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Beyond Lambrusco: Inside the Elusive World of Sparkling Red Wines

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10 fizzy wines to drink before summer’s end

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Lambrusco. For those seeking a red wine with extra texture, this somewhat misunderstood bubbly likely springs to mind. But Lambrusco, a traditional northern Italian mainstay, is far from the only sparkling red option. Other classic examples abound — Portugal’s refreshingly bitter fizzy wines made from the indigenous baga grape, northeastern Italy’s fruity-fresh take based on the cherry-like brachetto, and Australia’s robust sparkling shiraz. That's not to mention the variety of styles and grapes encompassed by Lambrusco itself — along with the occasional U.S.-produced bottle. Surprised? Welcome to the bona fide, if sometime elusive, world of pigmented and fizzy wines.

Lambrusco is far from the only sparkling red option: Welcome to the bona fide, if sometimes elusive, world of pigmented and fizzy wines.

Believe it or not, dark-skinned grapes already play a role in the world’s most famous sparkling wine — but they remain largely unseeable. Of Champagne’s dominant three varieties, black-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier offer aromatics that their yellow-hued partner, chardonnay, does not. But, with the exception of rosé Champagne, the two pinot grapes do not grant these wines their color: The skins, which contain pigment along with tannins and preserving antioxidants, are not allowed color-transferring contact with the golden juice once the grapes are crushed.

Enter fizzy wines made the red-wine way, in which skins and juice enjoy prolonged contact, or maceration. These resulting bubbly reds are a global bunch. Most of these sparkling red bottles top out around $20 and are made for drinking young, but occasional aged examples exist too (at premium prices), most notably by way of Australia. And like their paler counterparts, sparkling red wines should be served chilled when sipped meal-side, or on their own.

Here are 10 refreshing and meaty wines for stretching these fading days of summer into the first warm days of fall:

Lambrusco Vineyards, in Modena Province.
Lambrusco Vineyards, in Modena Province.
Photo: Marka/UIG via Getty Images

LAMBRUSCO

Frothy and the color of Italian prune, or Empress, plums, Northern Italy’s Lambrusco — the name of the grapes from which it’s made, as well — is a frizzante, or lightly sparkling, wine that’s probably the most recognized of sparkling reds, if also the most misunderstood. It’s produced primarily in Northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, where municipalities like Parma and Modena are celebrated for wonders like balsamic vinegar, densely flavored Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and chef Massimo Bottura of the world’s best restaurant, Osteria Francescana.

Lambrusco has the reputation of being a simple, slightly sweet wine. But more complex — and dry — bottles exist, and are the "truer" version, with deep savory aromas that match the region’s other culinary achievements.

Lambrusco often gets a bad rap, but contrary to popular belief, these wines are pleasantly dark, grippy, bitter, and fragrant.

As for the lambrusco grape itself, there are almost a dozen variants grown in Emilia-Romagna, each with its own unique personality. The top five combinations of grape and soil are granted their own DOP, a quality-indicating appellation.

The biggest-bodied, and often best-regarded, of those DOPs is Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, wine from the Castelvetro viticultural zone in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, stretching north-to-south down the length of the Italian peninsula. In those mountains’ northern reaches, sandy, limestone-y soils are a heavenly match for the red-stemmed grasparossa — a slow-growing, early ripening lambrusco variety. The resulting wines are among the most complex and, at retail prices that can reach $20, also the most expensive of their ilk. They’re dark, grippy, bitter, and fragrant — characteristics further heightened when accompanied by the region’s chestnut-based desserts.

DRINK THIS:
Producer: Fattoria Moretto
Wine: DOC Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, NV
Retail: $20
In his version for Emilia-Romagna's Fattoria Moretto winery, one of serious Lambrusco’s best ambassadors, winemaker Fausto Altariva takes grapes grown organically in slightly heavier silt and clay soils, then crafts his soft-textured sparkling reds bone-dry. Fresh and earthy, this wine is an intriguing mix of tangy red cherries and roasted red pepper flavors, with dusty clay-like aromas.

Brachetto vineyards.
Brachetto vineyards.
Photo: riposamilanima/Flickr

ITALY’S BRACHETTO

Brachetto d’Acqui, made of the native brachetto grape in Piedmont — where Italy’s crown jewel nebbiolo reigns supreme in aromatically earthy and fiercely tannic wines — is a loud, fresh contrast to that more-famous regional prize. The brachetto grape is particularly fond of the clay soils in the city of Acqui, in Piedmont’s Asti province: Once vinified, it makes gently red, lightly sweet wines with low alcohol and floral-tinged strawberry aromas. It's been made regionally since Roman times, when the wine was known simply as "vinum acquense."

DRINK THIS:
Producer: Rovero
Wine: Piemonte Brachetto DOC, NV
Retail: $19
In the hands of Piedmont producer Rovero, whose sustainable land and cellar practices have earned it two bicchieri — or wine glasses (in place of stars) of the possible three bicchieri in the esteemed Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso — brachetto is fresh and young, the color of candy apples with lots of bubbles and acidity. Expect bright strawberry, raspberry, and red currant flavors, and a touch of sweetness for easy, tasty drinking.


ITALY’S OTHER REGIONAL STYLES

Italy is home to a vast array of native grapes, producing an impressive number of sparkling red wines — ranging from dry to those offering a touch of sweetness. Also in Lambrusco’s Emilia-Romagna region, Cà de Noci winery, founded in 1993 by brothers Giovanni and Alberto Masini (who also run a walnut farm), makes a Lambrusco blend (a mix of grasparossa and di Montericco lambrusco grapes with the black-skinned sgavetta) under their "Sottobosco" label.

The brothers extend their sparkling red production skills to their "Tre Dame" bottle, too, which recasts the rare sgavetta — known for color and high quality — alongside another regional rarity: the tiny, seedless, and sugars-rich termarina grape.

DRINK THIS:
Producer: Cà de Noci
Wine: Emilia Rosso IGT Tre Dame, 2013
Retail: $17
Tart, fizzy, and dry, this bubbly from Emilia-Romagna has sour raspberry and cherry flavors, damp violet aromas, and a lingering funky, earthy presence.

Grapes on the vine in Portugal.
Photo: inacio pires/Shutterstock

PORTUGAL’S TINTOS ESPUMANTES

Portugal offers up its own bubbly red tradition, too. Though not many make it out of Europe, here are the northern, spritz-y Vinho Verdes tintos (or, reds). For a stronger stream of bubbles, head south to Bairrada, Portugal’s sparkling wine region, where the native baga grape takes up 90 percent of all red-grape vineyards, and is, for the most part, destined for large-productions bubbly wines — most notably sweet, simple, runaway export hit Mateus, a sparkling rosé.

But local taste dictates another style that takes advantage of baga’s big tannins and high acid: deeply red-black, dense-textured dry wines that express the grape’s true character in vinhos tintos espumantes — literally, sparkling red wines.

DRINK THIS: 
Producer: Caves Aliança
Wine: Tinto Bruto Reserva, Baga, NV
Retail: $14
While few Portuguese sparkling reds are on U.S. shop shelves, look for Bairrada producer Aliança, whose tinto espumante is baga-based and made bubbly by a second fermentation in bottle, the Champagne way. Featuring the vinhão grape, skins and all, it provides a funky, tart mix of plums, cherries, and thyme.

Producer: Luis Pato
Wine: Baga Espumante, NV
Retail: $18
This sparkling baga rosé, made by pioneering Bairrada winery Luis Pato, is a lighter version of the above Caves Aliança tinto.

Producer: Casa de Sarmento
Wine: Vinho Espumante, Tinto, NV
Retail: $11
This notably typical take from Casa de Sarmento is available by way of international shipping from Bairrada. Rustic and invigorating, this wine is dense and refreshingly bitter with dusty blackberry and black plum flavors, tingly acidity, and soft persistent bubbles.

Producer: Casal do Paço Padreiro
Wine: Aphros Wine, Vinhão, 2013
Retail: $16
Fermented with native yeasts, this softly fizzy, deep red wine from the Vinho Verde region has juicy plum and herbal flavors rounded out by a stony minerality, for a complex glassful that’s both earthy and bright.

Photo: Courtesy Skurnik Wines

AUSTRALIAN SPARKLING SHIRAZ

Across the planet in Australia, inky sparkling shiraz is a hometown point of pride. Shiraz, many new-world vineyards’ version of France’s syrah grape, reaches new heights in alcohol, tannins, and ripe fruit flavors here for brawny bottles celebrated around the world. As irrepressible wine writer Oz Clarke notes in Grapes and Wines, these wines are "attracting a small but devoted following abroad."

DRINK THIS:
Producer: The Chook
Wine: Sparkling shiraz, 2014
Retail: $19
Not enough of these wines arrive stateside, but among those that do, look for the fresh, fruity the Chook (a blend of older and younger vintages, all made in the classic Champagne method). With fresh red and black plum jam flavors and licorice notes, this deep red — from McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek, Australia — has both ripe tannins and noticeable sweetness, balanced by strong acidity and soft bubbles.

Producer: Paringa
Wine: Sparkling shiraz, 2013
Retail: $15
The simpler, riper-fruit Paringa from Riverland tastes of berry jams and dusty spices along with milk chocolate and menthol notes, all supported by sweetness and plenty of bubbles.


CALIFORNIA

For an unusual stateside version, one California producer was inspired by Australia's most serious sparkling shiraz, but via a different grape. Turning to another French variety that has found a new identity in the New World, Sonoma’s Williamson Wines produced one vintage of sparkling malbec — France’s côt grape, which shows up in places like Bordeaux for blends and the Loire Valley for both varietal and blended wines — in an ode to Australian sparkling. Made the Champagne way, too, and kept completely dry, for a mix of still malbec taste invigorated by a sparkling texture.

DRINK THIS
Producer: Williamson Wines
Wine: Sparkling Malbec, 2008
From: Sonoma, CA
Retail: $125
At $125, a five-year-long production process, and the unlikelihood of being made again, this is a celebration sparkling red, a suitable replacement for that champagne. Concentrated plum and blackberry flavors, with toffee and leather notes: this aged, sparkling malbec is a dry, bubby deep red wine.

Susan Gordon earned her MFA from the New School and is currently learning too much about wine for her WSET Diploma.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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