Posted on | February 20, 2014
Written by | Ed McCarthy
Italy, like France, produces so many “important” wines that we sometimes overlook the great value wines peppered throughout the country. Indeed, the only hard part of writing about Italian value wines is limiting the selections! “Value” wine for me is best defined flexibly: It is wine that is definitely worth its price, whether that price be $10, $20 or more. Most of the wines mentioned here retail for below $25, some are under $15.
KERNER/MÜLLER-THURGAU (ALTO ADIGE)
I clumped these two wines together because they share similar characteristics: Both are made from native Germanic varieties, and both flourish in Italy’s northernmost region, Alto Adige. (Alto Adige was formerly a part of Austria; German is still the predominant language spoken). Both Kerner and Müller-Thurgau grow mainly in the Valle Isarco, the cool, northernmost part of Alto Adige that has proven to have the best terroir in the world for these varieties; the grapes make rather pedestrian wines in their native Germany.
Kerner is the more viscous of the two wines; it is dry, but rich and floral, with a long finish. Abbazia di Novicella, a working Augustian monastery as well as a winery, is a leading producer of both Kerner and Müller-Thurgau. Another fine Valle Isarco producer of both wines is Cantina Valle Isarco. The world’s greatest Müller-Thurgau is produced by J.Tiefenbrunner in an old-vine vineyard called Feldmarschall, on a high plateau 3,300 feet in altitude.
Soave was a mass-produced, ubiquitous Italian white wine in the U.S. in the 1950s through the 1970s. The most popular producer was Bolla. Because most Soave was overproduced, the reputation of the wine was seriously damaged. Well, Soave has re-invented itself; now the best producers, with vines planted in the original hilly Classico zone, are again making exceptional wines. Soave’s key variety is Garganega, and yields a very dry, fresh, straw-colored wine with class and character. Not your grandfather’s Soave any more! Among the best producers are Gini, Pieropan, Inama, Pra and Suavia.
FIANO DI AVELLINO (CAMPANIA)
Fiano di Avellino, a delicately-flavored dry wine with aromas of toasted hazelnuts and pears, is actually quite sturdy, needs five or six years to be at its best, and can age for 15 years. It is made primarily from the Fiano grape variety. Two exceptional ones to look for are Terredora, with its single-vineyard Terre di Dora Fiano; and Mastroberardino, with its single-vineyard Radici Fiano. Greco di Tufo and Falanghina are two other fine white wines from Campania.
ETNA BIANCO (SICILY)
No pun intended, but wines from the region of the very active Mt. Etna might be the hottest in Italy right now, both white and red. Because Sicily is a southerly location, it is often thought of as very warm. But two-thirds of Sicily is mountainous, and the Mt. Etna region in particular is very cool. It has only recently emerged as a fine wine region because its steep hillsides deterred vineyard progress for a long time. Carricante, an indigenous white grape variety, is now recognized as ideal for growing on Mt. Etna’s steep slopes.
Look especially for Etna Bianco Superiore, as these wines must contain 80% Carricante. Four leading Etna Bianco producers are Benanti (especially “Pietramarina”); Cottanera; Vini Biondi (especially “Outis”); and Graci.
Like Soave, Bardolino suffered from overproduction 50 years ago, and has only recently begun re-capturing its reputation as a quality red wine. Bardolino at its best is a dry, light-bodied, delicate red with aromas reminiscent of cherries and a slightly tart aftertaste. Its home is around the village of Bardolino, on the eastern shores of the magnificent Lake Garda. Bardolino has had to deal with two problems. Those producers who grew grapes outside of the Classico zone made thin wines with a neutral character. Conversely, other producers tried to beef Bardolino up to make a wine with Amarone-like characteristics, with disastrous results.
For me, Bardolino at its best is an outstanding wine to drink during the warm months, with light cuisine. It can accompany fish and seafood as well as meat or vegetable dishes. The main variety in Bardolino is Corvina, but Rondinella and a little bit of Molinara are also in the blend. Because Bardolino has not quite overcome its tarnished image, prices are quite low. Look for the outstanding Le Fraghe, made by a dynamic woman producer, Matilde Poggi. Another exceptional Bardolino producer is Guerrrieri-Rizzardi, especially the single-vineyard “Tachetto.” A delightful rosé version, Chiaretto, is also produced.
I hesitated to include Valpolicella here because many producers have destroyed its image by making ambitious, Amarone-style Valpolicellas. The wine uses the same grapes as its next-door neighbor, Bardolino, and is a bit heftier. But Valpolicella is classically a medium-bodied, dry wine, and a few of the best producers are still honoring this image. Three Valpolicella producers I recommend are Bertani, Allegrini and Brigaldera.
Like Bardolino, the best Valpolicella wines come from the original Classico zone—in this case the steep, terraced Mount Lessini hillsides, north of Verona. A variation of the traditional Valpolicella is Valpolicella Ripasso, where dried grapes are re-passed through the wine to incite a secondary fermentation, making it darker and more full-bodied, something akin to Amarone. Valpolicella Ripasso wines are commonly found today; some are very good—such as Quintarelli’s, Masi’s Campo Fiorin and Tommasi’s. Others are overdone, in my opinion.
BARBERA D’ASTI (PIEDMONT)
The two main Barbera wines imported into the U.S. are Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti. Of the two, I generally prefer Barbera d’Asti, because of its leaner, livelier style. Barbera is a great “go-to” wine for pizza and tomato-based pastas. The less-expensive ones, made without oak aging, actually accompany Italian cuisine better than the pricier oak-aged Barberas.
Barbera is the name of the grape and the wine. It is an unusual red variety because it has practically no tannin, but lots of acidity. Barbera wine is lively, fresh, fruity and dry, and is versatile enough to go with all kinds of food, including seafood, and is usually consumed within its first few years. A few of my favorite Barberas include Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d’Asti, Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne, Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba and Cappellano Barbera d’Alba.
NEBBIOLO LANGHE (PIEDMONT)
Some of the greatest wines in the world are Barolos and Barbarescos, made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape. Lately, I have become a big fan of Nebbiolo Langhe; not only is it made from the same variety as these prestigious wines, but it also comes from the same vineyards, perhaps not the best sites in the vineyard, but in the same area.
While displaying the perfume and complexity of the Nebbiolo variety, Langhe examples are lighter-bodied and can be consumed young, unlike Barolo and Barbaresco. Also, Nebbiolo Langhe is a lot less expensive. Some labels to look for are Marchesi di Gresy “Martinenga,” Vietti “Perbacco,” De Forville, Produttori del Barbaresco and Renato Ratti.
CHIANTI CLASSICO/CHIANTI RUFINA
Italy’s most famous wine, Chianti, belongs in any roundup of Italian wine values. But buyers should proceed with caution in the Chianti zone, in my opinion, because foreign influences, such as barrique aging and addition of international varieties, have infiltrated the area quite heavily. And yet, majestic examples of the Sangiovese grape variety still exist, if you choose your wines carefully.
Sangiovese itself is a difficult variety to master: witness the many failed examples of Sangiovese that exist in California.
Chianti Classico, the oldest, best-known zone in the heart of the Chianti region, is the home of some of the finest Chianti wines. Great traditional producers include Isola e Olena, San Giusto a Rentennano, Castello dei Rampolla, Fattoria di Felsina, Fontodi, Badia a Coltibuono, Castello di Monsanto, Castell’in Villa and Riecine. Also, Tenuta di Capezzana, not a Chianti Classico, is an exceptional Chianti; the 2010 Barco Reale di Carmignano, a value-priced wine made primarily from Sangiovese, is delicate, and yet full-flavored. Castello di Monsanto also makes a fine value-priced wine, Monrosso Chianti; the 2010 Monrosso is very dry, lively and rich in flavor.
Two Chianti Rufina wines of note are Selvapiana and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi’s always reliable Castello di Nipozzano.