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In Tough Times, Just Drink Lambrusco and Be Happy
My case for cheap Italian sparkling red during this holiday season. Along with bottle picks and a wild lambrusco cocktail recipe named from a Pynchon novel.
Sometimes, I completely forget about wines. Sometimes for years at a clip. Take lambrusco. I used to write about lambrusco quite a bit a decade or so ago. I even wrote about how I’d mistakenly believed that lambrusco was the fizzy purple wine I’d first tasted as a 19-year-old exchange student in the Italian city of Cremona (it was actually Gutturnio). But then, suddenly, time flies by and I realize I haven’t tasted a single lambrusco in like four years.
This happened when I was at Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference in Torino back in September. One of the highlights of that event was a tasting of aged balsamic vinegar put on by the consortium of Modena’s balsamic vinegar producers. We tasted eight-, 12-, and 25-year-old vinegars with an array of charcuterie, cheese, and even a risotto dish. Honestly, this was among the most fascinating tastings I’ve attended in a while. I will write about it more in-depth in the near future.
But for our purposes today, what struck me was the wine they poured to pair with the aceito balsamico: Lambrusco. Perhaps it should have been obvious: Modena vinegar paired with Modena wine. True balsamic vinegar, after all, is made with lambrusco grapes (along with trebbiano). Anyway, that afternoon rekindled my love of lambrusco.
Who doesn’t love a fizzy red wine? The Grinch? Scrooge? That annoying person you know who’s studying for their WSET exam? Good lambrusco is amazing, vibrant, dry, and surprisingly complex. It's fruity, with tangy, lively acidity, but it will also have a bit of earthiness and a bit of muscle, and will be "rustic" in the best sense of the word. And the frothy bubbles! With its low alcohol, lambrusco is like an adult soft drink. Slightly chilled, it is the perfect red wine to put a smile on your face after a bad day. And it pairs with like a million foods.
Now, any time an American wine writer brings up lambrusco, they are sworn by oath to talk about Riunite. Those are the rules—even though at least two generations of wine drinkers have no idea what Riunite is.
So gather around kids and let me tell you a story: Riunite is a cheap, sweet lambrusco that was super popular during the 1970s and 1980s. It was the number-one imported wine in the U.S. from 1976 until 2000, hitting its peak in 1985 with 11.5 millions cases sold—a number that is simply unfathomable in today's market. Even Yellow Tail, at its peak in the mid-2000s, sold around 7.5 million cases by comparison.
If you’re old, like me, you remember those ubiquitous television commercials: “Riunite on ice. That’s nice!” I was just a kid and not yet drinking wine, but I’d see those ads during a football game, or when the babysitter let me stay up late to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. When I look at those ads now, they honestly seem ahead of their time. The concept is pretty much how cheap wine is still promoted. Just re-imagine this 1981 Riunite ad as a Gen Z picnic:
My personal favorite Riunite ad is this one, set at a ski resort:
We all know, of course, that market success does not equal a good wine, and Riunite lambrusco is a cloyingly sweet, cherry-soda-like drinking experience. You need ice to suck it down, but even then I wouldn't call it “nice.” Lambrusco steadily gained a poor reputation. Among wine drinkers, Riunite became a joke.
The standard narrative is that, as Boomers’ knowledge and appreciate of wine increased during the 1980s and 1990s, budding wine connoisseurs didn’t want to hear about fizzy red wine anymore. “No one drinks Riunite anymore” was the general consensus. Except that’s not true. In fact, Riunite still sells incredibly well, including 1.4 million bottles in the U.S. in 2020. It’s the seventh most popular imported wine (just behind Kim Crawford from New Zealand).
No, the real problem of Riunite is that it unfairly prejudiced the Boomers against all lambrusco, even the good stuff. Since the Boomers have been calling the shots for too many years in our culture, lambrusco had been mostly absent from fine-wine culture before we ever came of drinking age. Once something like that happens, it takes forever to bring it back around.
But by now, what millennial or Gen Z wine lover knows anything about Riunite or lambrusco’s shady past? And who cares? So let’s stop talking about Riunite and focus on good lambrusco.
The good stuff is produced in low-yield vineyards, with an attention to winemaking, in Emilia-Romagna, near the city of Modena. In cities like Parma, Ferrara, and Bologna—which many consider to have Italy’s greatest food— people pair lambrusco with hard, sharp cheeses and meats like prosciutto on a sunny late afternoon. I once had a memorable lambrusco at a bar in Bologna where they put out a giant wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a huge bowl of caper berries. It was heaven. Purple lambrusco with its frothy pink foam, sipped like this, is the very definition of la dolce vita
Good lambrusco is also dry, even if it’s fruity, and is always at least 11 percent alcohol by volume or higher. Stay away from lambrusco under 11 percent abv because it’s likely going to be sweet. Also, look for two specific DOCs, or denomination of origin (otherwise known as the really long Italian place name on the bottle): Lambrusco di Grasparossa di Castelvetro or Lambrusco di Sorbara. The wine from Grasparossa di Castelvetro will be deeper purple, while the wines from Sorbara veer toward pink and almost rosé-like.
Grab a bottle that meets those basic criteria (it will likely cost you between $15-17). Toss it in the fridge for an hour, and you will not go wrong. People love lambrusco. They always have. They always will.
Four Picks: Lambrusco for the Holidays
Great Italian sparkling reds for around $15-17 (click links to order)
Almost rosé-like in color. Light, delicate, and dry, with notes of violet, cherry, blood orange. Classic, benchmark lambrusco
Great balance of earthy and fruity, with cherry, violet, fresh herbs. Juicy and full of finesse. Dare we say it: A complex lambrusco.
Rose and bubble gum on the nose, balanced by fresh herbs. Cool and lean on the palate, with fresh blackberry and a hint of stoniness on the finish.
Beautiful persistent purple foam and bursting with juicy cherries and raspberries, balanced by savory notes.
The Lambrusco Cocktail: Fickt Nicht Mit Dem Raketemensch
Now here’s a post-modern cocktail that’s truly unique. Bourbon, walnut liqueur, strawberry jam, and bitters? Plus a balsamic gastrique?! Topped with lambrusco?! Trust me: Just make it and taste it. The German name comes from a line in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, translated as “Don’t fuck with the rocketman.” Yeah, there’s a lot going on here. It’s a recipe from one of my all-time favorite bartenders, Phoebe Esmon.
2 ounces bourbon
½ ounce walnut liqueur, preferably Nux Alpina
½ ounce balsamic gastrique (see below)
1 barspoon strawberry jam
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Long orange peel
Fill a shaker with ice. Add bourbon, walnut liqueur, gastrique, preserves, and bitters. Shake well, then strain into ice-filled collins glass. Top with lambrusco. Garnish with orange peel.
To make balsamic gastrique: In a small saucepan, dissolve ½ cup sugar in 2 tablespoons of water. Pour in ½ cup balsamic vinegar and simmer until slightly reduced. Let cool before using.