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Lambrusco - It's Better than You Think
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed Sept. 7, 2005. For more information go to wineloverspage.com


Back in the '70s, when a lot of us were first learning about wine, two fancy "imported" wines seemed like the height of sophistication. One was the Portuguese rose wine that came in intriguing, old-fashioned bottles: Lancer's and Mateus. And the other was an Italian wine called Lambrusco. Red, sweet and a little bit fizzy, the ubiquitous Riunite and Cella Lambrusco brands went great with pizza and, well, just about everything.

Years went by, our tastes matured and became more sophisticated, and nowadays many of us who can remember that generation look back on these once-favored wines with a mix of embarrassment and disdain.

But is that fair? After all, Lambrusco (named for its grape variety) is a wine with a long and respected history around Modena, where folks know their food and their wine. The traditional home of balsamic vinegar, Modena is smack-dab in the middle of Emilia-Romagna, not far from Bologna, a region that may just be the culinary epicenter of an entire country known for wonderful things to eat and drink. Would they drink lousy wine? I don't think so.

So, taking a fresh '00s look at that '70s wine, I reached out to Chambers Street Wines in NYC, one of the best shops in the U.S. for odd, offbeat and intriguing items, and found a truly unusual example of Lambrusco - Ceci 2004 "La Luna" - attractively priced in the middle teens. As best I can discern from the Italian-only information on the label and in a little booklet tied around the bottle neck, this is a "biodynamic" wine, made with careful attention to such niceties as the phase of the moon during production and bottling. It's a wine so artisanal that it came with the cork held securely in place by a carefully hand-tied "muzzle" fashioned from a length of twine.

Just to keep things honest, I also purchased a nostalgic memento of the '70s, a fresh bottle of Cella Lambrusco (remember the old "Chill a Cella" ad campaigns?) At a laughable $4.99, there wasn't much to lose; and somewhat to my surprise I noted that - along with the inviting "Soft Red Wine" and "Served Chilled" on the English-language labels, the more serious bits have evolved over time to reflect the wine's adherence to Italian wine law: It's not merely a "Lambrusco" but "Lambrusco Emilia Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT)."

Another of my offbeat theories is that Lambrusco makes an exceptional, if unexpected, match with fiery hot-and-spicy dishes because its bubbly nature and slight sweetness make it work more like beer than wine to quench the flames. So just to make things more interesting, I fashioned a bowl of Kung Pao chicken, kicked up to four-chile-pepper heat with a piquant blend of Sichuan hot bean paste, dried red-pepper flakes and hot red chile peppers, to go along with the wines.

The results were at least a little paradigm-shaking. The Ceci was tasty but atypical, quite fizzy, intensely fruity, but bone-dry, acidic and tannic, and almost up to the strength of standard table wines at 11 percent alcohol. A good red wine with a fizz, it reminded me a bit of some of the better Australian sparkling Shirazes I've tried. The Cella, meanwhile, was perhaps more of a surprise. Yes, it was sweetish, with a slight prickly fizz. But it was clean and fresh and flavorful, a surprisingly appealing quaff, and that edge of sweetness made it perhaps the better of the two when sipped with the fiery Chinese food.

There it is. Now, after all the millions of words I've penned on topics vinous and culinary, I guess I'll earn a footnote in history as the wine writer who praised Cella Lambrusco. I suppose one of these days I'll give the Portuguese sparkling roses another try ...

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