For decades, Lambrusco has been the butt of every conceivable wine joke. Snobs recoil in horror at the mere mention of the stuff, and snicker at the gauche individuals who feel compelled to drink it. This antagonism dates to the 1970s and 1980s, when Lambrusco was the most popular imported wine in America (we drank over 13 million cases of it in 1985). Most of that wine, unfortunately, was cheap, sweet and inferior in quality. You may have fond memories of Reunite from your college years, but odds are you wouldn’t reach for it today.
If you visited Emilia-Romagna you might not have a choice, since Lambrusco is the signature wine of that region (or the Emilia half, anyway). It is cultivated in the provinces of Modena, Parma and Mantua, and is ubiquitous in the city of Bologna. Lambrusco is both the name of the grape variety and the wine, and it comes in many styles—sparkling and still, sweet and dry, white, red and rosé. It meets many of the requirements of an ideal quaff: low in alcohol, slightly fizzy and refreshing, and low in tannin as well. It pairs perfectly with regional dishes such as tortellini, boiled meat and wild game.
Cleto Chiarli is one of the quality-oriented producers most closely connected to the history of Lambrusco. The original Cleto Chiarli was a restaurant owner in Modena who made and sold his own wine. Eventually the popularity of the wine exceeded that of the food, and in 1860 he established the first winery in Emilia-Romagna. Today the enterprise is operated by his great-grandsons, Mauro and Anselmo, who own 250 acres of vineyards in the region and make their wine with cutting-edge equipment and technology.
Vigneto Cialdini ($13), from the Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, has an intense red color and a bright, fresh nose with aromas of dark berries. The wine is just as light and refreshing in the mouth, with luscious flavors of black raspberry and plum. This is the most balanced wine of the group, and a pleasure to drink.
Grasparossa di Castelvetro Centenario ($12) is an amabile, or off-dry bottling. As deeply colored as the Vigneto Cialdini, it has an attractive nose with whiffs of candied plums. In the mouth, the wine has rich flavors of black cherries, Damson plums and grape skins, supported by bulky fruit tannins. The sweetness is noticeable but well-balanced by acidity. This would make an interesting match with spicy cuisines such as Szechuan or Thai.
Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara ($16) has a yeasty nose with aromas of red fruits. The wine is bone-dry in the mouth, the antithesis of Reunite, with nicely structured flavors of red raspberry and wild strawberry, along with hints of rhubarb. The finish is longer than expected, with tart, reverberating flavor of red berries.
Note: Both the Vigneto Cialdini and the Vecchia Modena are fitted with a plastic bracket that bisects the cork. It looks attractive, but is firmly attached and difficult to remove. These videos may be helpful:
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.