Italy is another wine powerhouse and a region that demands proper exploration. Like France, it can be quite confusing at first, but it doesn’t really have to be. This is why our latest book dives deeper into helping consumers understand Italian wines (Decoding Italian Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Grapes, Regions, Practices and Culture of the “Land of Wine”). I co-authored the book with an Italian film reviewer who brought a great deal of cultural references and tidbits to the story that makes this book even easier to digest.
Italian wines are usually labeled according to the region where they are produced versus the grape, so you will want to familiarize yourself with what’s produced where. And there are a lot of different regions, including some super small ones that produce great wine, but I’m going to stick to the more well known ones that you need for an introductory wine education, and they are the ones that you should be able to find in your local wine shop.
We’ll begin with the 3 Big B’s: Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello.
Barolo and Barbaresco: two of Italy’s greatest treasures. Both wines are produced from the Nebbiolo grape in the famed Piedmont region (your wine shop may have a dedicated Piedmont section). Barolo and Barbaresco wines are big, rich red wines that are full bodied with red berry flavor along with more rustic undertones of chocolate and licorice. Pair these with something that can match their flavor, like lasagna or thick tomato based pasta sauces. Barolo wines are known for their high tannic structure (a bit tighter than Barbarescos) and they are meant to be aged to allow time for the tannins to soften up a bit.
Brunello: made from 100% Sangiovese (San-joe-vay-zee), and probably the highest end region for this grape in Italy. Wines from Brunello tend to have dark berry flavor, highlighted by a dry finish, perfect for many Italian style dishes.
Wines from the 3 B’s of Italy are not inexpensive, but they are unique and really enjoyable when the time calls for them. On the low end, you’re looking at $30-40 (be careful going much lower than that) but to truly grasp the beauty of these wines, you will need to spend closer to $70-80.
Your wine store may have an entire section dedicated to Piedmont since it is one of the premier wine regions in the world with perfect soil and weather to grow many of the famous Italian grapes. In addition to the Nebbiolo mentioned above, you will want to explore some of the other grapes famously grown in Piedmont including Dolcetto and Barbera. These are usually found at much lower price points, starting in the teens.
Another powerhouse wine from the Veneto area in Italy is Amarone (pronounced Am-a-row-knee), which commands a premium price due to its complexity, structure and ability to age. Amarone is made from the Corvina grape that has dark cherry flavors with great tannic structure. While most Amarone bottles start in the $30 range, keep an eye out for Valpolicella wines which is a little sister to Amarone. Many Valpolicella wines are priced around $15-20 and they offer a lot of what Amarone does, for a lot less.
Italian Sangiovese extends far beyond Brunello though, and it gets (arguably) equally as good and even less expensive in other areas, including Chianti. Chianti is produced in Tuscany so your wine shop may include these wines in a special section or bundle them up under “Italy.” Some even break Tuscany down by region which is really helpful.
Chianti is made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape, although a few other ones might be blended in depending on the winemaker. When you see a bottle labeled as “Chianti Classico” this is not a classic version of Chianti. Rather it encompasses the next few towns over, and it has its own wine sanctioning body. I find Chianti Classico wines to exude a little more character than their counterparts down the street. Chianti and Chianti Classico wines can be found starting around $10 and they climb up from there. One of my favorite producers is Frescobaldi and they are a good one to keep an eye out for because they offer different bottles at various price points.
The more I have explored Italian wines, the more value areas I discover so I’d like to cover a few of those now. These wines, in my opinion of course, cost less than $15 on average and offer better quality than almost anything else in its price range.
The first one is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and it is made from the Montepulciano grape. Bottles of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo are starting to appear more and more in US stores, with price points starting around $8. The wines are dry like many Italian wines, with pepper and spice; blackberry in flavor. They are really meant to be paired with classic Italian dishes.
Another favorite Italian value wine is Nero D’Avola, which is produced in Sicily. These are dark wines with peppery undertones and a dry finish. Nero D’Avola wines can typically be found for $10-15.
Italian white wines are also quite good, including the Pinot Grigio that many people think beats out Pinot Grigio from other regions. I’d also keep an eye out for bottles of Soave, a crisp dry white wine that can be scored ridiculously cheap in many cases. A few other Italian whites that I really enjoy are Gavi, Verdicchio and Vermentino – each are reasonably priced (often under $20) and are excellent alternatives to the standard white wines you may encounter.
I’ll wrap up this section on Italy with another mention of Italian Super Tuscans. These are wines blended with Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (as we covered briefly in the Cabernet Sauvignon section). Starting at only $8 they are excellent bargain drinkers, and the high end ones that stretch into the hundreds of dollars can hang with fine Bordeaux that costs even more. When you go to the store remember, you won’t see the words “Super Tuscan” on the label. Rather look for red blends from Tuscany, sometimes simply called Rosso.
Your Italian Wine Check List:
– One red wine from either Barolo or Barbaresco. Not cheap I know, but a fun way to experience the Nebbiolo grape
– Red wine from Brunello
– Red Amarone wine
– Red Valpolicella wine
– Red wine from Chianti and/or Chianti Classico
– Red wine from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
– Nero D’Avola from Sicily
– Italian Pinot Grigio
– Italian Soave
– Italian Super Tuscan, red blend
Fast Fact: Italy is currently the largest wine producing country by volume, followed (closely) by France and Spain.