Italy’s Finest Wine Values

by Antonio Galloni


How to Drink Well Without Spending a Fortune

There has never been a better time to be a wine drinker. Period. Generally more favorable climatic conditions across the world, the emergence of high quality wines from once- dormant regions in Europe and newly developed areas in the New World, and increasing technical expertise in the areas of viticulture and oenology have come together to present consumers with a staggering array of delicious wines that can be found for under $25. All of this comes at a time when the current global economy has been particularly hard hit and countries battle to emerge from a very painful period of contraction. The business of selling expensive wines – from any region – has completely ground to a halt, creating numerous opportunities for readers to pick up higher-end wines at massively discounted prices. On a broader scale, however, the only bottles that are moving are those that offer compelling value.

Italy seems well-poised to capitalize on current events, as the country offers an enormous selection of delicious, value- priced wines. One of the curious results of the state of markets is that as wineries have reduced the production of their top- end selections in response to slackening demand, much of the juice that was once destined for those expensive bottles is now being blended with lower-end wines, improving their quality in a meaningful way. Simply put, producers are paying far more attention to their-value-priced wines than they ever have in the past, and it shows.

Among Italy’s key attributes are a wealth of microclimates matched by few countries in the world and a stunning array of indigenous varieties that can form the basis for a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment. Readers will find everything from the steely, Alpine whites of Alto Adige to the beguiling wines of Campania (both white and red) to the plump, juicy wines of Puglia, and everything in between. In more prestigious regions such as Piedmont and Tuscany, readers are best served by focusing on the entry-level wines from the finest producers. Conscientious growers pay just as much attention to their simpler wines as they do to their top bottles. A Dolcetto or Chianti Classico from a first-class estate can be a great way to learn more about a new region and a particular winery’s style. Of course Italy also boasts a number of emerging regions, mostly in the center and south, such as Campania, Umbria, Marche, Sardinia, Sicily and Puglia where readers will have far more choice in exploring the breadth of diversity that at its best defines the true essence of Italian wine culture.

Italy’s Finest Wine Values: The Highlights

Piedmont: The first 2008s are beginning to appear on the market, and based on what I have tasted so far, this appears to be a good, but not great, vintage. In general, the wines are soft and approachable, but lack a touch of depth that might otherwise elevate them. 2008 saw a very wet spring which caused an irregular flowering and crop set. Uneven weather continued into the early summer, and it wasn’t until the end of the summer that the heat finally arrived. The conditions were most challenging for Dolcetto and Barbera, two varieties that ripen earlier than Nebbiolo. The gorgeous conditions in the late summer and early fall were much more favorable for Nebbiolo, which today looks like the most successful variety of this challenging season. The 2007s are far more consistent across Piedmont’s main red grapes. In 2007 a cool summer helped restore a measure of balance after a record-breaking winter that was unusually warm and dry. The 2007s are soft, perfumed, silky-textured wines that are drinking beautifully today.

Tuscany: Readers will want to take a look at my in-depth article  for a comprehensive evaluation of new vintages from Tuscany. The first 2008s I have tasted are similar to those of Piedmont in that the wines come across as medium in structure and accessible at an early age.

Northern Italy: In these economically challenged times, Veneto’s Prosecco is a great choice for bubbly. I tasted a number of versions that are sure to deliver plenty of pleasure. The top Soaves and Valpolicellas also deliver plenty of enjoyment. In Alto Adige, the region’s many cooperatives are great sources for value-priced wines – especially whites – that offer tons of varietal definition and character.

Central and Southern Italy: Once again, I was quite impressed with the value-priced wines I came across from Campania, a fascinating region steeped in history. The 2008 whites are gorgeous, and the entry-level reds from indigenous varieties – Aglianico and Piedirosso in particular – make for highly rewarding drinking. The Marche is one of Italy’s best sources for delicious, value-priced wines. Readers will find no shortage of great choices ranging from the white Trebbiano and Verdicchio, to reds made from Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Sicily and Sardinia also have plenty to offer in the under $25 space.

A Note on Drinking Windows

Readers will notice that I have kept drinking windows relatively short. There is a trend to bottle value-priced wines with a variety of synthetic (ie, non-cork) closures such as glass, plastic and screwcap. While this is generally a positive move that should reduce the percentage of tainted bottles and free up cork supply for higher-end wines, these new closures have a brief track record when it comes to aging. I have no doubt some of the wines in this article will drink well beyond my suggested windows, but it seems prudent to err on the side of caution, as even the wines that will drink well for a number of years won’t necessarily improve in bottle.

On Notes and Scores

Tasting through Italy’s best values is always a challenging exercise as I encounter a vast number of wines that fall short for inclusion in these pages. This year I tasted over 250 bottles that scored under 85 points, the threshold for publishing a score

and tasting note. Many of these wines – especially those scoring between 80 and 84 points – are clean and soundly made, they just lack that something special that might elevate them to a higher category. I hope readers will understand the practical impossibility of not being able to print a note for every wine.