Around this time last year, I briefly thought that I invented sparkling red wine. I was going through a bit of a bubbly phase at the time, and with the holiday season approaching, I had a vision of a drink that would combine the effervescence I loved in my favorite champagnes and proseccos with the wintertime warmth and ruby red hue only a glass of red can offer into one glittering, festive libation: a sparkling red wine.
As many of you are probably aware, I did not invent this concept. A quick Google search will of course reveal that sparkling reds are, in fact, a thing, and not one of my own imagination. Still, I’m not the only casual wine enthusiast whose knowledge of sparkling varietals is largely limited to bubbly whites and rosés, and even those who are aware of sparkling reds probably don’t know the full story. When most people think sparkling red — if they do at all — they tend to think of super-sweet, low-brow Lambrusco.
As it turns out, this cheap, saccharine beverage so many of us still associate, almost exclusively, with sparkling red wines is one of the biggest wine misconceptions out there, one that woefully misrepresents and overshadows an entire family of perhaps surprisingly diverse (and not-necessarily sweet) sparkling reds.
For that little reputation-wrecking misconception, we can thank the sweet wine craze of the ’70s and ’80s, says Julia Prestia, owner of Venturini Baldini, a historic Lambrusco producer in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Prestia specifically blames Riunite, a sweet Lambrusco known for an infectious ’80s commercial encouraging potential consumers to enjoy “Riunite on ice,” for Lambrusco’s lingering bad rap.
According to Prestia, whose brand prides itself on introducing the wine-drinking world to a ‘new generation’ of Lambrusco, this persistent misunderstanding of sparkling red wine as a strictly saccharine pour is a misrepresentation of sparkling reds past and present. In fact, the drier, more sophisticated Lambruscos produced by Venturini Baldini represent what Prestia considers a return “back to the roots of how Lambrusco should’ve been, and was years ago.”
These, according to Prestia, are “happy wines,” but also serious ones. “They’re meant to be happy and not complicated wines,” she tells InsideHook. “And I think that’s the important thing that people are starting to understand: that Lambrusco, for the right occasion, puts itself in the same league as many other regions in Italy, or even France.”
And, by the way, these more “serious” versions of a once cheap and sweet wine are also “having a bit of a moment” right now, according to sommelier/”General Grape Enthusiast” Rhys Williams. Like Prestia, Williams also traces sparkling red’s bad rap to the massive gastronomical offense that was ’70s cuisine. “Back when jello surrounded broccoli at pot lucks, Lambrusco and other sparkling red wines had a moment — except then, most wines were sweet. Much like how Riesling has the reputation of being always super sweet, sparkling red wine also got pinned into that world.”
Fortunately, those days of exclusively ultra-sweet sparkling reds are in the past, and there is a whole new/secretly not-so-new world of complex, sophisticated but still downright jubilant sparkling red wines on the horizon — and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t start and end with Lambrusco. We tapped the experts for everything you need to know about sparkling red wine, just in time for the holidays.
What is sparkling red wine?
Essentially, sparkling red wine is pretty much what you would assume it is: the same thing as the sparkling whites or rosés to which you may be better accustomed, but red.
“Sparkling wine can be any color — white, rosé or red. It just so happens that the white and rosé versions are the most popular,” says Katherine Cole, the author of five books on wine, including Sparkling Wine Anytime and Rosé All Day, as well as the executive producer and host of wine and food podcast The Four Top. “The various methodologies for producing sparkling wines are the same, no matter what the color of the base wine.”
If you, an aspiring red wine enthusiast, care to get real in depth, there are a variety of ways in which sparkling wine is produced, as Williams explains. “Sparkling red wines are red wine (wines with the skins and seeds of red wine grapes left on for fermentation) that are the base wine for whichever sparkling method the winemaker chooses to use,” she tells InsideHook. According to Williams, there are six “most popular” sparkling methods, some of which are more often used for sparkling reds than others. But for casual wine enthusiasts like you and I, it probably suffices to know that sparkling reds are just like sparkling whites or rosés, but red.
Also, just like any other kind of wine, there’s not just one kind of sparkling red. There are many different sparkling red wines, but these are the most important ones to know.
I know I said Lambrusco isn’t the be-all, end-all of sparkling reds, but it is one of the most well known. That said, it’s also one of the most tragically misunderstood.
“Lambrusco is the most prominent of the truly red sparkling wines. It hails from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, and it’s delicious alongside the food of that region — namely salumi, hard cheeses and pastas with lots of Parmigiano cheese,” says Cole. “Lambrusco is light, fresh and fruity, and can range from rosé to dark red.”
It’s also, contrary to popular misconception, not inherently sweet. “This is a wine that can come in many different styles, from sweet, to dry, to light and more,” says Williams.
Lambrusco is probably still one of the most readily available sparkling reds that you’re likely to encounter at your local liquor store, and while some will be reminiscent of those sweet, ’80s hot tub wines, there are also many drier, arguably more sophisticated bottles on the market that can hold their own among more traditionally upscale libations.
Less easy to find in the US, but proof that in other parts of the world, sparkling reds get the respect they deserve. In Australia, sparkling Shiraz is a Christmas tradition, and rightfully so. Besides being aesthetically appropriate for the season, a sparkling red has a tendency to pair well with usual Christmas fare.
“On a more full-bodied and savory end of the spectrum is Australian sparkling Shiraz. We don’t get much imported here in the US, but this dark, rich sparkling wine is legendary Down Under,” says Cole.
“I find this one a little harder to find in your average wine shop, but it does exist.” says Williams. “Shiraz in general I describe as a concentrated, juicy little number, so it’s easy to understand why a sparkling Shiraz also lends itself to being fruity.”
Cole describes this one as “a fruity, fizzy, low-alcohol wine from Piedmont that’s the red counterpart to Moscato d’Asti. It’s a bit sweet, so is best enjoyed with brunch.” She’s a vegetarian, but she’s pretty sure it’s “probably amazing with bacon.”
Williams is also on board with the Brachetto brunch vibes. “These are typically very low in alcohol, six percent ABV on average, and I find them to be more effervescent than sparkling,” she tells InsideHook. “Relatively easy to find, doesn’t always have a champagne cork — sometimes your wine store clerk might forget it’s a sparkling wine — but it’s a great wine to share with your friends who want to try out pairing chocolate and wine, or maybe don’t like mimosas but want a brunch wine.”
Again, as with any wine variety, there are many different kinds of sparkling red wines.”There are a number of really quirky and unusual red sparkling wines from lesser-known regions throughout Italy,” says Cole. We’ve outlined the most prominent above, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to explore.
“There’s also a sweet sparkling red from France, called Bugey Cerdon after the region and village it’s from,” says Cole. “I always describe Bugey Cerdon as hummingbird-feeder juice. It’s almost a neon magenta color, and tastes like liquid strawberries. It’s delicious alongside a simple pastry or fruit tart.”
And there are “plenty more,” according to Williams, including a sparkling Pinot noir forthcoming from Oregon.
How, and when, to serve sparkling red wine
As is true of any drink you prefer, the best time to enjoy a sparkling red is whenever you damn well please. Prestia makes a strong case for drinking sparkling reds all year long. “I think it’s really refreshing, especially in the summer time, but it’s a versatile wine,” she says. “It’s summer and winter.”
Still, while I fully support anyone’s right to drink whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want to, there are some strong arguments to support sparkling reds as a holiday-specific libation.
There’s the obviously festive aesthetic, of course — it’s glittery and red. But these wines — Lambrusco, in particular —also tend to pair well with traditional holiday fare.
“Lambrusco is the best holiday sparkling wine to bring aside from champagne, and I have yet to be proven otherwise,” says Williams. “Lambrusco makes Thanksgiving, Christmas or any big meal holidays just that much better. The body and flavor of the wines pair delightfully with duck, chicken, turkey, ham, and the acidity and brightness of the bubbles cut through the fat — the age-old pairing trick: if it’s fatty, give it acid and effervescence.”
Quick word to the wise, if you are planning on indulging in some sparkling red this holiday season — or really any time — pop that baby in the fridge for a bit before serving. “I’d recommend chilling any sparkling wine you are going to serve, whether it’s red, white or rosé, and then enjoy it as it warms up to room temperature,” says Cole. “You can always have an ice bucket on hand if you want to chill it back down.”
Again, you can drink whatever the hell you want whenever the hell you want to; you’re an adult, you can do whatever you want. But whether you’ve been drinking sparkling red for years or this is the first you’ve heard of it, there’s never been a better time to pop a ruby red bottle of bubbly.
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