Is it time to change your opinion about Lambrusco?

It wasn’t so long ago this Italian sparkling wine was sitting in the cheaper end of the supermarket, but now it’s winning over the oenophiles in droves


When looking for a top-of-the-line bottle of fizz, many of us would look first to a classic champagne or an effervescent prosecco, while passing over lambrusco without much thought.

It’s true the Italian bubbly doesn’t have quite the same luxury reputation. That’s why restaurateurs and sommeliers are trying to encourage us to take another look.

Bruno Cernecca, managing director of Vini Italiani, an Italian wine specialist, explains: «Lambrusco is from the land where we have the most amazing food in Italy – Emilia-Romagna. It’s the home of parmigiano-reggiano, parma ham, tortellini, lasagne… If the people there know how to eat very well, it would be doing them a disservice to think they don’t know how to drink very well too.»

So how has lambrusco come by its poor reputation? «It was a victim of its own success,» says Dan Keeling of Noble Rot magazine. «Lambrusco found its traditional style, which is dry, with high acid, and slightly spritzy, corrupted into a multitude of nauseating variations in the Eighties. These wines were often sweet and insipid, and muddied lambrusco’s name.»

Cernecca agrees. «Lambrusco grapes grew so successfully that there was plenty of wine to sell abroad. It was kind of sweet and it went well at the time, but very quickly, people realised the quality wasn’t good, and it got relegated in the supermarket with unthinkably low prices.»

«Happily, more authentic lambruscos made by artisanal winemakers such as Camillo Donati have been appearing in the UK over the past few years,» says Keeling. «They’re helping to re-define lambrusco as delicious wines reflecting a sense of tradition and place.»

grape pickers
Fine region: lambrusco grapes come from the Emilia-Romagna area of Italy  Photo: Alamy

«The most versatile lambruscos are bone-dry or off-dry,» says Heidi Knudsen, wine buyer for restaurants Ottolenghi and Nopi. «They vary in colour from light rose-coloured ones to deep purple hued ones.»

It might surprise some to learn that lambrusco grapes are red, and that there are several types: salamino, sorbara, grasparossa, maestri, marani and montericco. «People are often surprised to discover lambrusco isn’t white,» says Cernecca. «Yet I haven’t encountered a lambrusco bianco that’s good enough to sell. In Italy everyone assumes lambrusco is rosso, red.»

Wine consultant Zeren Wilson was so convinced of the quality of long-overlooked lambrusco, that when he created a wine list for Bibo in Putney, south London, he gave the wine a strong showing. «It was a risk, given its reputation,» he says. «But younger winemakers are making lambrusco as it used to be: dry, at least 11 per cent abv, with fresh acidity, and these make great food-friendly wines.»

 As you’d expect, Lambrusco pairs particularly well with foods from Emilia-Romagna: «They’ve been made for each other,» says Cernecca.

And Keeling agrees. «Lambrusco’s refreshing acidity and balance between savoury and fruit flavours cuts beautifully through salumi and charcuterie.»

But it pairs well with less conventional foods, too. «The Radice from Paltrinieri is incredible with fish and chips,» says Knudsen, «and lovely with any oily fish. Ferrando and neromaestri from Quarticello are great with salumi and cheese but also excellent with barbecues and smoked meats.»

«You can’t beat a good lambrusco,» says Cernecca. «On a summer’s day, eating cold cuts out in the garden, with a chilled, dry glass of Tenuta di Aljano Settefilari Lambrusco Reggiano – I can’t think of anything better.»