They're not all in Emilia-Romagna? Get out!). Lambrusco Mantovano DOC, produces red frizzante style Lambrusco that can run the gamut in terms of sweetness.

What We're Tasting

Want to join us in the taste-along? We've got quite the hefty lineup this week, and we're definitely looking forward to it. We'll be trying a few bottles from three widely-available producers: Lini, Tenuta Pederzana, and Cleto Chiarli. Not only do these producers offer Lambrusco-philes a wide variety of styles, but they do so at a very affordable price, with the majority of these bottles around $20 or below.

Here's the lineup for this week:

  1. Cleto Chiarli e Figli Premium Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco DOC ($16)
  2. Lini Lambrusca Rosso Emilia IGT ($15)
  3. Lini 910 Labrusca Lambrusca Rosato Emilia Indicazione Geografica Protetta ($14)
  4. Lini Lambrusca Bianco Emilia Indicazione Geografica Protetta ($16)
  5. Lini 910 In Correggio Lambrusco Scuro Emilia IGT ($20)
  6. Lini 910 In Correggio Lambrusco Rosé IGT ($20)
  7. Lini Dal 1910 Spumante Metodo Classico Rosso 2004 ($30)
  8. Tenuta Pederzana Gibe Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC 2009 ($18)
  9. Tenuta Pederzana Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC 2010 ($23)
  10. Tenuta Pederzana Puntamora Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC 2007 ($25)

How to Enjoy Lambrusco

If you're able to pick up a bottle or two, here's a couple of tips on how it can be served. Typically, Lambrusco is enjoyed young and chilled to around 55 to 60°F before poppin' the cork. And although most people think to serve sparkling wines in Champagne flutes or something similarly slim and delicate, Lambrusco can be served in heartier tumblers or white wine glasses.

Although you could easily enjoy many of these wines on their own before dinner, Lambrusco is great with food. Serve up a big bowl of pasta, or offer a spread of goodies from the Emilia Romagna region—Parmesan-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto are classics, and grilled eggplant or meats would be great, too. If you get a bottle of the sweeter stuff, you could try even try it with dessert.

So now that you've got a primer of Lambrusco in your pocket, grab a couple bottles, and taste along with us! Do you already have a favorite? Let us know what it is in the comments section.