Are all lambrusco cheap?
The short answer is no.
The most highly rated of its wines are the frizzante (slightly sparkling) red wines, designed to be drunk young. Aged wines are generally not an issue here and generally speaking are on the more inexpensive price range. But this is not absolute. It does have some historical value to its name also.
Lambrusco is the name of both an Italian red wine grape and a wine made principally from said grape. The grapes and the wine originate from four zones in Emilia-Romagna and one in Lombardy―principally around the central provinces of Modena, Parma, Reggio-Emilia, and Mantua. The grape has a long winemaking history, with archaeological evidence indicating that the Etruscans cultivated the vine. In Roman times Lambrusco was highly valued for its productivity and high yields, with Cato the Elder stating that produce of two thirds of an acre could make enough wine to fill 300 amphoras.
The most highly rated of its wines are the frizzante (slightly sparkling) red wines, designed to be drunk young, from one of the eight Lambrusco denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) regions: Colli di Parma Lambrusco, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, Reggiano Lambrusco, Colli di Scandiano e Canossa Lambrusco, Modena Lambrusco, and Lambrusco Mantovano. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s sweet Lambrusco was the biggest selling import wine in the United States. During that time the wine was also produced in a white and rosé style made by limiting the skin contact with the must.
Today, there are various levels of dryness / sweetness, including secco (bone dry / dry), amabile (off-dry / sweet) and dolce (very sweet). Sweet Lambrusco became hugely popular in the United States in the late 1970s-1980s, reaching a high of over 13 million cases exported to the country in 1985. The wine is noted for high acidity and berry flavors. Many of the wines now exported to the United States include a blend of Lambruscos from the different DOCs and are sold under the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) designation Emilia.
The wine is rarely made in a "champagne" (metodo classico) style; instead, it is typically made using the Charmat process where a second fermentation is conducted in a pressurized tank.
In Australia a number of cheaper bottled and box wines are produced by Australian vineyards and sold as "Lambrusco". They are typically medium-sweet, around 10% ABV and styled as an "easy drinking" product.
Some Lambrusco wine will taste cheap, but I imagine not all.
Lambrusco Wines Worth Drinking
Upon the boisterous expression of the beauty of Lambrusco, you may be remonstrated with something like,
“You mean that cheap, sweet red wine that tastes like soda?”
Well not exactly, but yes, that one. Apparently, Lambrusco still has a long way to go since it tarnished its reputation nearly 40 years ago (blame the wine boom of the 1970s). Fortunately, this means you can find great wines for obscenely good prices. Lambrusco is awesome and its story is more fascinating than probably imagined.
Lambrusco Wines Worth Drinking
Lambrusco is actually a family of very old grape varieties native to Italy. Most wines are a blend of several distinct varieties, each with a unique taste profile. It is unclear exactly when these varieties manifested, but Cato may have mentioned them in De Agri Cultura in 160 BC – humanity’s oldest printed farming manual. So when you drink Lambrusco, you are drinking some O.G. juice (several millennia older than Cabernet).
Today, the best Lambruscos are dry (secco) and barely sweet (semisecco) and are almost always made in a semi-sparkling, frizzante, style. There are about 10 different varieties (8 closely related varieties, to be exact). That said, there are the 4 high quality varieties you should know: Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco Grasparossa, and Lambrusco Salamino. These four offer the complete range of styles and they’ll match with an incredible array of foods from Korean barbecue to Argentinian empanadas.
Classy Lambrusco Wines to Try
Lambrusco di Sorbara
This grape produces the lightest and most delicate and floral of the Lambrusco wines, often in a light, pink-rose hue. The best versions are in a dry and refreshing style but have delightfully sweet aromas of orange blossom, mandarin orange, cherries, violets, and watermelon. You’ll find these wines labeled primarily as Lambrusco di Sorbara and they pair extremely well with spicy Thai and Indian cuisine.
This is the grape that makes the boldest Lambrusco wines with flavors of black currant and blueberries, supported by moderately high, mouth-drying tannin and a balancing creaminess from the Charmat sparkling production process. You’ll find this wine labeled as Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro (which includes 85% of this grape) and is great to pair with fennel-infused sausages, lasagna, or even barbecue ribs.
Wines of Lambrusco Maestri are more grapey with soft and creamy bubbles and subtle notes of milk chocolate. L. Maestri is actually the most well-travelled of all the Lambrusco varieties and there are some excellent examples coming out of Australia (Adelaide Hills) and Argentina (Mendoza). It’s a little harder to find a single-varietal Lambrusco Maestri in Italy, although to quote Italian wine expert, Ian d’Agata,
“Try: Cantine Ceci, Nero di Lambrusco Otello, guaranteed to change your mind about Lambrusco forever and turn you into a believer.” Ian d’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy
This Lambrusco has cylindrical salami-shaped bunches (which is what the grape is named after). These wines have the delightful aromatic qualities of Lambrusco di Sorbara (imagine cherries and violets) with the structure (tannin), creaminess, and deep color of Lambrusco Grasparossa. Expect Lambrusco Salamino to be made in sweetest styles, including semisecco and and dolce to counterbalance its tannin – oddly enough, the sweetness makes it a great match for burgers. This variety can be found labeled as Reggiano Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce.
More information may be gleaned from the following article(s):