As the ancient story goes, Lambrusco migrated from the Apennine Mountains to the fields of Emilia-Romagna in Northeast Italy, where it took root primarily in three provinces: Modena, Parma, and Reggio nell’Emilia. Its name—which applies to both the grape and the wine—is derived from the Latin word for wild grape, labruscam; and while it shares a linguistic heritage with the North American Vitis labrusca species of grapes (of which the most commonly known is the Concord grape), Lambrusco is an unrelated European Vitis vinifera varietal. Lambrusco’s winemaking lineage dates back to the Etruscans, and the fruity, young frizzante red wine it yields has remained popular in parts of the Old World since the heyday of the Roman Empire.
Lambrusco’s history in the New World, however, is far more brief and star-crossed. For all intents and purposes, it began in the 1970s with Riunite, a cloyingly sweet sparkling red of dubious distinction that was all most anyone in the United States knew of Lambrusco. It quickly became the No. 1 imported wine in America, thanks in large part to a ubiquitous commercial campaign that featured one of the most impossible-to-get-out-of-your-head slogans ever jingled. The promise was simple: Riunite, served “on ice,” was “so nice.” But the phenomenon was thankfully short-lived, and by the early 1980s Riunite had gone the way of disco and shag carpeting—unfortunately taking the entire Lambrusco category down along with it.
As is often the case with spectacular falls from grace, however, a comeback was inevitable. Today, aficionados are rediscovering a much less commercial and much drier Lambrusco, produced by high-quality artisanal winemakers. Here are five of the finest bottles available.