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More Than a Wine, Lambrusco Is a Cultural Phenomenon

Here's why Italians revere this fizzy red

Jacopo Mazzeo By December 10, 2021
Foliage on the hills in Castelvetro di Modena
Foliage on the hills in Castelvetro di Modena (Italy), the capital of Lambrusco Grasparossa Vineyard. Photograph by nimu1956/iStock.

It’s one of the world’s best-selling wines. 

It has been recommended by the likes of Cato, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder. 

For centuries, it has played a pivotal role in the lives of the people of Emilia-Romagna and the key urban centers — Modena, Parma, and Reggio Emilia — who consume it as an everyday drink, but also revere it.

And yet, Lambrusco’s vast cultural significance seems as concealed as light in a glass of inky-black Grasparossa, one of the most common Lambrusco varieties.

A sparkling red wine, it’s made from a family of grapes, of which 13 come from the Emilia-Romagna region. In the 1970s, the Italians sent oceans of a sweet version to the U.S. market, which eventually dented its reputation. But in the past 15 or so years, higher quality, drier versions have reached the market, helping to rehabilitate its international reputation. At home in Italy, however, Lambrusco has always been a cultural touchstone.

“Lambrusco has always been part of our cultural substrate,” says Angela Giacobazzi of Donelli Vini in Emilia-Romagna. “We all grew up surrounded by it. I’ve been breathing Lambrusco’s scent since I was a little girl. It stuck with me throughout all my life.”

A wine of identity

More than other world-renowned products of Emilian craft, be they cheese, ham, balsamic vinegar, or fast cars, Lambrusco defines its people’s identity. It’s regularly cited as a key life ingredient and an inspiration to writers, musicians, athletes, and entrepreneurs.

Originally from Tuscany, revered Italian poet — first Italian Nobel Prize in literature — Giosuè Carducci moved to Emilia-Romagna to teach literature at the University of Bologna. 

He would often travel to Modena’s Osteria di Grosoli to enjoy Lambrusco and his passion for it infused his writing. In an 1884 letter to a friend, he says, “You might not know, lady Countess [Lovatelli], that for God’s will, Lambrusco’s very own purpose is to accompany pork meat. And I, accordingly, stopped in Modena for quite a while to contemplate this wisdom.”

Indeed, Lambrusco’s cultural weight emerges strongly in Emilian music, where it unveils multiple, overlapping layers of Emilian society.

In the work of Luciano Ligabue, an Emilian and one of Italy’s most popular rock musicians, Lambrusco served to describe the evolution of post-war Emilia, from rural, provincial society, to a more modern one, and one increasingly welcoming of American influences, from rock music to blockbuster films. The lead track of Ligabue’s seminal 1991 album “Lambrusco, Knives, Rose & Pop Corn,” speaks of the musician’s fascination with both American rock and his homeland, showing how treasured local traditions were by then inexorably intertwined with global trends.

Meanwhile, for local folk band Brigata Lambrusco, Emilia’s favorite wine speaks of its people’s post-war history of political activism. “Lambrusco reflects our cultural identity,” says bassist Matteo Davoli. “To come up with our band’s name, we took inspiration from ‘Brigata Garibaldi’, which is a traditional song from the WWII Italian Resistance, and paired it up with Lambrusco, which contextualizes it within Emilia’s society.”

The more jovial, blithe, and facetious elements of Emilian culture emerge in comedy rock band Lambrusco Brothers, whose songs such as “Amami Per la Merda che Sono,” love me though I’m a jerk, and “Mai ali per noi,” a pun on the words pigs/wings, season everyday life themes with Emilia’s signature irreverence.

In “SuperPacca,” whose video was aptly filmed in a winery, the band refers to Lambrusco’s anthocyanins — pigments with antioxidant properties — as one of their superpowers. “We filmed it at Bertolani, which makes fantastic Lambruscos,” says band co-founder Armando Bolivar. “It’s amazing to perform surrounded by that inebriating scent.” The first time the band’s members met they “all immediately agreed on incorporating Lambrusco into [their] name… Whenever we meet, we chug at least two bottles each, so we had to find a music studio with a nearby glass recycling center,” jokes Bolivar.

From poetry to sport and from political activism to love songs, Lambrusco permeates all aspects of Emilian life, defining its people, their culture, and their identity.

Also a high-end wine

While widely featured in popular culture, Lambrusco appears in more sophisticated environments, too. Legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti could be described as Lambrusco’s first — so far only — global brand ambassador. “As a real Modenese, he’s always had a visceral passion for Lambrusco, especially the local Lambrusco di Sorbara,” recalls Giacobazzi, adding that local sport celebrities also found a sense of identity in Lambrusco. Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari “would visit our winery and he would have very specific requests. He would sample numerous wines then create his own blend, which he would use as his own personalized Christmas present or for other celebrations,” she explains.

From poetry to sport and from political activism to love songs, Lambrusco permeates all aspects of Emilian life, defining its people, their culture, and their identity.

3 Lambrusco to try:

bottle of Villa di Corlo Corleto Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro 2020

Villa di Corlo Corleto Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro 2020 ($15)

Corleto is made of the Grasparossa variety, which thrives on the hills to the south of Modena. It pours intensely dark with a fine-grained, creamy purple head. The nose is enticingly fragrant, with earthy aromas alongside notes of blueberry, strawberry, and violets. On the palate, it’s rich, dry, and fairly tannic, so it can match heavier dishes such as ragu pastas, braised red meat, or game.

bottle of Paltrinieri Radice Lambrusco di Sorbara 2020

Paltrinieri Radice Lambrusco di Sorbara 2020 ($17)

This is an elegant expression of the Lambrusco di Sorbara grape, a light-colored variety that tends to make crisp, fresh, and light-bodied wines. Paltrinieri’s Radice is an ancestral-method Lambrusco, meaning it’s refermented inside the bottle. It has a salmon color and zesty pink grapefruit aromas alongside orange blossom, rose petals, pomegranate, and red apple. The palate is bright and vibrant. Great as an aperitif or to accompany raw fish.

bottle of Medici Ermete Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano 2020

Medici Ermete Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano 2020 ($22)

Made of the Lambrusco Salamino variety, this is a deep-ruby, savory expression of the Lambrusco family. It’s got a cherry quality to it that can appeal to Pinot Noir drinkers, but the palate shows liquorice, damson fruit, cranberry, and pomegranate notes, too. Its high acidity and flavor concentration make it a good partner for charcuterie and fresh cheeses — as it’s traditionally paired in Emilia — but can also accompany light pasta dishes, poultry, or grilled veggies.