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A Vastly Underrated Wine


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The arrival of the summer months means, among other things, picnics and cookouts with generous platters of cold cuts, barbecued chicken (Tuscan style), grilled vegetables, and a host of other marvels. What to drink with it all? If you have access to it, home-brewed beer is excellent.

Alas, though many of the ingredients I use when I'm in the US come from Britain or Belgium, beer brewing is an unknown art in Italy. So I settle for Lambrusco. It's the perfect wine for a picnic: light, flavorful, zesty, and low in alcohol, about 11% -- just the thing for a warm afternoon.

It's also an ancient wine, mentioned by Virgil, Pliny, Cato, and Strabo, who was astonished by the size of the barrels made to contain the harvest. None of what the Romans drank has survived, so there's no telling what it was like. However, in the 1300s Pier de' Crescenzi and Andrea Bacci discussed its cultivation, and since then a steady stream of poets have sung its praises.

Taken as a whole, Lambrusco is red wine whose primary characteristics are sparkle, lightness and low alcohol content. Lambrusco's sparkle is considerably lower key than that of Champagne or Franciacorta: the fizz boils up when the wine is poured, then settles down, leaving a faint ring of white around the edge of the glass. Lambrusco is also characteristically light -- not much in the way of tannins or body.

Why drink it, then?

Because it's delightfully refreshing, with a sparkle-enlivened bouquet that can vary from fruity with pleasant vinous overtones to floral with hints of violets and heather. On the palate it is zesty, with nice fruit flavors and a clean finish. Since it is relatively acidic, it goes especially well with foods that are oily or contain mayonnaise (grilled sausages, potato salad, etc).

One important thing to keep in mind is that Lambrusco can be either dry or sweet (the characteristics of the individual wines will remain constant from year to year). Obviously, grilled chicken with a dry sparkling wine that leaves the palate clean will be quite different from the same chicken with a sweeter sparkling wine that would go better with a peach. Fortunately, the label does come to your assistance:Secco means dry, while Amabile means sweet. So read carefully and if you're in doubt taste a bottle before buying several for your picnic.

Technical stuff:

Lambrusco is produced in Emilia-Romagna, and more specifically in the area extending from Reggio Emilia, through Modena, to Bologna, and up to Mantova. There are a number of different kinds, made from different varietals of the Lambrusco grape, all of which come in sweet or dry; the principal varieties are:
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro:
    Produced in the province of Modena, from the Grasparossa varietal, and up to 15%Uva d'Oro or other Lambrusco varietals. Red with violet highlights, lively but evanescent sparkle, very pronounced fruity bouquet, and (for Lambrusco) considerable tannic structure.
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara:
    A wine produced in the province of Modena, From 60% Sorbara and 40% Salamino grapes. Ruby to garnet red, lively but evanescent sparkle, a floral bouquet with violet overtones, and bright acidity that also carries through on the palate. Of the various Lambruschi, it's the most acidic, and very well suited to fatty grilled meats.
  • Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce:
    A wine produced in the province of Modena, from the Salamino varietal, with up to 15% other varietals orUva d'Oro. Ruby red, with lively but evanescent sparkle, very fruity bouquet, and more structure than most Lambruschi.
  • Lambrusco Reggiano:
    Made with Lambrusco (the Marani, Salamino, Montericco and Maestri varietals), with up to 15% Ancellotta. From Rosé to lively red, fine and long lasting sparkle, pleasing bouquet, light body.
  • Lambrusco Mantovano:
    Produced with Lambrusco (the Viadanse, Maestri, Marani and Salamino varietals), as well as Ancellotta and Fortana. Ruby red, with a vinous bouquet that has violet overtones.
  • Lambrusco Rosato:
    Lambrusco, partially fermented off the skins to produce a lighter wine. This is a relatively new wine that is gaining in popularity.
All of these wines are to be drunk young.

For something very different, try Tiziano, the Supertuscan made by Rietine, a small winery in the township of Gaiole in Chianti. "I decided that if I was going to make an alternative wine (another term for Supertuscan, or table wine) I might as well do something really different," the owner told me, explaining that he uses an ancient variety of Lambrusco, which produces small bunches of widely separated grapes, and cuts it with an equal volume of Merlot. The wine is still, with delightful strawberry and tobacco overtones in the bouquet, and is surprisingly rich on the palate, with lots of ripe fruit. It also ages quite well, and gives an excellent indication of the Lambrusco grape's potential for producing wines for more serious occasions.

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