Lambrusco — A Guide to the Basics

Today, Lambrusco shines in an array of styles, and all of them are more interesting than the bulk-produced examples that once dominated the market.

Lambrusco wine in a glass
Photo: Mark Hatfield / Getty Images

Back in the early-'80s, there was a television commercial that went whatever the Reagan-era version of viral was: A couple, ostensibly American, was shown in various scenes around Italy — he feeds her food as she lounges on his lap at a picnic; they gaze out over the Arno river; she feeds him cheese as the monger looks on with far too much joy in his eyes. Her blond hair looks like it was styled by the same team that worked on the cast of Dallas and his mustache appears ready to slither away in embarrassment at the smarmy smile spreading out below it. An ear-worm of a jingle plays over it all: Riunite, it tastes so fine; Riunite, pure and natural wine; Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice; Riunite! Riunite, for a time, was a wildly popular Lambrusco. Indeed, it so dominated the American market that the brand name became somewhat synonymous with the region: On this side of the Atlantic, Riunite was Lambrusco, and Lambrusco was Riunite.

Which is all well and good, except that the Riunite style — sweet, overtly fruit-driven, and fairly one-dimensional — only represented one aspect of a region whose wines are complex and come in a range of styles. For an entire generation, the expectations set by Riunite were virtually impossible to shake. Today, however, the great sparkling wine of Emilia-Romagna is finally earning the respect of sommeliers and other wine pros, which is often the predecessor of wider consumer appreciation.

What is Lambrusco Wine?

Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Lambrusco is broken into several appellations, and each of them is home to sparkling wines with their own unique character and constituent grape varieties or blends. All of them, however, are worth the time and effort to get to know, because they are often delicious and represent excellent value for money.

Where Does Lambrusco Wine Come From?

Lambrusco's home is the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, northeast of Tuscany. Bologna is its capital, and the region in general is renowned for its rich gastronomic history: Classics of Italian cuisine – balsamic vinegar of Modena, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and mortadella – are all from there. It only makes sense, then, that Lambrusco is a wonderfully food-friendly wine, with the ability to pair well with rich and light dishes alike. (It works with spicy foods and aromatic ones, too; a slightly off-dry Lambrusco with coconut curry is excellent.) Bottles labeled Lambrusco Reggiano DOC are produced from grapes grown throughout the region; Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC is crafted from the variety of the same name, with up to 40% Salamino grapes; Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC is based on Lambrusco Grasparossa, and tends to be richer and dryer than other expressions. Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC is less common on the American market, so if you find a bottle, it's worth checking out; and, from the Lombardy region, there's Lambrusco Mantovano DOC. You can also find Lambrusco labeled as Emilia IGP.

Why Should You Drink Lambrusco Wine?

Lambrusco is one of the most exciting wines that most consumers still aren't quite familiar with…or at least not familiar with in all of its many versions. Because of that, there is a real opportunity for discovery, which is never a bad thing. Lambrusco is a remarkably food-friendly wine that, depending on the style and appellation, can stand up to richer sauces and meats and also frame lighter dishes with elegance. Lambrusco is also produced in styles that range from dry to sweet, which means that there are bottles available that will appeal to palates across the spectrum of preferences. And the best sweet ones, unlike the confected ones of the past, have enough acidity and savoriness — and often tannins — pulsing beneath it all to keep every sip balanced and structured. But it's the dry styles that are catching on most dramatically right now.

What Does Lambrusco Taste Like?

In its sweeter versions, Lambrusco boasts watermelon, ripe cherry, wild strawberry, and raspberry notes, with occasional hints of cranberry. Flowers can often be discerned, and in the dryer versions, savory notes of mineral and mushroom are not uncommon, too. One of our recommended bottles below even has notes of roasted beets!

Ultimately, Lambrusco's flavor depends on what grapes have been used in the blend, where in the region they've been grown, and how the wine has been made. Charmat method Lambrusco gets its bubbles from a secondary fermentation taking place in a giant pressurized stainless steel tank, and these bottlings tend to focus on the fruit more than the savory aspects. Ancestral method Lambrusco gets its bubbles in the same way as pet nat — that is, the wine is bottled before the initial fermentation is totally finished. Since the yeast converts the remaining sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide in a sealed bottle, the CO2 dissolves into the liquid, making it gently fizzy. Some earthy and savory notes are common with these. And some Lambrusco is made in the Champagne method, whereby a second fermentation is initiated in the bottle following a completed initial fermentation. No matter which one you're enjoying, chilling the bottle, even the most deeply red ones, is a good idea (though chill the darker ones slightly less than the lighter bottlings).

Regardless of the style, the Lambrusco on the American market today is far more diverse than it was in the past, and well worth exploring.

Five Great Lambrusco Wines

There are countless great Lambrusco wines on the market today. These four producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Lambrusco has to offer.

Cleto Chiarli

One of the most well-known producers of high-quality Lambrusco on the American market, Cleto Chiarli crafts Lambrusco in a range of styles from across the region's DOCs. Their Lambrusco di Sorbara Vecchia Modena is a reliably well-made example, and wonderfully food-friendly.

Medici Ermete

Best known for the single-vineyard Concerto bottling, they recently released an organic version of this highly regarded Lambrusco that, despite its high reputation, still rings in at well under $30. That 2021 is delicious, with candied purple flowers and chocolate ganache, Amarena cherries, roasted beets, licorice, and star anise, with a dry, bracing texture.

Terrevive

Not far from Modena, the balsamic capital of the world, is a breathtaking 86-acre estate owned by Gianluca Bergianti in the town of Gargallo di Carpi. He walks the proverbial earth-friendly talk in the most profound ways imaginable: Everything is grown biodynamically there, from the grains to the vegetables to the grapes for his stunning range of Lambrusco. If you see any of them, snap them up immediately, whether it's the "No Autoclave" Rosato Frizzante, the "PerFranco" Rosato Frizzante, or the rarely seen "Bzzz…," a paradigm-shifting passito of Sorbara that was done in beehives.

Venturini Baldini

With roots that stretch back to the 1600s, this producer crafts wines that have earned the respect of critics and consumers, and they're getting easier and easier to find on the American market.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles