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Lambrusco: A Wine for Thanksgiving
By Michael Apstein
Nov 12, 2013
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Just the idea of taking Lambrusco seriously causes snickers.  We all know that it’s nothing more than a sweet slightly bubbly red wine, right?  Well, no--it isn’t just a cheap sweet bubbly after all.  Or at least not all Lambrusco fits that description.  There is, after all, another Lambrusco, a much more serious one, and indeed it is a wine made just for Thanksgiving.

Pairing Wine With . . .

Consumers often speak of matching particular wines with certain foods.  Entire books have been written on the subject.  Bob Harkey, of Harkey’s Fine Wines in Millis, Massachusetts and a no-nonsense retailer with a superb palate astutely notes, “At Thanksgiving it is especially important to match the wines to the people, not to the food.”  Of course, as Michael Franz, my colleague here at WRO, correctly points out, “You always match the wine to the people.” 

But Harkey is insightful and correct because he advises ignoring the food entirely.  And for two good reasons.  It’s impossible to find wines to match the varied assortment on the table.  And secondly, it’s rare to have a group with such varied interests in wine around the table.  There’s always an Aunt Harriet or an Uncle Bill, who know nothing about wine and could care less, the host or hostess, who might be avid and knowledgeable about the subject, and then everyone in between.  This is not the time to bring out Grand Cru Burgundy--although those wines do go well with turkey (not so well with cranberry sauce or sweet potatoes, however).  The answer then is to find a “friendly” wine that has enough character or interest to satisfy the occasional wine geek.

The Usual Suspects

Two common recommendations for Thanksgiving are Beaujolais and Riesling. Lots of people ridicule Beaujolais because its commonplace--but it’s commonplace because it works. The excellent and well-priced Beaujolais Villages from Maison Louis Jadot is always a winner.  Their 2011 ($14) is no exception.  The stylish 2010 Moulin-a-Vent from Joseph Drouhin ($19), combining oomph and grace, is certain to please.  Similarly, the upscale 2011 Château des Labourons Fleurie ($18), a property recently purchased by top-notch Burgundy producer, Maison Louis Latour, is stunning.  And don’t forget the equally attractive 2010 Fleurie from Villa Ponciago ($19), a property owned by another top end Burgundy négociant, Bouchard Père et Fils.  All of these should be widely available.

Riesling is another favorite because its fruitiness and sweetness balanced by zesty acidity can please and simultaneously cut through most food.  You can’t go wrong with wines from Dr. Loosen, a top Mosel producer.  His 2011 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett or his 2011 Urziger Würzgarten Kabinett are both riveting (each $22-24).

Lambrusco

But back to Lambrusco.  The Lambrusco producers are fighting a distinctly down-market image created by the tsunami of the sweet version that has enjoyed worldwide popularity and imitation. Indeed, Giuseppe Meschiari, a knowledgeable Italian sommelier has called it, “the most faked wine in the world.”

Paradoxically, popularity created Lambrusco’s current lowly stature.  Though ridiculed by wine aficionados in the United States, Lambrusco made by Riunite, a cooperative of growers, remains wildly popular.  It was the leading imported wine for 24 consecutive years--from 1976 until 2000--and still ranked at the number 4 position last year.  Indeed, when I served it blind to a group of friends who would be considered “occasional wine drinkers,” it was embraced with enthusiasm.   To borrow a phrase from Paul Wagner, a savvy wine marketing consultant in Napa Valley, who was describing another sparkling wine, (but it’s even more appropriate for Lambrusco), “It’s a party in a bottle.”

Lambrusco, a low-alcohol, fizzy red wine, is made from any one of the multitudes of varieties of the Lambrusco grape.  (Whether it is related to the native American grape Lambrusca is a subject of heated debate.)  With far less carbonation than Spumante or Champagne (the bottle is closed sometimes with a driven cork), its official category is frizzante, which means it is even less carbonated than what the French call Crémant.

Authentic Lambrusco

Authentic Lambrusco comes from six DOC areas that take their names from the various types of Lambrusco grapes (Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, Lambrusco Reggiano, Lambrusco di Modena and Lambrusco Montevano).  In these six areas in north central Italy, around Bologna, Parma and Modena in Emilia Romagna, it is drunk in vast quantities with the hearty food from that region--often called the stomach of Italy--fatty pork products, succulent tortellini or tortelloni and fettuccine with Bolognese ragù.  Lambrusco Grasparossa is the fullest while Lambrusco di Sorbara is the lightest.  Though Lambrusco Reggiano boasts the largest production, all of the varieties of the Lambrusco grape are prized for their copious output and it seems that every farmer makes this wine for household consumption.

Sweet and Balanced, not Cloying

The vast majority of Lambrusco exported to the US hails from Reggiano, is slightly sweet, and is labeled Amabile.  Though on the sweet side, they are not cloying wines.  (Amabile also means “charming” or “attractive” in Italian).  The sugar left after fermentation accounts for the sweetness, but the inherent ferocious acidity of the grape combined with the mild carbonation of frizzante balances the sweetness so the wine is indeed, round and friendly, not cloying.  As more and more consumers and sommeliers are discovering dry Lambrusco, labeled Secco, notably those from Grasparossa di Castelvetro and Sorbara, they are becoming easier to find both in retail shops and on restaurant wine lists.  Many of the dry Lambrusco actually have a touch of tannin in the finish, which also balances the fruitiness. 

In addition to “Amabile” or “Secco” on the label, the stated level of alcohol gives a clue to the wine’s level of sweetness--the lower the stated alcohol, the sweeter the Lambrusco.  Once the stated alcohol hits about 11%, the wines are noticeably drier.  A low-alcohol wine, Lambrusco rarely has more than 12% stated alcohol.

Frizzante

Its zing comes from a secondary fermentation carried out in very large pressurized stainless tanks in the “bulk” or Charmant method.  Unlike Champagne, it rarely undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle and when it does, it is not disgorged, so the finished wine remains slightly turbid because of the yeast. 

Almost all Lambrusco is made by performing two fermentations--one to make still red wines, which are then blended, followed by a second fermentation in bulk to create the bubbles.  But one notable producer, Cleto Chiarli, uses only one fermentation for their top-of-the-line wines.  Instead of blending still wines, Chiarli keeps the freshly unfermented red grape juice ice cold, blends them to achieve the style and complexity he wants, and then ferments the blend in bulk to achieve the desire spritz.  Though much more expensive--it takes a lot of refrigeration to keep all that juice ice cold--and more hazardous to blend juice than to blend still wines, Anselmo Chiarli, the current head of the firm, insists this process imparts more elegance to the wines.  Chiarli’s are consistently excellent and among the best Lambrusco I’ve tasted. 

Recommendations

In addition to Chiarli, other producers I recommend are Albinea Canali (their dry Ottocentonero) Manacardi (their Ca’ del Fiore) Fattoria Moretto, Setticane, Ca’ Berti and Zanasi.  Most Lambrusco sell for under $25 and often under $20.

Lambrusco, be it Secco or Amabile, should be drunk young, slightly chilled, and as soon as possible.  You need to buy them from a retailer who has a good turnover because rarely will there be a vintage on the label, so judging the age of the wine is difficult.

Ditch the Name?

Despite its down-market trappings, the locals are proud of Lambrusco.  Gian Paolo Gavioli, the export manager for Riunite & CIV, the major producer in the region, bristles when he hears of Lambrusco being produced in Sicily or elsewhere and notes that starting in 2014, regulations require the secondary fermentation (to make it frizzante) and bottling must occur in the region, a move designed to enhance the quality and protect the name, Lambrusco.  (This region has given us another sweet/acidic liquid that we Americans have embraced:  Balsamic vinegar.)  Producers and regulators alike are grappling with the marketing issue of nomenclature for the dry and upscale bottlings.  Some producers advocate dropping the name Lambrusco entirely and just use the name of the grape, such as Grasparossa di Castelvetro or Sorbara for the driver versions.  As a start, they should stop referring to the entire category as “sweet” wines--a marketing death knell--since some are indeed, dry, and the rest are, well, amabile. 

A Challenge to You

For you skeptics, I propose an experiment this Thanksgiving.  Put a bottle of Lambrusco on the Thanksgiving table along with the other wines you are serving.  At the end of the meal, see what’s left in the bottles.

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Email me the results of your experiment at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and send me a direct message on Twitter at @MichaelApstein