Lambrusco is a gently sparkling wine made in Northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, and it's a bit unusual because the vast majority of Lambrusco is red. Another thing that sets it apart is that, unlike the famous Italian wine regions of Tuscany (famous for Brunello and Chianti) and Piedmont (home of Barolo and Barbaresco), Emilia-Romagna is not known for producing top-quality wines. However, it's one of the most important gastronomic regions of Italy—and in a country so famous for food, that's saying a lot! If you enjoy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, and mortadella, balsamic vinegar from Modena, and Bolognese sauce: you are already a big fan of this region's foods.
A well-loved rule for pairing wine and food is "what grows together, goes together," meaning food and wines from the same region often share a natural harmony. Emilia-Romagna is no exception to this rule: Their flagship wine, Lambrusco, is perfect to enjoy with a casual spread of formaggio and salumi. It's also a popular pairing with pizza (more on that below!).
The Lambrusco grape can be traced back to Roman Empire; because it grows widely and wildly throughout the countryside and doesn't need painstaking cultivation, it became a favorite of hunters and nomadic armies that could generally find it wherever their travels took them. There are even mentions of Lambrusco in the works of Latin poet Virgil and Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. In modern history, Lambrusco is mostly, and perhaps unfairly, known as a mass-produced, quite sweet, and cheaply made wine that became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. Today Lambrusco is experiencing a renaissance; many winemakers are refining their production practices, crafting dry, savory, and thoughtful styles of the wine. With most bottles under $20, there's no better time to give Lambrusco a try.
How Lambrusco Is Made
Like Prosecco, most Lambrusco is made in the Charmat method, where the bubbles are produced by a double fermentation inside a large tank and bottled under pressure. There are some wineries that are producing Lambrusco in the metodo Classico (traditional method) where the fermentation occurs inside each bottle (as used for Champagne). The takeaway here is that unlike most other sparkling wines, Lambrusco isn't defined by the way it's made but rather the use of grapes in the Lambrusco family.
There are over 60 different types of Lambrusco grapes, and about 10 are commonly used for wine, but you only really need to know the two most important varieties: Lambrusco Grasparossa and Labrusco di Sorbara. Lambrusco Grasparossa makes bold, dark, deep, sparkling reds with lots of dark fruit character (think, blackberries and black currants), and a good amount of tannin (the compound in the seeds, stems, and skins of some grapes that makes your mouth feel rough and dry). It's usually made in a dry style: Check the label and it will say, secco—meaning there will be less than 15 grams per liter of sugar in the wine.
Because of its rustic and concentrated flavors, Lambrusco Grasparossa can pair nicely with bold foods like hard cheeses, red meats, and perhaps the greatest Lambrusco pairing ever: sausage pizza! On the other hand, Lambrusco di Sorbara produces wines that are softer, more delicate, and lighter—and, quite often, sweeter. The label terms for the sweeter style will say semi-secco (off-dry), amabile (semi-sweet), or dolce (sweet). Definitely pay attention to these labeling terms before you bring several bottles to a party because they can vary so widely. Lambrusco di Sorbara will often a pink or rosy color and have flavors of red cherry and wild strawberry along with floral aromas like orange blossom or violet. These wines can pair with creamy pastas, fresh soft cheeses, and even seafood. The sweeter styles are great with spicy dishes, try a bottle with Indian or Thai cuisine.
Some Favorite Bottles and Food Pairings
With a fun range of colors, styles, and flavor profiles, there is a lot of Lambrusco to explore! And since it's such an affordable wine, it's easy to pick up several different examples and compare them. Here are some excellent bottles to try. Serve them lightly chilled. The easy-drinking Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara Vecchia Modena 2018 ($15.99, wine.com) is a deep pink wine that's bright, fresh, and full of vibrant and juicy red fruit flavors. It is produced by Cleto Chiarli, the oldest producer of Lambrusco in Emilia-Romagna. They have been making Lambrusco since 1860. It with pairs perfectly with Caramelized Persimmons with Prosciutto.
Lini is a fourth generation family-owned winery and their artisanal, crafted approach definitely sets them apart. Lini 910 Labrusca Rosso ($18.99, wine.com). is a deep ruby wine has berry flavors with a mineral and dry finish. Try it with Sausage and Olives Pizza. Deep red with delicate bubbles, Fiorini Lambrusco Grasparossa Becco Rosso NV ($16, kdwine.com) is dry with a firm tannic structure. This is a Lambrusco to pair with meat dishes like Balsamic Skirt Steak with Polenta and Roasted Tomatoes.