It's too bad the overly sweet, overly produced lambruscos of the 1980s and '90s gave this wine such a bad name. Before then, it was known as a dark red, slightly sparkling dry gem that went perfectly with cured meats and cheeses, especially Parmesan. That reputation is making a comeback, though, especially as consumers revolt against the sweet stuff and Italian producers bring the good stuff back. Discerning between the two and picking the right one comes down to figuring out where it was made, how sweet and dry it is, and what you're pairing with it.
Although you'll find lambruscos from places like Australia and Argentina, stick to the authentic Italian versions with an alcohol content of at least 11 percent, especially those made with grapes grown in three provinces of Emilia — Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena; in Emilia-Romagna; and in the province of Mantova in Lombardia. The grapes grown there are lighter on the sweet and higher on the acidity. Common indigenous lambrusco grape varieties include maestri, sorbara, grasparossa, salamino, montericco, barghi, viadanese and ruberti.
Look for "DOC" written on the label or bottle. Short for Denominazione di origine controllata, or "Controlled designation of origin," it's a quality assurance designation for Italian foods and beverages, including wines.
The best lambruscos are quite dry and not overly sweet, so stay away from labels that use dolce, "very sweet." Stick to secco, "dry," and amabile, "slightly sweet." Avoid lambruscos made with artificial sweeteners, but if the ingredients aren't listed, one hint is the price: Bottles below $10 are more likely to be artificially sweetened. Another hint about the sweetness is how the producer describes it on the bottle; the best Lambruscos taste of some combination of cherries, plum, violets and berries, particularly blueberries, boysenberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.
Lambruscos aren't meant to be aged, so drink them within three years of the date on the bottle to enjoy the right levels of sweet and dry.
The classic pairings for lambrusco wines are cured meats, especially salami, and cheeses, especially Parmesan. Roasted eggplant, hard-boiled eggs and tomato sauce work well too. If you have a lambrusco with more dark fruit notes, like cherry, try it with pasta, fennel and cream. Slightly sweeter lambruscos with noticeable strawberry accents go well with light cakes, fruit-filled scones and meringues. Less fruity lambruscos are more versatile and are great with salmon and even squid.
Whatever you pair your lambrusco with, make sure the wine is slightly chilled before serving.