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Italy's Best Values

Distinctive, delicious wines for everyday drinking at $12 or less

James Suckling
Posted: June 9, 2003

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  James Suckling's Favorite Italian Values  
 
  53 Italian Value Reds  
 
  47 Italian Value Whites  
 
  100 Values at a Glance  
 

Riccardo Cotarella is one of the best hired guns in Italian winemaking. The notches on his holster include some of his country's most sought-after megabuck wines, from Umbria's cult red Lamborghini Campoleone to Campania's trendy Merlot Feudi di San Gregorio Pàtrimo.

But the 55-year-old consulting enologist's most impressive vinous achievement is a $10 red called Vitiano. Made from his family estate near the town of Orvieto in Umbria, this blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is one of Italy's greatest wine bargains.

Vitiano has been a success in the U.S. market ever since Cotarella began making the blended red, in the mid-1990s. Today, Americans drink about 120,000 cases of Vitiano annually, about two-thirds of the entire production. Fortunately for a thirsty nation, Cotarella's red is only one example of the abundance of fascinating, bargain-priced wines available from Italy at the moment.

"I think that people, particularly in the United States, are getting a little tired of all this super this or super that. All these wines are very expensive," says Cotarella, referring to the recent growth in high-priced super Tuscan wines, as we drive along the windy roads of Umbria and Lazio, visiting the hundreds of acres of vineyards his family owns in the area. "People want good wines from Italy that they can drink without worrying about the price."

California winemaker Mark Shannon plunged into the depths of nowhere to pursue the same goal. In the mid-1990s, Shannon set up shop in the heel of Italy to make a good quality red at a very reasonable price. He quickly signed contracts with more than 1,000 small growers in Puglia for their old-vine Primitivo grapes (now recognized as genetically identical to Zinfandel), and refitted a dilapidated winery located about a half an hour's drive out of Taranto to process the grapes. Today, he and his winemaking partner, Elvezia Sbalchiero, are making one of southern Italy's most successful wine brands, A Mano, which translates to "handmade." They make about 200,000 cases a year, about one-fourth of which goes to the United States, where it sells for $10 per bottle.

"We are proud to make good wine at a great price," says Shannon, sitting in his converted barn-cum-office with Sbalchiero. A University of California, Davis-trained enologist, the southern Californian worked at Bogle Vineyards and a number of other wineries in his home state before falling in love with Puglian Primitivo. "I think that [it] is a noble cause. We are doing what we set out to do. We want people to drink our wines."

Shannon and Cotarella are just two of a growing group in Italy: serious winemakers who are dedicated to producing interesting, well-made wines at reasonable prices.

Just about anyone interested in wine knows that Italy has been going through a phenomenal renaissance in winemaking since the mid-'90s. However, almost all of the attention has been focused on high-priced, low-production wines. The well-made inexpensive wines have gone largely unnoticed, despite the incredible advances in winemaking and viticulture. Some might say that I as much as anyone am to blame for the oversight, but the high-ticket Italian wines of recent vintages have been so exciting and ever-changing that it has been difficult to focus on anything else.

Granted, the majority of the inexpensive wines from Italy still have plenty of room for improvement. Only about half of the entire production of wine in Italy is actually sold in bottle, rather than in bulk, and even a large part of what is bottled would be considered flawed by serious wine lovers. Nonetheless, there are a growing number of clean, interesting reds and whites coming from just about every corner of Italy, wines to please even the most discerning palates. And in view of the uncertain economy and threatening global events, we can all appreciate the simple pleasure of an inexpensive, well-made wine with character.

With value in mind, I reviewed my notes on the nearly 10,000 Italian wines I've tasted over the past four years. I looked for wines, both reds and whites, priced at $12 a bottle or less. I searched for wines that have consistently achieved good quality -- averaging 80 points or more on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale in tastings over multiple vintages. More importantly, I looked for wines that I would be happy to serve and drink with my family and friends.

The result is my list of Italy's best 100 value wines, outlined in the following pages. This list should not, of course, be viewed as exhaustive. I am sure many other excellent values are to be found in Italy, and I plan to focus more on this category, while living and working in bella Italia. Unfortunately, a large number of Italy's good values are available in limited quantities for export. But all the wines featured here are imported in decent quantities, at least 1,000 cases, to the U.S. market.

Most of these wines are simple, everyday vini that you can enjoy without worrying about how their purchase may affect your ability to meet your mortgage or some other pending financial obligation. You are not going to find Sassicaia, Ornellaia or some other top-scorers for 12 bucks or less. However, a number of the wines listed can compete on a quality level with many wines twice or even three times as expensive. Wines such as Vitiano and A Mano, for example, could sell for twice the price given their quality.

And a good number of my 100 values will satisfy even the most discriminating palate. I recently drank a bottle of 2001 A Mano with a serious Bordeaux connoisseur at the London restaurant of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. We finished the bottle in no time, leaving half-full a bottle of Australian Shiraz at four times the price. The A Mano was fresher and subtler than the big, jammy red from Oz, and it went better with the hearty, Mediterranean-style food at Oliver's restaurant.

That may be one of the more positive points about inexpensive reds and whites from Italy: They are made with food in mind, and can be drunk with gusto during a meal. By comparison, many low-priced wines from other countries seem more contrived, almost artificial in character, having more in common with the laboratory than the kitchen.

Another exciting point about these good values from Italy is that most of them are made from indigenous varieties -- grape types that are special to Italy, whether Montepulciano from Abruzzi, Primitivo from Puglia, Aglianico from Molise, or Roscetto from Lazio. They taste unique compared with the millions of cases of standardized Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay from every part of the world imaginable.

This distinctive taste profile may explain why Pinot Grigio is so popular in America right now. Even American wine giant E. & J. Gallo is bottling and importing close to 1 million cases each year of Italian Pinot Grigio under its Bella Sera and Ecco Domani labels. I have included many of these crisp and minerally whites in my list. The top Verdicchios, Orvietos and Garganegas offer similar mineral and lemon character. The best whites in my list, however, are Soaves from the Veneto, such as Tamellini, which offered a little bit more complexity and richness than other whites.

The reds on my list are more varied than the whites. Sangiovese is clearly the most successful grape for making value reds, whether solid Chiantis from Tuscany or fruity and fresh reds from Molise. Personally, however, I prefer good quality Primitivo, Nero d'Avola and Montepulciano to inexpensive San-giovese; they offer more fruit and excitement for the money. But no red grape from Italy seems to go better with every style of food than Sangiovese does, which is one reason why reds from Tuscany are so popular in America right now.

This isn't to say that Italy doesn't make interesting wines with international grape types. Many wines made from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have a distinctly Italian character. Some might say they are leaner, even thinner, than similarly priced wines from places such as California or Australia. But I see them as more delicate, fresher in style, which makes them better with food than many of their counterparts from other places in the world.

I visited the vineyards and wineries of a number of the producers on my list and was impressed by their dedication to and enthusiasm for producing quality wines at good prices. Granted, some of the producers fall into a category that could be viewed as agro-industrial, the equivalent of fast-food companies in the world of haute cuisine. But a surprising number of producers are carefully handmaking their wines, just like wineries that sell their bottles for two, three or even four times the price. That's one reason why you can't lose in buying and drinking these exciting Italian value wines.

"It would be nice to make a little more money from our wines," admits Luigi di Majo Norante, whose medium-size operation makes wines in the tiny, little-known coastal area of Molise in southern Italy. He makes stylish wines, such as juicy Aglianico and tangy Greco, that sell in U.S. retail shops for a little more than $10 a bottle. His rich and spicy Terra degli Osci Ramitello, a blend of Sangiovese and Aglianico, is one of my favorites on this list. It's a steal at $12 a bottle.

"But our region is still not known for winemaking," he continues, "and we are trying to entice people to drink [our wines] with reasonable prices. Whether we make money or not, I am sure that people will buy and drink my wines with enjoyment, and that is what wine is all about."

James Suckling is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wine of Italy.

James Suckling's Favorite Italian Values

These six whites and six reds are consistent standouts. Not only solid values, they are handmade wines with distinctive character and are ideal for food.

Reds

FALESCO Umbria Vitiano
This blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is Italy's greatest value red. It's a $10 bottle of $20 wine.
 
A MANO Primitivo Puglia
This red comes from old-vine Primitivo, which is the same variety as Zinfandel. Why drink the California version when you can have the real thing?
 
CICCIO ZACCAGNINI Montepulciano D'Abruzzo Tralcetto Riserva
The Abruzzi region is southeast of Tuscany on the Adriatic Sea. Those who know it only as a bulk producer haven't tried this red.
 
DI MAJO NORANTE Terra Degli Osci Ramitello
This classy red is a blend of Sangiovese and Aglianico. If more wines from Molise are like this, the tiny region may become a powerhouse.
 
FATTORIA LE PUPILLE Maremma Toscana Micante
Maremma is an up-and-coming subregion of Tuscany. This, its best producer, offers fantastic wine for the money.
 
MORGANTE Nero D'Avola Sicilia
When it comes to modern, stylish reds, Sicily lags behind Italy in general, but Morgante proves that the island has a bright future.
 

Whites

TAMELLINI Soave Superiore
This white comes from family-owned vineyards in the Veneto. Unlike many industrial Soaves, it offers loads of character.
 
ALOIS LAGEDER Pinto Blanco Alto Adige
The mountainous Alto Adige region makes some of Italy's best whites. Lageder's are especially subtle and flavorful.
 
BOTROMAGNO Gravina
Puglia is best-known for rustic reds, but this refreshing blend of Greco and Malvasia Bianca demonstrates the region's potential with whites.
 
FRANZ HAAS Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie Kris
Pinot Grigio is fast gaining popularity in America. Franz Haas makes one of the best in Italy, especially for the money.
 
RUFFINO Chardonnay Toscana Libaio
This well-established Tuscan white comes from vineyards near San Gimignano and is consistently one of Italy's best values.
 
ARGIOLAS Nuragus Di Cagliari S'Elegas
This family-owned winery in Sardinia specializes in local varieties such as Nuragus. A clean, fragrant white, this wine evokes the island's crystal clear seas.
 

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