“A good drinker of Lambrusco is not only a proud, warm and generous man, but he is above all free.” — Curzio Malaparte

lambrusco grape

I can’t be sure exactly what Signore Malaparte meant when he said this, but I think this quote says a lot about what it means to be a wine drinker today.  Lambrusco, a bubbly dry red wine made from one of several varieties of the lambrusco grape and served chilled, is a difficult wine for some to embrace. First of all, it challenges our notion that wine is either white or red (or maybe pink), and poses a threat to those who for some reason align themselves with one or the other.  My wine director friends tell me chilling stories about customers who order a dozen oysters and then ask, “What Cab would you recommend?”  After offering a suitable white wine as an alternative, they are looked at askance and politely brushed off. Similarly, some people only drink “Chard” or “Pinot” (shortspeak for Grigio, not Noir), and find it unfeminine to drink red wine. A chilled sparkling red wine doesn’t fit into any simple category, but it is one of the most delightful drinks in the world.

Another obstacle we have between us and Lambrusco, is that it is viewed as an unserious wine, not worthy of admiration. Part of the problem is that Riunite, a cheap, sweet, industrial version of what Emilia-Romagna farmers had been making for centuries, was extremely popular in the U.S. during the nineteen-seventies and eighties. Its reputation was on par with that of Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers — in other words, extremely cool back then and extremely uncool now. 

Real versions of Lambrusco, like the Barbolini that I wrote about last week, are quite worthy of admiration, although they are unlikely to win any awards in the mainstream wine media. They’ll never be collectors’ wine auctioned off at insane prices; they won’t be a trophy wine on a restaurant’s list. They are meant to be enjoyed. With food. Preferably outside, when it’s hot and you have a plate of salami in front of you. Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, and other rich fatty foods also come from Emilia-Romagna and Lambrusco was designed to go with these foods. Smelling of violets and berries, most versions are dry, and all versions are delightfully refreshing. Some have an earthy aspect to the aroma and a tannic bite. I count it as one of the most food-friendly red wines around. And like most bubbly wine, it is a very social drink — best enjoyed among friends.

When you can embrace one of the more humble and strange wines of the world, then you are free indeed.