The great sparkling red wine of northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, Lambrusco is famous for its deep color, frothy bubbles, and juicy fruit notes— as well as its innate ability to pair exceptionally well with food of all sorts — from cheese plates to fried chicken.
But it has another trick up its sleeve: Lambrusco can create real magic in mixed drinks. A small dose of Lambrusco can add deep color, as well as refreshing carbonation and complex fruitiness. Because Lambrusco is not generally associated with cocktails, using it makes for a cocktail that is both beautiful and unexpected.
We prefer to use Otello in our cocktails, although any high-quality Lambrusco will work . Otello hails from the food-loving city of Parma — home to both Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano — and has been a standard-bearer for Lambrusco for more than 80 years. Three generations of the Ceci family have made Otello famous. You can find several Ceci family wines on menus throughout Europe’s long list of Michelin-star restaurants. It is known for its dark red appearance and its complex aromas of strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.
Here are a few basic principles to keep in mind when mixing with Lambrusco, as well as a couple of off-the-radar twists to add to your home-bartending repertoire. And while Lambrusco-based cocktails are delicious, don’t forget that the simplest way to drink Lambrusco might still be the best — enjoying it all on its own.
Embrace Your Bitter Side
Just like its Italian cousin Prosecco, Lambrusco plays well with other flavors — from the delicate to the intense. As such, it can pair exquisitely with a great Italian amaro, marrying its own fruity aromas and charismatic flavors with the liqueur’s herbal and bittersweet notes. Amaro is a digestivo, made all over Italy using various roots, spices, herbs, and botanicals to produce an aromatic liqueur. There are hundreds of different versions of amaro ranging from relatively light to quite strong in terms of both sweetness and bitterness and from 16 to 40 percent alcohol. All this variety means that the possibilities for mixing great cocktails are endless.
Kaitlyn Stewart, a cocktail consultant in Vancouver, Canada, recently posted a video on how to use Lambrusco in traditional Italian spritzes. “Lambrusco is incredibly versatile,” she says “It can be treated like a sparkling or a red wine, leaving you with a multitude of options when it comes to cocktail creations.” Her cocktail of choice? An Amaro-Lambrusco Spritz, which pairs the aromatic qualities of amaro with Lambrusco’s fruit-forward characteristics. Stewart’s favorite amaro is Montenegro, a bright, orange-inflected bottling from Bologna, but feel free to experiment.
Also try Lambrusco in a classic Aperol Spritz. You’ll get the same general bittersweet profile of the standard drink, but with a deeper fruit note and a stunning red color.
1 ounce Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro
2 ½ ounces Otello Lambrusco
Orange slice or lemon peel, as a garnish
Fill a rocks, highball or wine glass with ice. Add the amaro and Lambrusco. Stir gently to combine. Garnish with an orange slice or a lemon peel.
Select Aperitivo Lambrusco Spritz
1 ounce Select Aperitivo
1 ½ ounces soda water
1 ounce Otello Lambrusco
Grapefruit slice, to garnish
Fill a rocks, highball or wine glass with ice. Add the Aperol, soda water, and Lambrusco. Stir gently to combine. Garnish with a grapefruit slice.
When using it in cocktails, it’s good to remember that Lambrusco comes in various styles that range from light and elegant to hearty and complex, running from light pink in color to the darkest of reds. “Some come across as rich and lush, whereas others can be fairly light and aromatic,” Stewart says.
She recommends mixing Lambrusco with complementary flavors, keeping everything in balance as much as possible. “If you are using a rich, lush Lambrusco, mix it with equally rich flavors, such as bourbon and dark fruits,” says Stewart. Whereas if you are using a lighter style, the same rules apply.
Lambrusco has a wide spectrum of aromas, from dark berries like blueberries, blackberries and dark currants, to red cherries to orange peel, to violet to rhubarb. Before mixing a drink, taste your Lambrusco and try to mix it with other ingredients that will expand on those flavors.
You can highlight those aromas even further with your garnish. If you’re loving your Lambrusco’s lavender vibe, add a sprig of lavender to your drink to bring that characteristic even more to the fore.
Keep Your Mind on the Bubbles
Any cocktail with Champagne or any other sparkling wine is prime for a crimson Lambrusco interpretation. The possibilities are almost endless. Love a good Mimosa? Try a deep-red variation, with equal parts fresh blood-orange juice and chilled Lambrusco. Your experiments don’t have to stop there. The Bellini, Kir Royale, New York Sour, and Black Velvet are all ripe for Lambrusco-inspired interpretations.
Take the Otello Lambrusco Sour. This cocktail was created by Chris Chamberlain, national beverage development manager at E. & J. Gallo.
Otello Lambrusco Sour
2 ounces Otello Lambrusco
1 ½ ounces bourbon
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
¾ ounce simple syrup
Add ingredients (except Otello) into an ice-filled shaker and shake together to combine/chill. Pour into an ice-filled glass and float with Otello Lambrusco. Garnish with orange rind.
A big part of Lambrusco’s elegant charm is its fizz, which is threatened by temperature variations. To make sure you don’t lose those valuable bubbles, always store Lambrusco in the refrigerator and keep the bottle cold when in use, either by placing it in an ice bucket or by putting it back in the fridge between pours. If you don’t finish your bottle and plan to continue with it the next day, cork it with a Champagne stopper and keep it cold.
Upcycle Your Leftovers
If you do end up with a sip or two of leftover Lambrusco, don’t throw out that last little bit — even if the bubbles have faded.
Instead, make a Lambrusco syrup to use as a fruity sweetener in drinks like Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours. To make the syrup, combine equal parts Lambrusco and cane sugar in a saucepan and stir over medium heat until the sugar has completely dissolved. Keep in the fridge for up to two weeks. For something a little extra, make a spiced Lambrusco syrup by adding your choice of ginger, cloves, star anise, allspice, citrus zest, or peppercorns to the syrup. Strain before using in drinks like a New York Sour or a Tom Collins.
Leftover Lambrusco also makes a great addition to the punchbowl — adding a touch of acidity, deeper colors and richly fruity hints to a holiday sangria or a festive bowl of mulled wine.
This article is sponsored by Otello Lambrusco.