What is Lambrusco – Italy’s Secret Wines

Itay's Secret Wines - Lambrusco

When you think of Italian wines, what do you think of? Do you ever think about Lambrusco? More often it is the Tuscan wines, like Sangiovese, Chianti (which is made from Sangiovese), Barolo and Montepulciano. Maybe you think of Prosecco, or God forbid Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

It’s no secret that I have, perhaps, an unhealthy fascination with sparkling wines. My motto for years has been that Champagne and sparkling wine should not be reserved merely for special occasions. When living in Chicago, with quite the collection of wine in our “cellar”, we would often drink bubbles merely because it was a Tuesday night. I think everyone should do the same. 

What is Sparkling Wine?

Tasting Lambrusco in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy

Champagne is a term reserved for sparkling wine that is produced in the Champagne region of France. End stop. If someone is making sparkling wine in Italy, Spain, Portugal or the US, it legally cannot be called Champagne. It must be called sparkling wine. This is something I learned very early on in my sparkling wine drinking days.

During our early trips to Italy, I loved drinking Prosecco, a type of Italian sparkling wine. I love drinking Cava, a type of Spanish sparkling wine. And now I love drinking Lambrusco, a wine made from an ancient grape that is seeing a Renaissance of sorts.

Just don’t call it Champagne.

Why Lambrusco?

Red sparkling Lambrusco wine in Modena Italy

Lambrusco is a wine that I was wholly unfamiliar with, despite my years of learning about wine. It was entirely possible that it may have been served to me in the US, but it was not one I knew of before our first trip to Emilia Romagna.

During our first dinner on that trip about 18 months ago, we dined at an agriturismo just outside of Modena. It was a set dinner, with no menu. We had no idea what we were eating or drinking beforehand. Food and wine just started to arrive at the table. Having never spent time in Emilia Romagna before, a lot of the dishes were entirely new to us. We just rolled with it.

When our server at Agriturismo La Casette started to pour a bottle of their wine for our dinner, Eric and I were mesmerized. Out of the darkened bottle was a sparkling red wine, so deep in color that the bubbles themselves were purple. We took a sip. Immediately, the bubbles tickled my nose. The wine was a bit fruity, but not sweet. It was amazing. I was hooked. We looked at the bottle and read a single word that would change our understanding of Italian wine: “Lambrusco”.

During that two week trip around Modena, we drank as much Lambrusco as we could. A bottle of wine with lunch, a bottle with dinner, maybe a second after dinner. When we dined at restaurants without Lambrusco, or a restaurant owner offered us something else, we begrudgingly agreed. I was fascinated with the concept of a red sparkling wine that was this deep in color, entirely different from a sparkling rose. A wine that cut through the fattiness of the cured meats, cheese and cream sauces of the region of Emilia Romagna.

But, I questioned, how had I never heard of Lambrusco before?

History of Lambrusco

High quality Lambrusco wine in Italy does not cost much

I was born in the mid 70’s, came to drinking age in the 90’s, and didn’t really develop a taste for wine until about ten years ago. This puts me squarely in the category of wine drinkers who are too young to really remember Lambrusco the first time it was popular in the US. What we were repeatedly told while traveling Emilia Romagna is that the winemakers have an uphill battle, as they try to rehabilitate the name of Lambrusco.

Apparently, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s Lambrusco was marketed to the disco crowd as red or pink champagne. It was cheap. It was bubbly. It was trendy. When I heard this, I imagined scenes like those in the late 90’s movie 54. I imagine Ryan Phillippe dancing around on roller skates at Studio 54 in New York, serving platters of pink champagne.

I had no idea. How did an ancient grape known during Roman times, become the mass marketed, candy sweet Lambrusco sold to the disco dancing masses?

How was this the same wine as that first bottle of Lambrusco we drank at La Casette?

The Types of Lambrusco

Lambrusco Sorbara is just one of several varities of the wine

There are several types of Lambrusco, depending on the type of grape and the region where it is grown. It is most widely produced in the hills surrounding Modena, but also grows in nearby Reggio Emilia and even in Parma and Lombardy.

Our love affair started with Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, produced only in Castelvetro, a hilly region south of Modena. The Grasparossa tends to be the fullest, and the darkest embodiment of the wine. This is the deep red wine I love. It can be either sweet, semi-sweet or dry. I prefer the dry, or secco, as it is fruity without being saccharine.

When I was first served Lambrusco di Sorbara, it didn’t look like the one I quickly fell in love with. Instead, it tends to be more rose in color than deep red. It also tends to be more fragrant.

Cantina della Volta Lambrusco wine

Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce is produced in the Reggio Emilia area of Emilia Romagna. This is an area that we’re less familiar with, located west of Modena and east of Parma. Salamino is so called because the grape bunches resemble small salamis.

During a brief trip to Modena last year, I started to fall out of love with Lambrusco. It was the summer holiday season and most of the better restaurants were closed. We ate at a few too many touristy restaurants, with not great wine selections. Most of the Lambrusco was too sweet for my palate, and I was questioning why I enjoyed the wine so much during our first visit.

This changed though, during our most recent trip to Cantina Puianello in Reggio Emilia for a Lambrusco tasting. Not only did Giulio introduce us to the Salamino and Montericco varieties of Lambrusco, but also offered us a taste of Grasparossa. They were of a much higher quality, even though they still only sell for around €5 within Italy. My love affair was rekindled.

Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?

Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.

Food Traveler's Guide to Emilia Romagna

Find what other travelers have to say about Cantina Puianello at TripAdvisor

Lambrusco – Metodo Classico

Metodo Classico method of making Lambrusco wine

One of the reasons I fell in love with Lambrusco was its dark ruby color. The other: it is possible to purchase a bottle of Lambrusco for as little as €3. This is one of the benefits of drinking wine in Italy, great wines are a much better value than in the US.

But some wine makers are trying to change the perception of Lambrusco, by bringing it more upscale. Traditionally, Lambrusco is made by fermenting the wine until it sparkles in big metal tanks. A very simplified way to describe the process of making sparkling wine.

A few wine makers in Emilia Romagna, though, are starting to make fantastic Lambrusco’s in the traditional Champagne method, known as metodo classico in Italian. I talked about this idea with the Pignoletto grape in the Bologna Hills. It’s the same with Lambrusco.

These wines, produced metodo classico, are not red in color like normal Lambrusco. Instead they look, and even taste, more like Champagne. Some of the best we had were produced by Christian at Cantina della Volta, just north of Modena.

Cantina della Volta in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna

Christian is gaining a reputation in Emilia Romagna, for how dedicated he is to producing high quality Lambrusco. He gave us a personal tour of his winery, showing off all of the high tech elements of his production process. He returns to the region of Champagne at least once a year to continue studying how to make Champagne. He is using fancy grape presses that are computerized and controlled by someone in France. He has a technologically advanced bottling system to ensure high quality metodo classico Lambrusco. He is even using drones to monitor the growing process, to figure out precisely when grapes need to be picked.

In fact, the geography where the majority of Christian’s Lambrusco grapes are grown is very similar to the Champagne region. I could easily tell the difference. His Lambrusco metodo classico was dry, crisp, and simply perfect.

How and Where to Drink Lambrusco

Drinking Lambrusco di Modena wine

When it comes to the question of how to drink Lambrusco, I say drink it often.

Generally, it is an easy wine to drink, with little complexity. It goes well with most meals and also makes a happy drinking wine. It is very easy to find in and around Modena in Emilia Romagna, but more difficult to find east towards Bologna, where Pignoletto and Sangiovese are more popular.

It is possible to tour some of the wineries that produce Lambrusco. Although smaller wineries are harder to visit, Cantina della Volta is open to visitors according to their schedule. Gavioli is a larger Lambrusco producer that has a fabulous wine museum, and offers tastings and tours seven days a week.

Find what other travelers have to say about Gavioli Wine Museum at TripAdvisor

Cantina Puianello is open six days a week, located outside of Reggio Emilia. It’s always best to contact the winery ahead of time to confirm that they are open.

Although the Lambrusco Renaissance in the US is still in its infancy, it’s not impossible to find a good one in wine shops or on the menus of authentic Italian restaurants serving the cuisine of Emilia Romagna. Look for Lambrusco when you are seeking a sparkling wine to serve during a summer BBQ. Most important, if you see it on a menu, just try it. Let me know what you think.

More About Our Trip

We were hosted by the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board during much of our 18 months in Emilia Romagna. Some of our winery visits were also organized by our friend Helena at Yummy Italy. However, I do not need prodding from either one of them to tell you how much I enjoy a good Lambrusco.

Find the best deal on hotels in Emilia Romagna, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor

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