Italian sparkling reds started to get a bad rap in the U.S. in 1970s when syrupy, single-noted lambruscos began being imported to the States. These cherry-tasting concoctions earned the less-than-desirable name: ‘Italian coca-cola’. This public relations nightmare led to widespread misrepresentation, giving red sparkling wine a negative image.
Almost 50 years later, winemakers in Italy are producing some of the most exciting sparkling reds around. In general these wines are extremely versatile and can be consumed throughout the entire meal: from appetizers to dessert. They also provide for a surprisingly delicious combination with pizza. They should be served chilled and most are produced with the Charmat Method which, like prosecco, is when the second fermentation (when the bubbles are born!) occurs in large aluminum pressurized tanks.
Today we will explore three fizzy reds worth trying and which have nothing to do with the cloying sweet sodas of the 1970s.
One of the country’s hottest lambruscos
Lambrusco has come a long way since bell-bottoms were in style. Cantine Ceci’s Otello Nero di Lambrusco “is guaranteed to change your mind about lambrusco forever and turn you into a believer”, according to wine writer Ian D’Agata. The winner of two gold medals at Vinitaly 2015, Otello Nero di Lambrusco is made from the Lambrusco Maestri variety and boasts flavors of black raspberries, roses and violets.
Typically ruby red, this lambrusco is a deep royal purple and holds the name of Shakespeare’s most famous Moor from Venice for its deep almost black color.
Otello hails from the province of Parma, located in Emilia-Romagna, the region in which the Lambrusco variety is mainly grown. However you can also find it in Trentino, Puglia, Veneto and Lombardy. Perhaps one of the oldest families of native grape varieties, there is evidence of the Etruscans domesticating these vines long before Rome was born.
Drink Otello with an antipasto platter of salamis and cheese. You will find that it also pairs beautifully with pasta e fagioli, commonly known in the States as “pasta e fazool”. The creamy beans, al dente pasta and fattiness of the bacon will prove to be the ultimate meal to serve with this purple-ish bubbly. The sharp bubbles will help to clean and refresh your palate while devouring this rich dish.
Bonarda’s dark violets
Vaiolet Bonarda Oltrepò Pavese by Monsupello is lambrusco’s darker cousin. With a light fizz and tannic touch, this wine has a snappy deep garnet red color with magenta undertones. Bearing the name “vaiolet”, this wine uses the Italian phonetic spelling for the small amethyst flower. In fact the ‘i’ is dotted with a drawing of a violet.
Produced in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Lombardy with 90% Croatina grapes, this Bonarda DOC wine shouldn’t be confused with the rare Bonarda grape. Croatina grapes are often used to soften punchy amarones from the Veneto region. On its own the Croatina grape produces high quality wines which deserve to be better known, even though the grape has been around since the Middle Ages.
For the most part the Oltrepò Pavese is a region know for its pinot nero grapes vinified with the “Méthode Champenoise”, however Bonarda gets its bubbles from the Charmat Method, like many other rosy red sparklers.
True to its name, Vaiolet’s bouquet includes violets, as well as other red fruits. However you won’t find a singular tendency for sweetness: due to it’s well-balanced tannins it goes well also with ravioli al ragù and roasted meats. Although like many red sparklers, this wine also pairs well with an appetizer course of meats and cheese.
Brachetto: One taste is enough to turn into Giovanni of the Jug
Last up is Bracchetto D’Acqui by the Braida winery in the northern region of Piedmont, best known for its Barolos and Barbarescos. Just next door to the Barolo region is the area of Acqui which produces some of the best brachetti around with an aromatic grape that grows in large conical bunches with rounded leaves. Often grown in clay, the soil helps to unleash the aromatic potential of this variety.
Braida’s excellent expression of the brachetto has a light raspberry color and is fairly low in alcohol weighing in at around 5%. With its fragrant notes of wild strawberry and roses, it can be served as an aperitivo or with a dessert course. It is especially delectable with a plum semifreddo and a pinch of cardamom. Similar to most grapes which are destined to become red fizzies, the Brachetto grape can be made as still or sparkling wines and should be served chilled.
According to popular tradition brachetto was the preferred drink of one of the most famous commedia dell’arte characters, called Gianduja or Giovanni of the Jug. The character, known as a heavy drinker, had a penchant for brachetto and possessed a personality as bubbly as the wine itself.
Run to your local or online wine retailer to check out the world of Italian rosy-red bubbly. Often at a very reasonable price point, most times less than $15, these delicious red sparklers will light up your table from appetizer to dessert course.
Elizabeth Simari teaches Italian culinary history and wine seminars at American universities across Rome. Also a sommelier, journalist and translator, she can often be found in the kitchen with a pile of Italian cookbooks and magazines, replicating traditional recipes or discovering little-known indigenous grapes at an enoteca in the Eternal City.