Welcome to Shelf Stars, The Growler’s cheap wine column in which we discover the best under-$15 bottles in town. This edition of Shelf Stars is brought to you with underwriting support from Central Avenue Liquors.
The height of popularity for lambrusco in the United States coincided roughly with that of the Pet Rock and feathered hair. It was a time when sweet wines like Mateus, Lancer, and Blue Nun were all the rage, and lambrusco, the sticky-sweet, fizzy red from Italy, was right at home in their ranks.
Since then, serious oenophiles have moved their attention for sparkling wine to bone-dry Crémants and funky Pét-Nats. Until recently, I’ve always thought of lambrusco in the same category as bulk “Chianti” that comes packaged in those straw-covered carafes. That category: only acceptable for making a wapatuli.
But I’m all about having my biases challenged, especially when it comes to categories of food and drink I’ve long ignored because of some bad experiences in the past. Were those wapatulis bad experiences? It’s hard to say—probably depends on whether we were playing Ohio State or Rutgers.
As I scan the Italian aisle at the wine store for things like good Toscana Rosso, I’ve been intrigued by these two sister lambruscos I’ve seen next to each other, shouting from the shelves with their bold lettering and simple labels. For one reason, they’re imported by Libation Project, a local firm that excels with their sparkling portfolio. For another, I’ve started to see more and more stores around town add them to their lineup.
They’re made by Cantina di Carpi e Sorbara, a 100-year-old cooperative winery in the province of Modena that specializes in Lambrusco. The Piazza Grande Spumante Rosato ($12) is the color of rose petals in October, smells like candy, and tastes like the filling of a cherry pie in a sip of superfine bubbles. It tastes like young love: generous, bubbly, goofy, a little saccharine, but heartfelt and endearing. It’s labeled as “brut” but the red fruit flavor tricks your palate into thinking it’s a little sweeter than “brut” Champagne. I still wouldn’t call it sweet, but it’s definitely off-dry.
The Via Emilia Lambrusco Bianco ($12) is a white grape version that has the same superfine fizz that comes from the Charmat method of making sparkling wine (the wine undergoes a second fermentation in a pressurized tank, trapping the carbonation. Most prosecco is made the same way.) It has lovely honeycomb and white peach flavors on a sip that tastes like Moscato d’Asti in a tweed jacket. An absolute crowd-pleaser.
Lambrusco, it’s worth noting, comes from one of the (admittedly many) culinary capitals of Italy. The Emilia-Romagna region is also home to the best prosciutto, pancetta, and the true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. These are two bottles that would be a no-brainer for a Sunday afternoon with a tray of snacks.
For those that like: Moscato d’asti, riesling, Hawaiian Punch
ABV: Usually an afternoon-friendly amount around 11–12%.
Price Range: $12–15
Find it: In the Italy aisle, or the sparkling wine section, in both cases near the Moscato.
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