Courtesy PhotoRiunite once fueled countless leisure-suited

Lambrusco has outgrown the discotheque

Imagine it’s 1980. Made famous by the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite that’s nice,” lambrusco is everywhere. A fizzy, sweet red wine, it accounts for three of every 10 wines exported to the U.S. While berated by critics, it is consumed en masse in Emilia, Italy, where it is largely made by cooperatives and consumed in discotheques from San Francisco to Ibiza.

If you are too young or too out of it to remember the Riunite commercials, suffice it to say that they belong in a time capsule so future societies can learn about ’70s and ’80s American kitsch. However, like so many things that come back into fashion, lambrusco is having its day, finding a home on respected wine lists from Brooklyn to Berkeley.

Has our taste changed or have the wines improved? I barely remember tasting Riunite during an episode of teenage delinquency and thinking it was not nearly as good as the rum in the liquor cabinet. There have always been some who took pains to make pretty decent lambrusco, but the number of conscientious producers today — at least of the wines that cross the ocean — is probably at an all-time high.

Given the bad rap that lambrusco had for many years, it is most important to say what it is not, or not always.

Often semisweet, it is also made into dry wines, and the sweet versions by good producers can be delicious. Many say that a dry or semidry lambrusco is the way to go with charcuterie. Sweet renditions are the best match I’ve found with chocolate mousse. While frizzante, it is not full-blown espumante, so the bubbles add texture and vibrancy without making your mouth feel like you just ate a bunch of Pop Rocks.

From the Emilia-Romagna region, the wines have no choice but to accompany some of the best food in Italy (in other words, the world). It can go through its secondary fermentation in tank or bottle, with the latter usually having more complexity. Charmat (tank) method wines are lighter and fruitier, but both methods produce lovely results.

If you are curious to see just how different the lambrusco of today is from the days of shag and disco, look for these wines:

  • Barbolini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, NV: Four generations of Barbolinis have been making lambrusco and other wines, in addition to vinegar, on this farmhouse near Modena. Dry with blackberries, plums, black and white pepper, and a hint of cocoa, this is one of the best examples of lambrusco you will find. Suggested retail: $14
  • Quarticello Lambrusco Emilia IGT Barbacane, 2011 (Lambrusco Maestri 40 percent, Lambrusco Salamino 40 percent, Malbo Gentile 20 percent): Starting with the 2013 vintage, Quarticello will be certified organic. Charmat fermented, this is lively and aromatic with blackberries, black cherries, cocoa, violets and spice. Suggested retail: $15
  • Alfredo Bertolani Granarossa Lambrusco di Reggiano, 2011: Bertolani is another old winemaking family, but they have rolled with the changes and now boast a state-of-the-art, environmentally conscious facility. Light and fragrant, it has notes of fresh raspberry, white and black pepper and floral tones. Suggested retail: $16

These wines can be found through Beltramo’s, Solano Cellars and San Francisco Wine Trading Co.

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.

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