Once the sweet purple plonk of choice for yesteryear teens, Lambrusco has come of age, writes Max Allen.
The word "Lambrusco" might make you shudder. And that's okay: for many, the name conjures queasy memories of a sweet, fizzy, purple plonk they got pissed on as a teenager. Well, cast all preconceptions from your mind, because Lambrusco is super-hot right now. No, seriously, it is. And the wines leading today's Lambrusco revolution - both the real thing from Italy, as well as local Australian examples - are far more delicious, more complex and, importantly, much drier than the cheap, sweet pretenders of yesteryear.
A few adventurous specialist Italian wine importers are shipping a range of excellent, food-craving Lambrusco from their homeland of Emilia-Romagna. Some of Australia's best Italian restaurateurs are giving these wines pride of place on their lists. Lambrusco grapevines are maturing in a few Australian vineyards and the first wines are running off bottling lines. There's even a global Twitter campaign to resuscitate the drink's reputation; check out @LambruscoDay or the hashtag #LambruscoRevolution.
Piero Tantini of Sydney-based importer Godot Wines grew up in Bologna, the heart of Emilia-Romagna. Tantini says that for him and his friends and family, Lambrusco was as indispensable to everyday life as salumi and balsamic vinegar (another regional specialty). It turns out that the wines he loved most growing up are also the ones that are most popular here, in Italian hotspots such as 10 William St and 121BC in Sydney, as well as Guy Grossi's Ombra and Rosa's Kitchen in Melbourne.
"What's most successful are the wines with a lighter, crisper style," Tantini says. "The Australian concept of Lambrusco implies a dark, rich wine with residual sugar, so our wines have a surprise effect."
Taste the remarkable, naturally fermented, slightly cloudy, pale-pink Lambrusco from Paltrinieri (preferably with a plate of house-cured salumi at Ombra) and you'll see what Tantini means: these are tangy, bone-dry wines with exactly the kind of refreshing acidity you need to cut through the silky fat of the meat.
Grossi Group sommelier Mark Protheroe describes it as "balsamic-like", saying it's no coincidence that the wine and vinegar come from the same region. "Lambrusco has been a big feature of Ombra since we opened 14 months ago," he says. "The wines that we put on by the glass and bottle [five on the list at the time of writing] have sold really well and we've had great feedback. A lot of people who are getting into it are in their 20s and early 30s, but they still have bad memories of bad Lambrusco. They're pleasantly surprised to find how good these new, drier wines are."
In Emilia-Romagna, six main varieties of Lambrusco grape are cultivated, each producing wine with slightly different characteristics. In the late 1990s the viticulturally pioneering Chalmers family of Mildura imported cuttings of Lambrusco Maestri, one of the darkest-coloured, most flavoursome types.
In 2005 local winery Trentham Estate produced an impressive dry red wine from Maestri grapes - deep purple, saturated with black berry fruit. And then, in 2012, Chalmers produced its first commercial sparkling red Lambrusco - stylishly dry, full of black cherry flavour and bottle-fermented, like Champagne. The very worthy 2013 vintage has just been released.
"We're aiming for a dry, elegant, apéritif-style structure in the mouth," says Kim Chalmers. "We don't want it to taste rich and ripe and soft, like a classic Aussie sparkling shiraz. And it's great fun marketing it: they come at it expecting it to be sweet and heavy, but then they try it and it's so refreshing and they love it."
The Chalmers aren't the only ones producing local sparkling Lambrusco now. Trentham makes a sweeter fizzy version and in 2013 Victorian winemakers William Downie and Patrick Sullivan made a naturally fermented version called Pat and Bill's - PaB for short. "We heard about all these crazy grapes the Chalmers had in their Mildura vineyard," says Sullivan, "and we thought, well, what could be more daggy than Lambrusco? So we had a crack at making it: no yeasts, no additions, finish ferment in bottle. We sold out in half a day and had guys from Japan trying to buy four times as much as we made."
And, yes, the PaB logo is indeed an homage to a certain classic soft drink. Which might bring back a few more '70s memories.