I promised my favorite hootch hawker that I wouldn’t use the ‘R’ word in discussing his Lambrusco. He insists—rightly—that the quintessential ‘70s Italian wine brand should remain, like their stupid slogan, on ice.
Under the auspices of Banfi Vintners, said ‘R’ brand was a cooperative of Emilia-Romagna producers whose ship came in across an ocean of sugary-sweet, fizzy amabile-style wine that (throughout those strange 1970s, whose only contribution to culture was disco music and a revival of the ‘50s) left such an emotional scar on the name ‘Lambrusco’ that forty years of therapy hasn’t cured it.
So now, in polite society, tippling a refreshing mug of Lombardy’s most likeable lap-dog, the bright, tail-wagging Lambrusco, we do not mention the ‘R’ word. Rather, we skip the ‘70s altogether and concentrate on the other five thousand years of Lambruscoian history.
Indeed, archaeology indicates that the Lambrusco grape—six unique varieties, all beginning with ‘Lambrusco’ and ending variously with Grasparossa, Maestri, Marani, Montericco, Salamino and Sorbara—has been cultivated by in Emilia for as long as anyone has been writing anything down. By the time Hannibal dropped in for an unannounced visit, it was an old standby variety, described by Cato the Elder as so prolific that an acre could produce 400 amphorae, or around 4000 gallons. For wine production geeks, that’s a unfathomable yield of 30 tons per acre.
It must be noted that Cato was a warrior, not a mathematician.
As a legal entity, Lambrusco originates from four zones in Emilia-Romagna and one in Lombardy; most can be found in the provinces of Modena, Parma, Reggio nell’Emilia and Mantua. It’s not all sweet; in fact, some versions (secco) are dry, while others are even sweeter than the amabile that Americans are most familiar with. Like Sherry (and unlike German Prädikatswein) sweetness is not a quality stamp but a style; Lambrusco Mantovano, the lone Lombardy Lambrusco, is generally dry, violet flavored and splendid. Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce is known for its deep color and marvelous bouquet, while Regianno—the largest of the five Lambrusco-based regions—is the home to the best dolce (sweet) wines and a perfect accompaniment to the rich local food. Lambrusco di Sorbara produces the most wine most highly prized by Lambruscophiles, with an intense concentration of flavors due to the clone’s tendency to drop flowers and reduce yields, sometimes by as much as 30%.
Finally, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, the smallest region. By law, the wine must be made from 85% Grasparossa grapes grown in any of the thirteen communes south of the town of Modena.
The game-changing Lambrusco for me was Fattoria Moretto ‘Monovitigno’ Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Secco, around $28 and a stunning reversal of the prejudice that I—even moi, your humble narrator—harbored since high school and the barge-loads of ‘R’ word Lambrusco I consumed.
The wine is pleasure in a pint-glass, lyrical and lovely, pretty and profound, captivating on a sensual level and complicated on a neural one. It’s Lambrusco, make no mistake—it contains all the trademarks: Boiling fuchsia foam and carbonic, Beaujolais Nouveau-like grape soda aromatics, but these are foreground notes. The wine’s bouquet contains numerous deeper levels, with a floral sweetness and black cherry scents. Unlike Champagne, Lambrusco’s flamboyant froth does not seem integrated into the whole so much as a gaudy getup that sheathes the stuff; it’s icing on the cake that defies you to lie and deny enjoying it. Slight residual sugar is a foil to the fizz and the acidity, and—unusual even in upper crust Lambruscos—to a grounding dose of tannin. The grapiness in the nose is resurrected in the palate with fresh plum and just-picked cherry, offering a vibrant sense immediacy to the experience.
Call it picnic wine if you must, but explain if you mean that as a term of belittlement. For me, there are black tie wines and there are flip flop wines, wines for the soul and wines for the psyche, and I require a certain elegance in each. Fattoria Moretto ‘Monovitigno’ satisfies the first category with plummy aplomb: After a glass, I had only a residual memory of the old ‘R’ word.
The new one is ‘refill’.