Lambrusco has both an incredible and a sad history. On one hand, this is a fascinating, long-lived grape. When you drink lambrusco, you are drinking a wine that was enjoyed by the Romans of the Roman Empire. The Romans adored Lambrusco. It was easy to grow, high yielding, and very popular. You can easily imagine Caesar sipping his goblet of Lambrusco, nibbling on cheese, and looking out over this holdings.
Over the centuries, many different types of Lambrusco came into being. This is often hard for new wine drinkers to understand. When you have a grape like “Chardonnay”, they are all genetically identical. What someone did, many centuries ago, was decide on the proper “Chardonnay” flavor – and then all vines from that point forward were literally cuttings from that one vine. They are all exact copies of that original Chardonnay vine. It is like how all Red Delicious apples are the exact same as one original ancestor Red Delicious apple.
However, with Lambrusco, that type of pinpoint managment has not gone on. Lambrusco freely pollenated in the wild with other grape types, just like dandelions and other wildflowers do. The result is a number of different Lambrusco varieties. Yes, they all taste similar, just like dandelions look similar. But they aren’t exactly the same, as most modern wine grapes are.
When the 1970s came along and people in the US were all drinking cheap sweet wine, Lambrusco became very popular. It was inexpensive and while there are dry (non-sweet) versions out there, the Italians flooded the US market with the sweeter styles since that’s what people wanted.
The “sad” part of all of this is that once wine drinkers began to expand their tastes, they automatically looked at all of those 70s style wines as “pure evil” and began making fun of them. They looked down on lambrusco as “fruity and like punch”. They laughed at all pink wines for the same reason. In these grand, sweeping judgements, they denigrated a lot of wines which really are quite delightful in certain situations.
To salvage their reputation, the Italians have lobbied hard to only allow lambrusco to be grown in Italy and for only Italian Lambrusco wines to carry “lambrusco” on their label. The problem was that other locations would grow a random cheap red grape and then call it “lambrusco” to get people to buy it. Countries are now sorting this issue out as they sort out similar issues with Champagne and Port.
In general you can find cheap, bad-tasting lambrusco – but you can also find delicious, fresh, fruity lambrusco that is perfect to go with a summer salad. There are also dry lambruscos and even sparkling lambruscos. Give a few a try and see how you like them! Don’t judge a lambrusco based on a super-cheap bottle, though. It could easily be that you aren’t even drinking lambrusco, and would improperly malign the real grape based on the imitation.
A lambmrusco should generally be served at about 50F. If you’ve ended up with a cheap lambrusco that is lacking in good flavors, then dropping the temperature down a few degrees can help to mitigate that.