"Lambrusco or West Coast Cooler?" How daggy drinks are becoming cool again

Lambrusco fan Katie Clark and sommelier Jacob Barter at Silver Sands Beach Club near McLaren Vale
Lambrusco fan Katie Clark and sommelier Jacob Barter at Silver Sands Beach Club near McLaren Vale Photo: Ben Macmahon

Heading to a barbecue or dinner party this weekend? Take a bottle of lambrusco, oaky chardonnay or a West Coast Cooler and you might find yourself on the right side of cool thanks to a resurgence of drinks popular in the 1980s.

"Lambrusco is one of my favourite drops and comes in many styles," says wine educator, winemaker and Italian wine expert Gill Gordon-Smith.

"It's not just the sweet purple juice we used to drink. There is a lambrusco for every taste and price point. They are a revelation. Some of the most amazing and delicious cocktails can be made from lambrusco, too.

It's not just the sweet purple juice we used to drink. There is a lambrusco for every taste and price point., saws wine ...
It's not just the sweet purple juice we used to drink. There is a lambrusco for every taste and price point., saws wine expert Gill Gordon-Smith. Photo: MarkHatfield

Lambrusco is a family of grapes found across Italy's Reggio Emilia and Modena regions. It took a hit in the image stakes thanks to overuse in ultra-sweet, super fizzy commercial wine during the 1970s and 1980s.

Now modern day Italian producers and enthusiasts like Gordon-Smith work hard to produce artisan examples of lambrusco and shift the sickly-sweet connotations.

"Lambrusco is not just one biotype but many and is most likely Italy's oldest family of native grapes," says Gordon-Smith.

"There's definitely a nostalgic element to it. They evoke memories of being younger and having fun on what were often sickly sweet beverages."

"It comes in a rainbow of colours and styles. Most are made using the tank method and will range from dry to sweet but some are bottle fermented."

On local turf, Victoria's Chalmers Wines has produced a lambrusco each vintage since 2012. The traditional-method drop is made using the lambrusco maestri variety grape and is bright, fresh, dry and acidic.

Meanwhile, in the Yarra Valley, Tim Ward Wines produces I'll Fly Away Lambrusco Pet Nat, a blend of lambrusco's salamino and maestri varieties.

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Back in Italy, Gordon-Smith rates producers such as Medici Ermete (one of the oldest family wineries in the region) which produces everything from traditional off-dry to sweet lambrusco. She also suggests seeking out the Paltrinieri Radice Lambrusco di Sorbara (a bone dry, pink sparkling).

Sydney-based online wine retailer Different Drop has a handful of lambrusco producers for sale.

"They are much more vinous and structured than what people knew of Italian lambrusco in the 1980s," says Different Drop co-founder Tom Hollings.

Chardonnay is more refined than it was decades ago.
Chardonnay is more refined than it was decades ago.  Photo: Tammy Fullum

"That's a result of importers such as Giorgio de Maria, who has the Podere Sottoilnoce wines, improving the range of artisan examples rather than big company slosh."

Hollings and his team have also noticed an increased demand for chardonnay.

"Oakier chardys are definitely back in favour," he says. "People want flavour. The chardonnays from the 80s and 90s were really woody and lacked freshness, then they went the other way and became too anaemic with no oak and underripe fruit.

2021 Tim Ward Wines I'll Fly Away Lambrusco, $24.
2021 Tim Ward Wines I'll Fly Away Lambrusco, $24. Photo: Supplied

"People were trying to mimic chablis but we don't have the terroir for that."

While some customers collect wine from the Chablis region in France, and seek out the lean Tasmanian and upper Yarra Valley chardonnays, Hollings says the general punter just wants flavour, ideally in the $25 to $35 price range.

"Warmer climate things like Scarborough from Hunter Valley, Domaine Naturaliste from Margaret River and some of the cuddlier chardonnays from Beechworth and Yarra Valley. They're the type of wines people keep coming back to."

Hollings believes Australian chardonnay is currently in a great place.

"Chardonnay is more refined than it was decades ago," he says. "These days there's better understanding of when to pick fruit so it has ripeness, texture and freshness. Those are the ones people come back to."

Pernod Ricard's chief winemaker Dan Swincer agrees. "There will always be a few ABC [anything but chardonnay] drinkers out there but when people say they don't drink chardonnay it's usually because they still have the perception that it's all like it was in the 90s – over-oaked and creamy.

"Fashions change over time … but what we're seeing now is that balance between fruit, oak and malo [the malolactic fermentation process that produces an oil-like texture]. I see chardonnay as a winemaker's variety because you can do so many things with it."

For consumers such as Katie Clark, it's all good news. "I love lambrusco, oaky chardonnay, white zinfandel and anything a bit daggy," says the cellar hand and sales manager.

"There's definitely a nostalgic element to it. They evoke memories of being younger and having fun on what were often sickly sweet  beverages. They were usually the first thing you pinched from your parents' drinks cupboard, but now they're made in a more conscious way and are delicious."

The West Coast Cooler is an iconic example of the cyclical nature of booze. The mix of white wine, sparkling water, and fruit flavours launched in 1984 and led the way in what is now a booming ready-to-drink (RTD) market.

"It launched at a time when things like wine-based coolers were starting to become popular," says Pernod Ricard Winemakers chief marketing officer Eric Thomson. "West Coast Coolers went out of fashion for a while but we've always had a really loyal customer base. The drink has always been around but they skipped a generation."

Pernod Ricard relaunched the classic bottled beverage in March, adding two hard seltzer versions (lime and mango flavoured) to the line. The lower-alcohol options have been a hit with Gen-Z drinkers.

"RTDs fit perfectly with the Australian lifestyle because the format is super outdoorsy and refreshing," Thomson says. "Like anything, trends come and go. Great things always seem to come back into fashion and RTDs and ready to drink beverages are more popular with young people than ever."