Good times or bad times, most of us are constantly looking for values and it’s no different when it comes to Italian wines. Despite a situation where the Euro is much stronger than the US dollar (a situation that’s been this way for several years), there are some excellent values in Italian wines.
Here are a few ways to find some of the best:
Look for lesser-known wines from famous wine zones
Throughout Italy, you have the opportunity to find some wonderful wines that have much in common with their other famous bottlings. For example, in Piemonte, there are two regally bred red wines, Barbaresco and Barolo, that are made exclusively from the Nebbiolo grape. These are wines that are released three or four years after the harvest and are quite powerful; the best offerings from the finest vintages can drink well for 25 years or more. Naturally, wines such as these will cost $50-$125 a bottle upon release.
Yet you can purchase a very good wine made exclusively from Nebbiolo at a fraction of these prices. Look for a Nebbiolo d’Alba (Alba is the city in Piemonte that is very close to the Barbaresco and Barolo vineyards). These wines are made from younger vineyards and are not aged as long, so they are not as powerful, but most still drink well for 3-7 years after the vintage, with most needing a few years after release to round out. Many of the finest producers of Barbaresco and Barolo produce a Nebbiolo d’Alba and prices will depend on the status of the estate, but many can be purchased for $25-$28. A few of my favorite bottlings of Nebbiolo d’Alba are from Fontanafredda, Pio Cesare, Damilano, Renato Ratti, Monti and Brezza.
A few producers in this area produce a wine known as Langhe Nebbiolo, which is also 100% Nebbiolo (Langhe is a large area that encompasses the Barolo and Barbaresco zones). These wines are priced similarly to a Nebbiolo d’Alba, though they may be a few dollars higher. Examples of Langhe Nebbiolo I like come from Elio Grasso, Ca’Viola, Sergio Barale and Marcarini.
Finally, across the Tanaro River in the Roero district, you can find some excellent exmaples of Nebbiolo labeled as Roero Rosso. As the soils here are lighter, these versions of Nebbiolo are relatively soft and are at their best 3-7 years after the vintage. My favorites include those from Matteo Correggia and Malvira.
There is a similar situation in the southern region of Campania, where the most famous red is Taurasi, made from at least 85% Aglianico. This is another long-lived red that can age for 25-40 years in a few instances. This wine is often $40-60 upon release, which makes them less expensive than most bottlings of Barolo or Barbaresco, but for most of us, $40-60 is still a lot of money.
The value solution here is to purchase a simple Aglianico that cannot be labeled as Taurasi, usually as it has not been aged for the minimum of three years. For example, most of these wines on the market in the summer and fall of 2009 are from the 2007 vintage, while most bottlings of Taurasi now for sale are from the 2005 vintage. These bottlings of Aglianico are labeled differently, but all are excellent values, usually priced in the $16-$20 range. These wines have ripe black cherry fruit, flavors of bitter chocolate and notes of spice and tar, so they are fine partners for heartier foods. Look for the Aglianico from Mastroberardino, the Aglianico (Irpinia DOC) from Vinosia and the bottling known as Rubrato (Campania Aglianico IGT) from Feudi di San Gregorio.
I’ll discuss more value wines in a future posts, concentrating on excellent wines from lesser-celebrated wine regions such as Pugila, Abruzzo and Marche. There are plenty of beautiful values out there from Italy, if you only know where to look.