An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

Lambrusco: The Rodney Dangerfield of wine

For as long as I can remember, Lambrusco has been the butt of every conceivable wine joke. Snobs recoil in horror at the mere mention of the stuff, and snicker at the gauche individuals who feel compelled to drink it. This antagonism dates to the 1970s and 1980s, when Lambrusco was the most popular imported wine in America (we drank over 13 million cases of it in 1985). Most of that wine, unfortunately, was cheap, sweet and inferior in quality. You may have fond memories of Reunite from your college years, but odds are you wouldn’t reach for it today.

If you visited Emilia-Romagna you might not have a choice, since Lambrusco is the signature wine of that region (or the Emilia half, anyway). It is cultivated in the provinces of Modena, Parma and Mantua, and is ubiquitous in the city of Bologna. Lambrusco is both the name of the grape variety and the wine, and it comes in many styles---sparkling and still, sweet and dry, white, red and rosé. Despite the contempt many Americans have for it, there are numerous producers who are traditional, quality-oriented and highly regarded.

So why do we love to kick Lambrusco around? The answer probably lies in the different places wine occupies in the American and Italian cultures. Most Americans don’t grow up with wine. Many of us regard it as a trophy, a status symbol, something that reflects our standing in society. The more expensive the wine is, for many collectors, the better it must be.

Italians, on the other hand, don’t take an intellectual or socially-conscious approach to wine. They just quaff it with food. A little bit of watered-down wine is given to them as children, and by the time they reach adulthood they regard it as an essential part of a meal.

Lambrusco meets many of the requirements of an ideal quaff. It is low in alcohol, slightly fizzy and refreshing; the red version is low in tannin as well. It pairs perfectly with regional dishes such as tortellini, boiled meat and wild game. For that matter, it goes pretty well with a salami sandwich at lunchtime. And if you’re trying to impress someone while eating a salami sandwich, you’ve got issues.

Cleto Chiarli is one of the quality-oriented producers most closely connected to the history of Lambrusco. The original Cleto Chiarli was a restaurant owner in Modena who made and sold his own wine. Eventually the popularity of the wine exceeded that of the food, and in 1860 he established the first winery in Emilia-Romagna. Today the enterprise is operated by his great-grandsons, Mauro and Anselmo, who own 250 acres of vineyards in the region and make their wine with cutting-edge equipment and technology.

                     cleto chiarli tasting notes

Vigneto Cialdini ($13), from the Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, has an intense red color and a bright, fresh nose with aromas of dark berries. The wine is just as light and refreshing in the mouth, with luscious flavors of black raspberry and plum. It expands in the mid palate with tannins that underline the fruit, and the finish is mouthwatering. This is the most balanced wine of the group, and a pleasure to drink.

Grasparossa di Castelvetro Centenario ($12) is an amabile, or off-dry bottling (technically one that contains between 30-50 grams of residual sugar per liter). As deeply colored as the Vigneto Cialdini, it has an attractive nose with whiffs of candied plums. In the mouth, the wine has rich flavors of black cherries, Damson plums and grape skins, supported by bulky fruit tannins. The sweetness is noticeable but well-balanced by acidity. This would make an interesting match with spicy cuisines such as Szechuan or Thai.

Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara ($16) has a vivid cranberry color, a foaming mousse (Chiarli was one of the first estates to transition to the Charmat method), and a yeasty nose with aromas of red fruits. The wine is bone-dry in the mouth, the antithesis of Reunite, with nicely structured flavors of red raspberry and wild strawberry, along with hints of rhubarb. While the alcohol is refreshing at 11%, it displays a framework of soft tannins that would make it a perfect match for that salami sandwich. The finish is longer than expected, with tart, reverberating flavors of red berries.

Note: Both the Vigneto Cialdini and the Vecchia Modena are fitted with a plastic bracket that bisects the cork. It looks attractive, but is firmly attached and difficult to remove. These videos may be helpful: