Four ways to conquer your fear of Lambrusco (and the wines that'll help you do it)

Lambrusco: Don't be scurred; these wines are delicious.
Lambrusco: Don't be scurred; these wines are delicious.

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when we systematically broke down the entirely undeserved bad rap (pun intended) on moscato? That put us in the mindset of another, equally beleaguered wine that we now feel compelled to turn you onto. We already know this one's gonna be a tougher sell, because people are clinging tighter than lint on denim to their stereotypes of this wine: Lambrusco.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, it's not like we begged our mommies to swap out our Enfamil for the stuff; we've only been fans of this delectable Italian cultivar for the past half-dozen years. But after springing a few of these refreshing, remarkably low-alcohol bottles on a few of unsuspecting guinea pigs -- er, our dearest friends -- over the past several months (and getting genuinely rave reviews), we think it's time to give you the lowdown on everything you never knew you'd love about Lambrusco.

But first, a primer: We realize that we need only to utter the name "Riunite" -- the most infamous incarnation of Lambrusco wine ever -- to strike utter fear into your hearts. For those of you not old enough to recall the incessant refrain of that omnipresent commercial, just know that this wine was the best seller of 1981 -- a year in which five of the top six imported brands were in the Lambrusco category. (Go ahead and let that sink in for a moment.) Just when America's Lambrusco fever had reached its height, a huge scandal involving tainted juice (one word: antifreeze) followed by the veritable takeover of that other sweet, pink wine we now love to hate -- white zinfandel -- pushed Lambrusco right off the country's store shelves and wine lists and into exile.

Although ridiculously drinkable DOC-quality Lambrusco has steadily been regaining popularity in major U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco for the past fifteen years, most people still cringe at the mere mention of the wine. So what if we told you that there was a Lambrusco out there for just about everyone, if only they knew how to pick the right one? Here's a challenge for you: Ask yourself if you fall into any (although we'll bet you're actually gonna have to cop to more than one) of the below guaranteed-to-love-Lambrusco categories. If you do, then you are 100 percent ready to embrace these wines -- and to score these four bottles that'll prove it.


1. Your favorite food group is "salumi": Do you drool at the sight of mortadella? Swoon over a sliver of lardo or plates of prosciutto di Parma? Just remember this wine pairing credo: If it grows together, it goes together. Guess where the best, most highly-rated Lambrusco wines come from? Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, producer of all manner of lyrically delicious, pork-based treats like the ones listed here. Try the Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbrara "Vecchio Modena" 2009 ($14), a longtime favorite of ours for its soft reddish pink hue and delectably dry, tangy berry flavors. Did we mention it paired well with porky snacks?

2. You're obsessed with all things bubbly: As the group nearest and dearest to our hearts, your craving for the bubbles borders on being Intervention-worthy. Take solace in the knowledge that many Lambrusco wines are decidedly lower in alcohol than their darker-hued red wine cousins (read: fewer unpleasant, sloppy-drunk episodes in your future.) For you, we recommend the Lambrusco di Mantovano "Rigoletto" Vinicola Negri 2010 ($12), made by third generation winemakers from the Lombardy, one of the few areas outside of Emilia-Romagna known for producing quality Lambrusco. As with most Lambrusco wines, there's no Mèthode Champenoise going on here; the wine gets its engaging effervescence via the Charmat (aka "bulk" or "tank") method. A darker, ruby-purplish hue served as a gorgeous backdrop for the lively bubbles; the palate served up rich plum and dried dark cherry fruit, along with tannins you could feel. Drink with plate of mushroom ragu-topped pasta.

3. Your go-to red wine? Barolo: While there's certainly no mistaking a Lambrusco for a Barolo, there are versions of these wines that can be extraordinarily full-bodied and hearty. Why let your desire for a full-throttled glass of vino need go unsated as the days grow longer and warmer? For your next light meal or picnic (it's supposed to be 75 degrees on Saturday, people), pass up your standard red and pop the cork on the borderline lusty Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Balugani NV ($15). Like nebbiolo-based wines, this is a big'un: the blackish-purple color is just the first hint towards the simultaneously bone-dry, yet juicy fruit action that nearly burst from the glass.

4. You're just plain crazy for pink wine: Reach for the Zucchi Lambrusco di Sorbara Rosato NV ($15): It is so damn close to the official start of rosé drinking season, we can practically taste it. This wine is helping us hold out until then. Sporting a lovely pinkish-red tint and the cutest little bubbles, it's the vinous version of a strawberry Pop-Tart: full of delicately sweet fruit and a little bit toasty. Fresh, sprightly, and nearly porch-poundable, plan to enjoy this (and every one of the above bottles of) Lambrusco wine not just as spring turns into summer, but all year round.

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