Why spring is the perfect time to discover Lambrusco

Warmer weather may have you reaching for the rosé but gently sparkling, chilled Lambrusco can make a thrilling alternative. David Kermode makes the case for the under-appreciated Italian red and selects five top bottles to try

Words by David Kermode

Lambrusco grapes
Lambrusco grapes growing in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy

Spring has sprung and with it comes lighter, brighter evenings that signify that summer is on its way. While this tempts us to reach for the rosé, there is another wine that’s every bit as suitable for the season: Lambrusco. The mere mention of its name conjures up images of the 1970s: Italian restaurants decorated with empty Chianti flasks repurposed as candlesticks, prawn cocktail and black forest gâteau but this vivid red sparkler offers so much more than nostalgia, boasting a unique character, sense of authenticity, naturally low alcohol and an impressive gastronomic pedigree that’s in tune with the times.

What’s more, Lambrusco offers a treasure trove of different tastes. There is a series of contrasting styles based on sub-varieties plus a spectrum of colours, from a delicate salmon pink, through ruby red to an almost alarming purple. The wines are usually made using the Charmat technique (a pressurised tank system that’s also used for Prosecco), but look out for artisanal examples produced by the ancestral method, where the fermentation is completed in the bottle, and top-notch ones made in the same way as Champagne.

Lambrusco di Sorbara, one of the lighter styles, works particularly with aperitivo

Focused on the western end of the central province of Emilia-Romagna, there are 12 different regional sub-varieties of Lambrusco, with the most common being Salomino and Grasparossa – which tend to boast the deepest, richest colour – then Maestri, Marani and Sorbara, with the latter offering an enchanting pink to rival Provence rosé.

‘It is definitely a wine that evokes memories of nostalgia but at least it is remembered,’ says Sarah Knowles MW, buyer for Italy at The Wine Society. ‘I think there is a new group of members looking for unique styles of wine, who have also perhaps visited Bologna where good Lambrusco is enjoyed with super aperitivo.’

Though we tend to associate sparkling wines with the start of a meal, the good burghers of Bologna take a different approach: scan the wine list at one of the city’s high-end restaurants and you will find page after page dedicated to Lambrusco. Diners favour a different style for each course, starting with the lighter Sorbara for salami or cheese, working up to darker, more intense wines like Grasparossa for hearty meat dishes such as tagliatelle al ragù, the acidity cutting through the richness while the gentle bubbles aid digestion.

Lambrusco offers bags of character that’s by turn thrilling, gastronomic and fun

Though a sweeter style defined the global image of Lambrusco in the ‘70s, doing it no favours, most of the examples that you might encounter in its home region are bone dry, or perhaps off-dry, where a crunchy blackcurrant acidity balances the residual sugar. Lambrusco tends to be ‘frizzante’, rather than ‘spumante’, meaning there’s a little less fizz, with the ABV usually modest, at around 11%. Just like a summer rosé, it should always be served chilled.

So much more than ‘Ribena for adults’, Lambrusco offers bags of character that’s by turn thrilling, gastronomic and fun, so could it be on the verge of the renaissance that it richly deserves? ‘The reality is that the demand is still quite muted but I am always delighted to taste consistently high-quality examples when at shows in Italy and so hopefully, as these gain traction, the category may continue to develop at that level,’ says Knowles.

Five Lambrusco wines to try

Patrinieri ‘Solco’, Lambrusco dell’Emilia 2022

Patrinieri, Solco, Lambrusco dell’Emilia, 2022

Imported by Passione Vino, whose cute Shoreditch wine bar and shop is, incidentally, a great place to sample the spectrum of Lambrusco, this off-dry style – from one of the most acclaimed producers – offers acres of blackcurrant character, its 15g of residual sugar is beautifully balanced by crisp acidity, while a savoury undertow draws it to a close.

£24, Passione Vino

Patrinieri ‘Radice’, Lambrusco di Sorbara in Purezza NV

Patrinieri, Radice, Lambrusco di Sorbara in Purezza, NV

An ancestral method masterpiece, produced under crown cap, bursting with rose petals, bright, juicy summer berries and fleshy pink grapefruit with a thrilling sherbet tang, this is a sparkler that also makes a statement.

£29, Passione Vino

Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano, Medici Ermete, 2022

Medici Ermete, Concerto, Lambrusco Reggiano, 2022

From a family producer established in 1890, one of the first to export Lambrusco to the wider world, now certified organic, this vivid ruby Lambrusco Salomino offers a veritable compote of berry flavours, its 9g of residual sugar held in check by a blueberry acidity, while its tannins feel perfectly plucked.

£17, Hedonism Wines

Vecchio Moro Lambrusco Grasparossa Rinaldini

Rinaldini, Vecchio Moro, Lambrusco Grasparossa

Lock up your linens because this crowd-pleasing Lambrusco Grasparossa is an extraordinary deep purple. Fragrant and charming, the lifted nose offers foraged blackberry while the palate bubbles with crunchy cranberry. Perfect for a pepperoni pizza, this is also astonishing value.

£12.31, The Wine Society

Lambrusco Selezione Monte delle Vigne

Monte delle Vigne, Lambrusco Selezione

Produced from Lambrusco Maestri, the nose offers lifted notes of cherry blossom and violets, while the palate has crunchy raspberry, blackberry and just a hint of black pepper. Combine that with a lovely, enlivening gentle fizz, and you have a wine made for charcuterie.

£15.95, Lea & Sandeman