Lambrusco’s making a becoming comeback

Bruscus San Valentino Lambrusco Amabile 2010. Market Street Wineshop. $9.99

Cantina Gonzaga Lambrusco Amabile NV. Tastings of Charlottesville. $7.95

Cantina Puianello “Primabolla” Lambrusco NV. Wine Warehouse. $13.99

Cleto Chiarli Grasparossa di Castelvetro “Centenario” Lambrusco NV. Mona Lisa Pasta. $12.99

Feudi del Boiardo Lambrusco Amabile NV. Market Street Wineshop. $8.99

Roberto Negri “Rigoletto” Lambrusco NV. Wine Warehouse. $15.99

Those of you who lived through the ’70s probably have quite a bit you’d like to forget about the decade. There was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the Ford Pinto, the leisure suit, and that unfortunate color scheme of rusty orange, mustard yellow, and avocado green. Cheese fondue and wines that tasted like soda were the height of culinary sophistication. Our nation alone popped the cork on 3 million cases of sweet, fizzy Riunite Lambrusco every year (“Riunite on ice….that’s nice!”), sending the imported wine’s reputation down the drain as soon as wine coolers appeared on the scene the following decade (one rife with its own regrets).

But everything deserves a second chance, and today’s Lambruscos are well worth trying again. In its Italian homeland, specifically the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Lambrusco never fell from grace and continues to be the beverage of choice among the locals. Of course it’s the real stuff (not the industrially-produced cherry Mike-and-Ike tasting stuff) that they’re drinking, because this chilled red is lively, fresh, low in alcohol, and absolutely perfect with picnic foods and picnic weather.

The grape, also called Lambrusco, has a long and storied history with archeological evidence that suggests the Etruscans as the first cultivators and Roman writers Virgil, Pliny, and Cato as some of its first fans. Historically, the grape was prized for its high yield, since two thirds of an acre of Lambrusco could produce enough to fill 300 amphora (see Winespeak 101). Though today’s producers, all of which come from the five Lambrusco DOC regions (Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, Lambrusco Reggiano, and Lambrusco Mantovano) limit their yields to coax more earthy character from the generous grape.

Lambrusco producers may use up to 60 different Lambrusco subvarieties, but Lambrusco Grasparossa, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Monterrico, Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Sorbara are the six most often used. Susceptible to mildew, Lambrusco vines were once trained to climb up poplar trees, and while trees are no longer used, producers still train the vines high off the ground.

Unlike Riunite’s Luden’s cough drop taste, most Lambruscos are vinified completely dry or secco in Italiano. Lambrusco Reggiano is a variety of the grape that’s often made amabile (slightly sweet) or dolce (sweet) by way of either partial fermentation or the addition of up to 15 percent of sweeter Ancellotta grapes. Lambrusco’s bubble, which Italians refer to as frizzante or slightly sparkling (as opposed to spumante or fully-sparkling), comes from the Charmat process where a second fermentation happens in a pressurized tank rather than in the bottle as it does in the champagne method.

All styles go delightfully with the foods for which Emilia-Romagna is known, most of which carry their own government-protected label (DOP). Chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano and ribbons of prosciutto di Parma with Balsamico di Modena drizzled here and there beg for an old trattoria style juice-glass filled with the frothy, zesty wine that ranges in color from pale pink to deep purple. And with low tannins and 11 percent alcohol, it isn’t going to send you home from the picnic early with a sunburn and a headache.

Lambrusco also loves pizza—a match Italians are likely to make if they’re not having beer. In this nation where many of us were raised on soda pop, especially with our pizza, Americans will really get behind this pairing. Grab a bottle or two ($16 is the highest I’ve seen it on the shelves) and your favorite pies on the way home from work on Friday and just try to have a lousy time.

With a wine so distinctly made for pleasure and everyday guzzling, delineating aroma and flavor profiles in Lambrusco seems silly, but I guess that’s my job. So in the dry versions, let’s call it strawberry-rhubarb jam with earthy undertones and an appealingly bitter finish that reminds me of sassafras. In the sweeter versions? A black cherry Italian soda with a kick.

Think of it as Italy’s red counterpart to prosecco—effortless, refreshing, and mood-lifting—just don’t think about it too hard.

Amphora (n.): a ceramic vase-shaped vessel with two handles and a long neck narrower than the body that held a standard measure of about 39 liters (41 quarts), giving rise to the amphora as a unit of measure in the Roman Empire.