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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses all things Lambrusco. Beavers discusses a region called Emilia-Romagna, where Lambrusco is grown, and explains how one Lambrusco brand sent the United States into a frenzy in the ‘80s with its sweet, sparkling red wines.
Since then, new forms of Lambrusco have emerged on the American market. Beavers details four DOCs that listeners may begin to see in wine shops, including Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, and Reggiano.
Tune in to learn more and become an expert on Lambrusco.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: In “Star Wars: The High Republic,” 200 years before “The Phantom Menace,” Yoda is 700 years old. He doesn’t look a day over 600.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 20 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” Podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers, and I am the tastings director of VinePair. Que onda?
It’s so misunderstood. Do we even know about it? Lambrusco. Guys, Lambrusco is awesome. We gotta talk about Lambrusco.
OK, I am going to make another statement here. I am making a statement. I believe that the wines made from Lambrusco are some of the most fascinating, unique, delicious, interesting wines coming out of Italy. Full stop. Not the most, but some of the most. I’m very excited about this episode. I am very excited about Lambrusco and telling you about Lambrusco because for us on the American market, we have enjoyed a certain wine made from the Lambrusco grape. And that’s great, but there are other styles of Lambrusco that are coming onto our market that are very different from what we’re used to, if you’re even used to it at all. And we’ve got to talk about it, because these wines are just mind-blowing. Honestly, I know some of you are like, “Keith, that’s great, but exactly what is Lambrusco?”.
Well, just northeast of Tuscany, there is a very large region, one of the largest of the 20 regions of Italy called Emilia-Romagna. At one point, it was the province of Emilia and the province of Romagna, and they at some point came together. And I’m not really sure why, but what I do know is that this region spans almost the entire width of the peninsula of what is Italy. It’s huge. I don’t know why, maybe because it’s north of Tuscany where everybody goes to visit. This place has so much awesomeness that we know. We just may not know where it’s from.
Emilia-Romagna is home to balsamic vinegar. It is home to Prosciutto di Parma. It is home to Parmigiano Reggiano, and it’s also home to Ferrari, Ducati, and Lamborghini. Also, the oldest university, like ever, is still operating in Emilia-Romagna. This place is one of the wealthiest regions in all of Italy. It’s crazy. Oh, and also the second season of “Master of None” was filmed in Modena, which is in Emilia-Romagna. It’s actually where balsamic vinegar is from. As far as wine is concerned, Emilia-Romagna, as big as it is, has a bunch of DOCs and a bunch of wine appellations with very cool wines that you may not see a lot on the American market, but they’re there. They just aren’t often promoted as much as they should be.
Almost smack dab in the middle of the region, just west of the town of Bologna, which is where Mortadella is from, which is where we get the word bologna from, is the city of Modena. Also, west of that is a city of Reggio or Reggio-Emilia. Surrounding these two cities, they grow a red variety called Lambrusco. The Lambrusco grape is very different from a lot of grapes out there. When I do research on a grape, I really want to find the origin of the grape. It’s something of a closure about that, but when you read about Lambrusco, it’s not about the origin of the grape. It’s about the many grapes that are called Lambrusco. I don’t know if they haven’t gone through it yet or I’m missing something, but there’s no information about Lambrusco and its progeny and its origins and all that. What’s mostly talked about are just that; the many grapes that are called Lambrusco. I don’t know, it’s just crazy. When you’re looking into Lambrusco, you’re finding forms of Lambrusco, not clones or anything like that. Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson calls them the many forms of Lambrusco.
There’s at least 10 different forms of the Lambrusco grape with a very short list of them that are often used in this part of Italy to make sparkling red wine. Yeah. I don’t know another place in the world that has multiple controlled appellations dedicated to sparkling red wine. If you know or have consumed or are familiar with Lambrusco, what I’m about to say might tweak your brain a bit. The sparkling red-ish wines of Lambrusco, more often than not, are dry. They’re often very effervescent and very aromatic. They smell like herbs, violets, cherries, and berries. They have tannin in them sometimes. You feel a grip of tannin on your palate, and then the bubbles come in and break it all apart. These wines are, as I said, fascinating. These are fascinating wines.
What’s really cool is that I was saying Emilia-Romagna is the breadbasket of Italy. We have all these foods that I mentioned in there, and it’s thought that these dry, effervescent, beautiful, bubbly wines are perfect with the heavier foods of the region, which makes complete sense. With Lambrusco on the American market, we never knew that it was Lambrusco. It was one brand that came from a cooperative in Emilia-Romagna called Riunite. When the brand came out, there were nine winemakers after World War II in the area who came together and formed a cooperative called the Cantine Cooperative Riunite. Riunite just means together, so it was this very positive thing, man. Let’s all gather together and make a bunch of money and try to make something special out of what we have. Oh, and did they.
They called the wine Riunite, and within six years, they doubled production. Through the 1960s, it gained in popularity. Then, in 1969, it hit American palates and we lost our collective minds. The United States always has had a sweet tooth, and the wines that were being made by the cooperative was a style of Lambrusco called Amabile, which means semi-sweet. It was a fizzy, semi-sweet wine that came in very easy-to-drink bottles. That’s it. We lost our minds. Riunite became a cultural phenomenon through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, making Riunite one of the third-largest wine groups in the world at the time.
I don’t know where you are in age, but as a kid in the ‘80s, I remember the Riunite commercials. You can go on YouTube and see them now. “Riunite, it tastes so fine. Riunite pure and natural wine. Riunite on ice. Reunited, so nice!” I’ll never forget it. They would put people in different social situations. It was softball or picnics or something like that. It became the to-go wine of America. It actually started getting so popular, they had the original Riunite, then they had pink and they had white. Riunite is still around.
Actually, in 2006, it went through a big rebrand. It was called Reinvent Riunite, and it’s definitely still around. It’s a good, affordable Amabile, semi-sweet, fizzy red wine, rosé, and white. Even though the United States will always have that sweet tooth, we started to evolve. We’re actually still doing it now. Our drinking culture is evolving as we speak. We had an organic movement and a biodynamic movement, and we started getting into wines with a little bit more acidity. We like the big stuff. We like the sweet stuff, the tannic stuff. But what’s this stuff? We can like all the stuff. It doesn’t have to be one style or another. That’s where the rest of Lambrusco comes into play.
OK, wine lovers. This is going to be a little bit tricky because I’m going to explain to you this awesome place and these awesome wines, and you might be like, “Wow, that sounds delicious. I want to go look for it.” Well, right now, Lambrusco is on our market. It’s not prominent, but it’s on our market. There are certain types of Lambrusco, which I’ll talk about, that are more prominent than others. These wines can be pretty expensive and small-production, and they’re on their way or they’re here. You just got to search them out. Often, wine buyers that support small-production Lambrusco, are going to be in those wine shops that you go to and create relationships with the wine merchant. Do you know what I mean?
OK, let’s dig in, and bear with me. This might sound intense, but it’ll level out, I promise. In this wine-growing region in the center of Emilia-Romagna, five forms of the Lambrusco grape are used more than any of the other ones. You have Lambrusco Salamino, Lambrusco Grasparossa, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco di Sorbara, and Lambrusco Marani. These forms of Lambrusco grow all over the region from Parma in the west, all the way to Bologna in the east, and everywhere in between, north and south. There are certain forms of Lambrusco that thrive in certain areas better than others. And because of this, different DOCs were formed in this area to focus on the ones that did better in the area. The town of Modena, north, and south, has four distinct DOCs. These are the ones we’re going to start seeing on our market.
Emilia-Romagna has a lot of geography, but this is more plain land. It’s more plains, but the plains are filled with alluvial soil. That basically just means — and I said this before — it’s a bunch of junk that comes down off of a mountain and fans out into a plain. All that mountain gravel and rock and stuff are good for vines. In these alluvial plains, the northernmost one, you have a DOC called Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce. Notice the word Salamino in there? I had mentioned one of the Lambrusco grapes is Lambrusco Salamino. Now, this DOC focuses primarily on Lambrusco Salamino that blends with other forms, but it features this particular form of Lambrusco. And what you get here is beautiful. They sometimes are very aromatic. They almost smell like violets. Sometimes, they’re very fruity, punchy, and actually have a little bit of tannin, which is just nuts. It’s so beautiful. They’re bright, they’re scented, and they’re not overly sweet. They are bubbly, of course, and they’re just wonderful. They’re not deep, dark, and red. They are a rich red. It’s basically a deep red with sun coming through it.
Just south is a DOC called Lambrusco di Sorbara. Again, as I mentioned, there’s Lambrusco Sorbara, so this is a DOC that focuses on this particular form of Lambrusco. The Sorbara form. The wines coming out of here are different. They’re all different kinds, but the pale, pinkish, dry Lambruscos from this area are out of this world. Talk about heavy foods cutting through the fat, good acidity, great bubbles. These wines are beautiful, and they are very aromatic as well.
South of the town or city of Modena, it gets a little hilly. Here we have the Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro. It’s a lot of words, but Grasparossa is a word that you are probably familiar with because it’s another form of Lambrusco that I had listed. From this grape, you are getting closer to what we’re used to in the United States. The form of Lambrusco Grasparossa is darker. There’s more extract, more color from these grapes. They’re juicier. They may be dense, but definitely have a little bit of weight and sweetness to them. What I love about the wines made from Lambrusco Grasparossa is the tannin.
You have this dark, extracted, bubbly red that has a little more sweetness than usual that we’re used to in the other DOCs, but that tannin comes in and just dries it out and forms a structure that breaks apart the sweetness. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, dry, and dark. It’s awesome. Give me a Grasparossa and a bucket of fried chicken; I’ll just call it a day.
Those are the styles. Those are the forms. Those are the fields of the smaller-production, controlled appellations for Lambrusco. If you were to draw a circle around all of those, there would be another DOC which is called Modena. The DOC Modena that covers all those appellations, you can just make whatever you want with whatever Lambrusco form you want to. It’s a big, catchall appellation. You’re going to see a lot of that on the American market because a lot of it is made. Since the production rate is usually higher, the wines tend to be generally sweeter.
There’s a DOC west of Modena that surrounds the town of Reggio-Emilia. It’s a large appellation, and it’s called Reggiano. Just like the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano. This is the Reggiano DOC. This is where the Cantine Cooperative Riunite is located. This is where Riunite actually does all their stuff. This is why the wines from Riunite that came on our market were decidedly sweet, because in the Reggiano DOC, you are allowed to blend up to 60 percent of a grape called Ancellotta into the wine. It’s blended to add color concentration and a little more sweetness to the vigor of the other forms of Lambrusco. You’ll notice in the DOCs I mentioned, that the colors were a little bit lighter.
The Ancellotta comes in and denses it out because this is the style, the Amabile or semi-sweet style that we fell in love with, with Riunite. Reggiano, being where Riunite is, the Amabile, semisweet, dense, sweet, bubbly, red Lambrusco is what you’re going to see the majority of because that’s what we fell in love initially. Even though Riunite is still around, other brands came to compete, and they call themselves Reggiano Lambrusco Amabile.
Was this a lot of crazy information? Isn’t this crazy?
Now, the thing is, Lambrusco is sparkling red wine, and it’s made like a sparkling wine would be made. If you listen to the sparkling wine episode in the first season, there are two ways of making sparkling wine. There’s a traditional method, which is second fermentation in bottle. Then, there’s the Charmat method, which is of second fermentation in a pressurized vat. The majority of Lambrusco is made in the Charmat method. But this is so cool.
The smaller DOCs and even the larger DOCs are starting to make wine differently. Actually, there are some winemakers that are practicing or playing around with the idea of second fermentation in bottle with Lambrusco. I’ve had a couple of them, and the result is amazing. As far as the more concentrated, sweet styles, they will never go away. Amabile — the semi-sweet style — is part of this world. Yet, even the larger companies and brands are starting to back away a little bit from the sweetness. As the American wine palate starts to get a little bit drier… We will always be sweet. However, when we start looking for a little more acidity, a little more character, a little more complexity, you will start to see more of those Lambruscos come on to the market.
You have all kinds of stuff going on here. You have the sweeter style, the Amabile that’s pretty much everywhere that you can just go out and grab right now and say, “OK, what is this thing Keith is talking about?” Then, you have these three DOCs that have these focused, unique styles within themselves that are absolutely beautiful, herby, violet-scented aroma, all types of awesome. They can be a little bit more expensive. They’re a little bit lower-production, but man, are they worth it.
So that’s Lambrusco, guys. Did it blow your mind? If you’ve never heard of Lambrusco before or you knew about it but didn’t know all the things, this is some pretty cool stuff, right? Again, I was excited about this episode. I’ll stop now, and I’ll talk to you guys next week.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new everyday. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.