Classic. Originally Published: Report, May 2007.
OK, lousy pun aside…I am really bubbling with excitement about the new availability of dry, red, fizzy Lambrusco in American shops. It is one of my favorite wines to in Italy, and one of my favorite wines of summer. No, it’s not so easy to find dry Lambrusco…yet…but just a few years ago the American consumer had no shot at all.
Why not? Well, this has a lot to do with Aldo–the guy in the white hat who, throughout the 1970s, encouraged American-drinkers to “chill a Cella.” And they did, in massive numbers–just as they were chilling massive quantities of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, and Bali Hai. The Lambrusco that was being mass-marketed here was sweet and insipid…which made lots of money in the 70s and 80s for the sweet Lambrusco gang…but absolutely destroyed the reputation of any Lambrusco among serious American -drinkers. And it’s a pity–for -drinkers of all stripes in Emilia-Romagna, arguably Italy’s greatest gastronomic region, have long guzzled dry Lambrusco like crazy with their meals, considering it the perfect tipple with everything from prosciutto, to creamy pasta dishes.
So what is it exactly? Well, as usual, the Italian regulations are in flux and, ahem, slightly confusing…so I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible.
Lambrusco is, first of all, a grape variety–a wild-vine variety, one of Italy’s oldest, that was probably put under cultivation by the Etruscans (that’s even before ancient Rome!) It is grown today, principally, in the broad region of Emilia-Romagna–the same region responsible for prosciutto di parma, parmigiano-reggiano, tortellini, balsamic vinegar. Forget Tuscany; Emilia-Romagna is revered by in-the-know Italian eaters as one of the greatest places toon the peninsula.
When you get there–to Bologna, to Modena, to Ferrari, to Rimini–you discover that everyone around you in restaurants is drinking fizzy red. “Oh my God,” you say…”they’re all chilling Cellas!” But they’re not. What they’re chilling is most definitely not sweet Cella–it is dry Lambrusco, fizzy, tart, grapy, and ridiculously refreshing. It is the kind of that people who really love really –because real -lovers every day, that goes easily with , that doesn’t tear your palate out with tannin, or wood, or alcohol (most dry Lambrusco is around 11.5% alcohol, a very light number).
When you buyof this type, you will find a number of naming possibilities on the label. Once upon a time, there were four DOC names to look for:
The sub-variety Lambrusco di Sorbara (right)
Lambrusco di Sorbara, a producing zone in Emilia, near Bologna, named for a sub-variety of the Lambrusco grape (Lambrusco di Sorbara);
and Lambrusco Reggiano, made in great quantity in Romagna, in the eastern half of Emilia Romagna, closer to the Adriatic Sea, from four different sub-varieties (Lambrusco Salamino, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Montericco, and Lambrusco Maestri).
On my visits to Emilia-Romagna, I’ve developed an absolute, hands-down favorite among these four DOCs: Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, which is always the liveliest to me, the freshest, the fullest, without sacrificing any of its “little” appeal.
Got it all? OK, here comes the crunch. In recent years, a few things have changed. For starters, Lambrusco Reggiano, as far as I can tell, is no longer called Lambrusco Reggiano; the DOC is now called Reggiano (reflecting, perhaps, a sensitivity to the laughing-stock nature of the word “Lambrusco” in America?).
More important are the new IGT wines. The Italian government, in 1992, decided to bring a new label designation to the table, alongside the pre-existing ones: IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or, in English, Typical Geographic Indication. The only problem is–most of the wines that fall within this category are anything but geographically typical! The category was created for wines that are, basically, experiments, done in non-traditional ways…so why the government would muck all of this up and called the non-typical “typical”…I have no idea!
In any case…I think we now have a new IGT that is known either as “Emilia,” or “Lambrusco dell’ Emilia” (i’ve seen it both ways on labels). The old DOC wines from the Emilia part of Emilia-Romagna are still being made (Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, and Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro)–now joined by this new stuff. How does the new stuff differ? From what I’ve tasted, it’s a little darker, richer, fuller–which seems to indicate that the new IGT is perhaps allowing the addition of other grapes into the blend, or perhaps allowing some new viticultural practices that produce riper grapes. Either way…I would normally panic about this type of new-fangled meddling with an old formula that works…except that the IGT wines I’ve tasted have been delicious! There was so much leanness in DOC Lambrusco before…that the extra richness still leaves thelight and graceful!
The other good news, of course, is that all of these wines are much more readily available in the U.S. now than they ever were before. I urge you…I IMPLORE you!…find a way to get some of these into your house this summer, and see if you don’t love them withas much as I do!