Warm weather means it’s time to break out the bubbles for many of us — from spritzes to sparkling rosés and pét-nats to Proseccos. Such light, refreshing sparklers often pair beautifully with summer staples like sunny brunches, barbecues, picnics, and late-night sunsets. While these bubbly options are delicious, why not consider opening a bottle of Italian Lambrusco this summer? World Lambrusco Day is June 21, and it’s the perfect excuse to turn to Cleto Chiarli and let this winery help you explore your new favorite sparkler from Northern Italy.
Until this century, much of the Lambrusco available in the U.S. consisted of generally semi-sweet, industrial blends of several varietals for stability (regulations allow up to 15 percent of a blend to be made from other regional grapes). That was pretty much how Americans experienced and understood Lambrusco wines for decades.
“But Lambrusco is a big category,” explains Tommaso Chiarli, the export manager and fifth generation in his family involved in producing Lambrusco wines under the Chiarli name. Red, dark pink, light pink, sweet, semi-sweet, dry — there’s a version of Lambrusco for almost everyone. “Of course, you have to like bubbles,” notes Chiarli with a smile. “And you need to appreciate the freshness and fruitiness.” Because these wines aren’t barrel aged, all the flavor, structure, and complexity must be drawn from the grapes themselves. And the Chiarlis have spent decades perfecting this art.
What is Lambrusco?
- Lambrusco encompasses a wide range of frizzante wines crafted from the red Lambrusco grape.
- The grape is indigenous to Italy (though it grows elsewhere) and has several clones, each of which is classified as an individual varietal (not clones as is typically the case).
- The high-acid grapes create a dry red wine when fully fermented.
- Most sparkling Lambrusco is produced through a double fermentation using the Charmat method.
- Fermented in stainless steel tanks, the first fermentation creates a still wine with skin contact. The second fermentation takes place in closed and pressurized tanks to trap the CO2.
- In Italy, Lambrusco has five DOC appellations within the Emilia-Romagna region: (Lambrusco) Grasparossa di Castelvetro, di Sorbara, di Modena, Reggiano, and di Santa Croce. Each variety and DOC terroir offers specific attributes of structure, color, sugar versus acid, and so on.
Making Fine Lambrusco
You might already know the large Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy through its elegant cities — Bologna, Modena, Parma, Ferrara — and famous foods: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, genuine balsamic vinegar from Modena, Parma Ham (Prosciutto de Parma), and Mortadella Bologna. The area (among the wealthiest regions in Europe) is also well known for its luxury vehicles, including Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati. Cleto Chiarli wines are right at home (and have been for decades) in this sophisticated region.
The Chiarli family began focusing on wine production in 1860 when restaurateur Cleto Chiarli (hence the modern brand’s name) embraced the popularity of his house wines and opened “a proper cellar and winery in the center of Modena,” according to Chiarli. “Then he saw the success of the light sparkling red wines in Northern Italy and expanded.”
Once the family began exporting wines to Europe in the late 1800s, they were regarded well enough to garner an award at the 1900 Paris World Expo. In the 1950s, the family helped introduce the Charmat method into the region, allowing for increased control of sweetness and dryness versus fermenting “in bottiglia,” where a second dosage of sugar is added for the second fermentation. These days Lambrusco winemakers are not allowed to add sugar at all and must rely on residual sugars during fermentation to control sweetness levels.
When Tommaso’s father and uncle, Anselmo and Mauro Chiarli, came on board in the 1970s, things really took off. Tommaso Chiarli notes they launched a two-pronged strategy: technological and agricultural, which involved planting the highest quality original clones of each Lambrusco varietal in their best terroirs and expanding to three estates located around Modena.
“From a technical and strategic standpoint, we had to make a completely new winery and dedicate it to the Cleto Chiarli wines,” Chiarli says. The vertical operation handles everything from its vineyards to fermentation and bottling. “That’s not so common in Lambrusco,” he says. Today, about 40 percent of the brand’s wines are exported. These days, other winemakers have followed suit. “Many [brands] were born, which is a good thing for the industry,” Chiarli says. “Our success provided examples for others.”
Lambrusco Wines in the 21st Century
As a result of decades of strategic winemaking, those of us far outside Italy can enjoy high-quality Lambruscos at the levels of freshness they should offer. “From day one, the Cleto Charli brand was built for the sole purpose of making quality Lambrusco,” says Brian Larky, the founder of Dalla Terra Winery Direct, who has imported Cleto Chiarli to the U.S. since 2012. “All their fruit is estate-grown and is the best selection. Their research into, and use of, a single fermentation process ensures the wine maintains fruit and freshness.”
The traditional Charmat method involves fermenting an entire harvest at once, then conducting a second fermentation in bulk to incorporate the bubbles. For most Chiarli wines, on the other hand, grapes are crushed, and skin contact is controlled in a cold maceration process. The unfermented must (essentially grape juice) is then filtered and preserved long-term in cold storage so it doesn’t turn into wine. The winery then uses only what’s needed at any given time to produce a batch of finished sparkling wine through an innovative single-fermentation process.
The goal is to remain as “hands off” as possible during the process. The result is a lower alcohol (generally 8 to13 percent) pink to red frizzante wine ideal for savoring chilled, with food, or on its own. Most importantly, this process preserves the freshness of the wine. “This is something we stress, and it really helps create a super-fresh product from the start,” Chiarli says.
The Best Ways to Pair (and Enjoy!) Lambrusco
The most important takeaway is that Lambrusco is meant to be enjoyed now, among good friends and in joyous atmospheres. It’s an endlessly versatile sparkling wine that pairs magnificently with food.
“The fact there are both dry and sweet styles expands the range of foods you can enjoy it with,” says Larky. Chiarli adds that while Lambruscos pairs with diverse cuisines and appetizers, “it’s a really great pizza wine. Everyone eats pizza.”
Of course, you’ll want to sample a few different styles. Thankfully, these wines won’t break the bank and could make for a pleasant evening at your local wine bar or restaurant.
If you’d like to try Lambrusco, these bottles are a great place to start.
“Vecchia Modena Premium” Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC: This is the flagship label for Cleto Chiarli and will appeal to fans of rosés and Prosecco. Made from 100 percent Lambrusco di Sorbara, it displays a lovely pink hue and fine froth. On the palate, you’ll find refreshing notes of tart raspberry, hints of orange peel, and a dry, balanced finish, making it an ideal pairing for a wide range of foods. Try it with Thai noodle dishes and dumplings for a nice surprise.
“Lambrusco del Fondatore” Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC: This wine is made in the method ancestral tradition, fermented “in bottiglia” rather than using the tank method. Produced entirely from the Sorbara varietal, it is a bright and fruit-driven reimagining of the original house wine served at Cleto Chiarli’s 19th-century restaurant. A dry sparkler, it is bright, acidic, refreshing, and perfect with sausage pizza, barbecue, or duck confit.
“Vigneto Cialdini” Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC: A dry, very lightly sparkling dark red wine that highlights the character of the Grasparossa grape. Though the bubbles are very fine, pouring creates a dramatic “foam,” which contributes to the wine’s fresh character. Notes of blackberry, tart blueberry, and wet forest soil create a well-structured red sparkling wine. We’re going to enjoy it all summer long with barbecue ribs and pulled pork.
“Centenario” Lambrusco di Modena DOC Amabile: The Charmat method captures effervescence, resulting in an intensely red, sweeter style of Lambrusco bursting with bubbles. The Grasparossa grape’s high natural acidity helps curb the sugar content, making this a go-to for picnics in the park.
Since World Lambrusco Day is right around the corner, we recommend heading to your favorite store and picking up a few bottles to share with family and friends — you’ll be in for a sparkling good time. Check out this list of retail and restaurant locations around the U.S. you can taste Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco today!
This article is sponsored by Cleto Chiarli.