Culinary Arts

Learn About Lambrusco: A Guide to Italy’s Sparkling Red Wine Including the Best Lambruscos to Buy

Written by MasterClass

Jun 27, 2019 • 5 min read

Lambrusco, Italy’s sparkling red wine with a kiss of sweetness, is slowly experiencing a quality revolution. No longer defined by the cola-like Riunite popularized in the 1970s, a handful of conscientious producers are lowering yields and using traditional winemaking methods to produce complex, drier styles of lambrusco. Not only is lambrusco a pleasure to drink, it is also among the best values to be found in Italian wine, with high-quality examples available for under $20.

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What Is Lambrusco?

Lambrusco is the name of a sparkling red wine from northern Italy, as well as the family of red grapes that go into lambrusco wines. There are over 60 related varieties of lambrusco grape, but the most common varieties are:

  • Lambrusco salamino (the most widely planted)
  • Lambrusco grasparossa
  • Lambrusco maestri
  • Lambrusco marani
  • Lambrusco di sorbara

Most lambrusco wines are made from a blend of various lambrusco grapes, although single varietal lambruscos can be found. One common trait of the lambrusco varieties is that they are very vigorous vines: the yield of grapes from lambrusco vines can be triple that of other grape varieties. For industrial lambrusco production, this is a positive trait, but quality-minded winemakers must keep yields lower to concentrate the flavors of the grapes.

Which Are the Best Lambrusco Wine Appellations to Know?

Lambrusco wines come from the Emilia-Romagna region in the center north of Italy. In addition to wine, Emilia-Romagna is known for its Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, and balsamic vinegar from Modena. The lambrusco family of grapes is native to this region, where they have been growing since pre-Roman times.

  • Lambrusco Reggiano DOC produces the most lambrusco wine from a blend of varieties. The wines range in style from lighter, semi-sparkling semi-dry wines, to darker, more concentrated dry wines.
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC is dominated by lambrusco grasparossa grapes, which produce the meatiest, most tannic lambrusco wines. This is the smallest and hilliest of the lambrusco DOCs. The wines are usually dry, fuller bodied, and deep purple in color.
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC produces the region’s most highly regarded wines. They are based on the lambrusco di sorbara variety (along with 40% salamino) which produces lower yields of acidic, concentrated, and deeply-colored dry wines driven by floral aromas and red-fruit flavors.
  • Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC is made from salamino grapes, with up to 10% other varieties. The wines are lighter in color and lightly sparkling. They can be dry or semi-dry.
  • Lambrusco Mantovano DOC is the only appellation allowed to produce lambrusco outside of Emilia-Romagna, in neighboring Lombardy. This lambrusco is made in dry and semi-dry styles.

How Is Lambrusco Made?

Lambrusco gets its bubbles in one of three ways: Charmat method, metodo ancestrale, and metodo classico. Carbonation occurs when carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, is trapped in a liquid under pressure. Each of these methods captures this gas in a different way.

  • The Charmat method (also known as the tank method) is the carbonation method used in the production of most inexpensive examples of lambrusco, as well as prosecco. The winemaker adds sugar and yeast to the not-yet-sparkling base wine in a large pressurized tank. The sugar ferments, releasing carbon dioxide which is trapped in the wine. Dosage (the final sugar adjustment) is added, and then bottles are filled from the tank. This method produces wines that are less complex because the wine does not age in contact with its lees (spent yeast). However, it is popular because it requires less time and labor than the other methods. Wine made in the Charmat method contains three atmospheres of pressure, which means it is less fizzy than Champagne but more fizzy than metodo ancestrale wine.
  • The metodo ancestrale, or ancestral method, is how higher quality examples of Lambrusco are made. In this process, the wine is bottled while it is still going through its primary alcoholic fermentation. The remaining sugar continues fermenting in the bottle, creating carbon dioxide gas and a few more degrees of alcohol. You can tell if a lambrusco is produced this way because the bottle’s cork is similar to a Champagne cork, but attached to the neck of the bottle by a metal clamp rather than a wire cage. The metodo ancestrale results in wine that is pressurized to about 1.5 atmospheres, making it frizzante, or lightly sparkling.
  • The last method, also known as méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionnelle in France, is used for premium lambrusco. Lambrusco made in this way is more elegant, with sharper, longer lasting bubbles, but lacks lambrusco’s characteristic rusticity.

Is Lambrusco Always Sweet?

Though lambrusco is often thought of as a sweet wine, lambrusco can be produced in either a dry or sweet style. A lambrusco will be labeled to help you decipher the sugar content and sweetness of the wine.

  • Wines labeled secco (dry) can have up to 15 g/L of residual sugar, but they taste dry because the sugar is balanced by acidity and bubbles. These wines are usually deeper in color. Dry lambruscos are the most likely to be made in the metodo ancestrale and tend to be more layered, with earthy, savory flavors in addition to fruit.
  • Semisecco wines are off-dry, meaning they have perceptible sweetness from 12-32 g/L of residual sugar. These are the most common lambruscos, and are usually produced in a frizzante style using the Charmat method.
  • Amabile wines are semi-sweet, with 30-50 g/L of residual sugar. This style of lambrusco is usually simple, Charmat method wine made in bulk by large producers. It is now less popular than the drier styles.
  • Dolce wines are sweet, with more than 45 g/L of residual sugar. Similar to amabile styles but sweeter, dolce lambruscos are cola-like with candied red fruit flavors. Dolce lambruscos are wonderful to drink with dessert.

How Does Lambrusco Taste?

Flavors and aromas of lambrusco vary based on the grape varieties used and the quality level of the wine. Inexpensive examples are usually sweet, fruity, and one dimensional. The best lambruscos can have layers of darker fruit and rustic savory flavors on a more structured frame. Common tasting notes of lambrusco include:

  • Watermelon
  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Red and black cherry
  • Dried herbs
  • Violet
  • Rose
  • Earth
  • Iron-like minerality

How Do You Serve and Pair Lambrusco?

There’s no benefit to aging lambrusco. Serve it fresh and ice cold.

Like many Italian wines, lambrusco really sings when paired with food. The dry styles are especially friendly with charcuterie, like finocchiona (fennel salami) and Prosciutto di Parma.

Full-bodied, dry lambrusco Grasparossa has enough tannin to drink with meaty dishes like barbequed lamb or beef ribs. Pizza and lambrusco is a great match for a fun, inexpensive date night.

Sweeter lambruscos can counteract heat in spicy Thai or Indian dishes. The residual sugar also means that sweet lambrusco works well with desserts like strawberry shortcake or profiteroles.

Learn more about wine appreciation from James Suckling’s MasterClass.