Riunite Isn’t That Nice . . . But Lambrusco Is

Yesterday was World Lambrusco Day. Honestly, there are so many of these “drinking holidays”, most of the time I learn about them by social media happenstance. But, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a complete list of drinking holidays for 2020 (did you know there’s a Hot Buttered Rum Day in January??), and actually planned ahead for the ones I care about. Because the world needs more good Lambrusco.  There’s so much more to this grape than Riunite on Ice!  

Regrettably, in the 1970s and 80s, Lambrusco became synonymous with Riunite, the semi-sparkling, made-for-the-American-palate, sweet wine from the Emilia Romanga region of northern Italy. Riunite was the White Claw of the day — it was the best selling import wine in the US for nearly 40 years. Since 1967, over 160 million cases (that’s almost two billion bottles) of Riunite have been sold in the US.

You’ll recall the jingle — Riunite on Ice! Riunite’s so nice! Riunite, Riunite, Riunite! Earworm warning — once you hit play, this tune is going to be in your head all day.

I bought a bottle of Riunite, for reference (at less than $6, it wasn’t a huge investment). Riunite is made from a blend of several different Lambrusco grape varieties, and it’s pretty sweet stuff at 50 g/L of residual sugar. There’s an oddness to it that’s hard to pin down. It tastes a lot like sweet, beer flavored wine. I let my college kids taste it thinking, hey they’re young, they like sweet stuff, and the response wasn’t a ringing endorsement: “Is this actually wine?” And, “I would prefer a blue gatorade.”

Traditionally, Lambrusco is a dry wine, made in the frizzante (slightly fizzy) style, using the traditional method. But today, most of its made using the Charmat, or tank method. Just to make things extra complicated, there are over 60 related varieties of Lambrusco. Most Lambrusco wines are blends, but you can find single varietal wines. The most common Lambrusco varieties are Lambrusco Salamino (the most widely planted), Lambrusco Grasparossa, and Lambrusco di Sorbara.

The total production of Lambrusco hovers somewhere around 165 million bottles, most of it not labeled under DOC rules, but as IGT Emilia wines. Efforts are underway to increase the quality of Lambrusco. As such, the second fermentation for IGT Emilia wines must now take place within the boundaries Emilia. For higher quality Lambrusco, there are several DOC appellations:

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC:  Widely regarded as the best Lambrusco DOC. These wines are usually fuller bodied, more tannic, and have a deeper purple color. 
  • Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC: Based on the Lambrusco di Sorbara variety, the wines are pale (rosé like) in color, with lively acidity and fresh red fruit flavors.
  • Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC: the most widely planted variety of Lambrusco. These wines are lighter in color, fruity, with medium tannins.

Lambrusco is the perfect foil for Emilia’s hearty foods (salami, prosciutto, parmesan cheese, bread dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil). And with most Lambrusco coming in under $20, a real bargain in Italian wine. My daughter has a real future in charcuterie tray making (just look at that work of food art!!), so we decided to sit down and celebrate World Lambrusco Day . . . absolute perfection.

2018 Paltrinieri Lambrusco di Sorbara Leclisse
Cantina Paltrinieri has been making Lambrusco for four generations. The Leclisse is 100% Lambrusco di Sorbara. Pale pink in color, with flavors of fresh strawberry, raspberry, and rhubarb. The frizzante provides a beautiful texture to the wine that doesn’t overwhelm the delicate flavors. Energetic acidity. I could drink the whole bottle. I won’t, but I could. 11.5% ABV. Retail = $17.

Unfortunately, most Lambrusco exported to the US (think Riunite) is medium-sweet or sweet. Outside of Italy, good, traditional Lambrusco is a bit of a niche wine, and it can be a challenge to find. I ordered the Paltrinieri from Macarthur Beverages in DC. But you can find plenty on Wine Searcher.

Salud!

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