Low-Alcohol Lambrusco Cools Summer Sizzle With Light Fizz

Lambrusco Grapes
Lambrusco grapes hanging from the vine. Some grapes used in making Lambrusco are a dark purple, which gives its color to the slightly effervescent wines. Source: Enoteca Emilia-Romgna via Bloomberg

Until June I had never ordered a bottle of lambrusco in Italy. With memories of those sweet, fizzy, soda-like imports of the 1970s like Riunite Lambrusco (“Riunite on ice -- so nice!”), I had no interest in revisiting such wines, even in Emilia-Romagna, where lambrusco is made. (For the record, Riunite, now about $6 a bottle, still sells a million cases a year in the U.S., more than any other import.)

But there I was on a hot summer’s day in Parma. So the thought of a chilled, low-alcohol local wine with my lunch of the region’s more admirable products, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano, seemed appealing enough.

I ordered a bottle of Otello Nero di Lambrusco, with 11.5 percent alcohol. It didn’t make a fizzy sound as it was poured but it did have a slight effervescence -- what the poet Keats called “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” -- and a rich, deep purple color. I inhaled the full-fruited bouquet and sipped: it was brisk, only slightly sweet, and chilled, immensely refreshing.

Right then, I made a vow to order only lambruscos for the rest of my week in Emilia-Romagna, the region reputed to have the best, and richest, food in Italy, especially its famous green lasagne alla bolognese, tortellini pasta, balsamic vinegar, and mortadella salume.

Fizzy Lambrusco

It’s often said the fizzy lambrusco helps cut the fat in Emilia-Romagna’s food, a virtue you would certainly not claim for heady red wines like Piedmont’s barolos or Tuscany’s brunello di montalcinos.

My regimen became revelatory. Bottle after bottle, I was delighted and often impressed by the quality and variety of lambruscos, which can range from a true rose color to a dark magenta.

None rose above 11.5 percent alcohol, which meant I could easily drink my usual half bottle at dinner without rising from the table swooning.

Lambrusco is a wine with four Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellations in Emilia-Romagna. While some are classified as rosatos and others as rossos, they are all to some extent a little effervescent (“frizzante” in Italian), and may be made secco (dry), amabile (semi-sweet) or dolce (sweet), from a variety of lambrusco grapes.

Foamy Grasparossa

The sorbara variety, grown mainly in the north, produces the most refined examples. The grasparossa variety produces fuller bodied wines. I particularly liked the fairly foamy, very dark and pleasingly dry grasparossa from La Battagliola winery.

In Bologna, where a new, 32-year-old chef named Riccardo Facchini has restored the reputation of the old Ristorante Pappagallo, I drank a 100 percent sorbara-based lambrusco from Paltrinieri, a medium-bodied, rosy wine.

It went perfectly with a light pasta with mantis shrimp and mussels and a glorious five-layer lasagna alla bolognese rich with meat ragu and besciamella cream.

At Biassanot in Bologna, a trattoria whose name is local dialect for “night owls,” I ordered gnocchi with Gorgonzola and beef with porcini mushrooms, and chose a big lambrusco, made from the maestri varietal, by Marcello. In 2011 it was selected as the world’s best sparkling wine at the International Wine Challenge in London.

Verdi’s Music

Where did the week go? Lunch at Trattoria Anna Maria, run by chef Anna Maria Monari, was a plate of the lightest egg tagliatelle I’ve ever had, enjoyed with Lambrusco Terre Verdiane, whose label likes to tout the wine’s vivacity to the music of Giuseppe Verdi. (Sparkling, vivacious, perfumed and full of color like our region; a song among friends; emotional force; and so on, according to my translation.)

My last bottle of lambrusco in Bologna was Sant’Agata, another from the Paltrinieri estate, a superb example of the finesse found in the sorbara grape, here macerated for two days before fermentation to give it body.

I’m pretty sure I drank the whole bottle, with enormous pleasure, over a sumptuous dinner at I Carracci, the splendidly posh restaurant at the Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni. With some culatello ham, a lasagne with Parmigiano fondue, and veal scallopine with sauteed spinach, the two hours sped by, before dessert, of course.

As a big believer in drinking the local wine with local food, I couldn’t have been happier to derive such pleasure from wine I had for so long neglected. With most of the better labels selling outside Italy for less than $16 a bottle, it’s now hard to imagine summer going by without it.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include an interview by Manuela Hoelterhoff and Jeffrey Burke book review.

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