Last week, when I sat down to enjoy a bowl of classic tortellini in brodo with a glass of Ceci Otello Nerodilambrusco, my mind kept going back to the post that I wrote here last week: “Lambrusco and steak? Why not? You might be surprised…”
The pairing was so sublime, so perfectly balanced, and so enjoyable that it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Of course, wine pairings aren’t really something that the Almighty really spends a lot of time worrying about (even though the occasional poet will always claim otherwise).
In the wake of my flawed spiritual reflections, I turned my thoughts to what it is about Lambrusco that makes it work so well with dishes like this (or with steak, for that matter). And I kept coming back to the tannic character of the Lambrusco grape. Between the capon stock, the Prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano filling for the pasta, the egg in the pasta and the extra Parmigiano Reggiano that gets sprinkled on top, you end up with a pretty rich dish. And what makes that richness? Fat. Fat from the stock, fat from the ham, fat from the cheese… And that’s where the dry character of the grape comes into play, in my view (or in my mouth, I should say).
And that’s when it dawned on me. For generations now, American wine writers have been praising the new wave of “dry” Lambrusco producers for not making sweet wines anymore. But the fact of the matter is that those very same writers have no idea why Lambrusco was made sweet in the first place.
They often claim (and I’m just as guilty as the next writer) that sweet Lambrusco was created for the Coca Cola-loving American market. In fact, Lambrusco in the post-war era was always vinified as a sweet wine. And the reason for that is that Lambrusco is such a tannic grape that it needed to be sweetened in order to be enjoyable.
Even though few American writers have any experience with the levels of residual sugar in sparkling wine, they will praise so-called dry Lambrusco because they are convinced that no sugar has been added to the wine. In fact, sugar is added to ALL Lambrusco. And what they don’t realize is that when the Lambrusco is good, it’s because the sugar and tannin are in good balance. The wine is still sweet (even when they think it’s dry). But they don’t notice the sugar because the winemaker has done a good job of integrating the flavors of the wine.
So many writers will declare that Lambrusco’s subtle sweetness is what makes it go so well with dishes like tortellini in brodo. In fact, it’s Lambrusco’s tannin that makes it pair so well. You shouldn’t notice the tannin or sugar in a great Lambrusco. You should just enjoy its grapey, bubbly nature. If you notice the sweetness, it’s because the winemaker hasn’t done a good job.