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Lambrusco with a Grain of Sugar

Sometimes we writers let our biases get in the way of our objectivity.

For example, in the high-alcohol frenzy that is now sweeping the U.S., some people check the label before they taste the wine.  If it’s over 14% or 15% alcohol, they reject it as being flawed, no matter how balanced and delicious it is, no matter whether they could have noticed any heat in they had tasted the wine blind. Similarly, we may expect natural wines to be “funky,” rather than tasting them first and judging after.

In my own case, I’m not partial to very aromatic or sweeter wines with my food.  But I should be able to understand – and I seriously try to – how other people like the fruitiness or sweetness as a balance to their meals.  And I certainly enjoy well-make aromatic and/or sweeter wines as aperitifs or stand-alone drinks.

This came to mind earlier this week when I was interviewing the folks at Banfi on Long Island for an article for another publication.  In the course of the day, we talked in detail about the marvelous wines being made and the pioneering clonal work being done with Sangiovese at their Castello Banfi estate in Montalcino.  We also discussed the history and evolution of Banfi as a family-based (the Marianis) importing and wine-producing company.

During this review, we went over the role of their Riunite Lambrusco in raising the fortunes of Banfi so that Castello Banfi and other projects could be financed in the first place, as well as the role Riunite might have had in the development of the wine-drinking public in America.  In 1985, it sold almost 12 million cases and is still the #4 wine import.

Apropos all this is an awakening of both regular wine drinkers and fanatics to lighter, fruitier, fizzier and sometimes sweeter wines such as Moscatos and, to a lesser extent, Lambruscos.  This was further evidenced by Eric Asimov’s column on dry Lambuscos in that morning’s New York Times, which I read on the train back home to Pennsylvania.  Asimov did not mention Riunite, but he did take pains to say that the Lambruscos he was writing about were not “the candied, fizzy wine that sold so many million cases annually,” but “real Lambruscos” or “genuine Lambruscos.”

Asimov is one of the more-thoughtful writers around, but, in this case, I’m not sure what, or where, he’s been drinking. When I visit Emilia-Romagna and other wine regions of northern Italy, it is quite common to meet with respectable winegrowers who make both sweet and dry versions of Lambrusco, Moscato and other aromatic wines, as well as ones with various levels of fizz.  These are “real wines” that have been consumed by “real people” at their “real meals” for a really long time.

During a visit to Dozza two years ago, I had lunch with Gian Alfonso Roda of Enoteca Regionale Emilia-Romagna, and he explained the different religious and cultural influences of Romagna which led it to drink a lot of Sangiovese, while Emilia culturally evolved into drinking generally sweeter, fizzier Lambrusco.  “In Emilia,” Roda concluded, “the culture is food first, so the wine has to pair with more fat and more pork, which means more sparkling wine to cut through the fat.”  During lunch, we drank both wines according to what food we were being served.

Like many people of my generation, I didn’t grow up drinking wine with meals at home.  My introduction to wines was with the sweeter, yet decently made Portuguese rosés (which I revisited recently during tastings in Lisbon).  Amazingly, I had never tried Riunite, so I bought a bottle the next day.

I had expected it to be an “OK” wine once I chilled it (as I do most sweeter, fruitier, fizzier wines), but I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it.  It was sweet, yes, but it was clean with good acidity, touches of earthiness and bitters but with no sticky aftertaste that poorly made sweeter wines tend to have.  I had poured a tasting amount, but it was so refreshing that I had some more.

Would I take it to the table?  In almost all cases, no.  Would I drink it if served at a reception with appetizers?  Certainly, and I would go back for seconds.  Would I buy it again? Probably not, but then I buy few wines these days because of the dozens of samples I have to taste.  Would I serve it to friends without a wink and a smirk?  Sure, if the circumstances were right. Would I prefer one of the drier Lambruscos that Asimov recommends?  Generally, yes – but not always.

I have no special ties with Banfi – it’s a long haul across Manhattan, through the tunnel, speeding forever down the Long Island Expressway at 5 mph to see them – but they are right on two aspects.  One, Riunite is a well-made wine, whether or not it’s your current preference.  Two, a lot of people who are drinking Banfi’s very-expensive Brunellos today started with Riunite. America learned to be a nation of wine drinkers on white Zinfandels, Riunite and Mateus.  Some were poorly made, others weren’t.  And while even the good ones weren’t complex or sophisticated or worth spending a lot of time analyzing with a note pad, they were OK places to start, and they are occasionally OK places to revisit.

We wine writers are a lot like fine Champagne – we often need a dollop of sweetness to balance our natural acidity.

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