Italian Wine

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By Courtney Cochran

Italian wines have long been some of the best buys in imported wine, and even with the dollar's relatively weak position vis à vis the Euro they continue to offer terrific value to domestic shoppers. To get a jump on the trend, read on for a list of some of my top picks in Italian vino, conveniently arranged by region. For purchasing information, visit Salute!

The gorgeously fog-draped vineyards of northwestern Italy's Piedmont turn out some of the world's most sought-after reds, particularly those crafted from the expressive Nebbiolo grape.  Named for the nebbia (fog) so common in the region, the grape reaches its finest expressions in reds from Barolo and Barbaresco, though better value can be found in versions from lesser-known sub-regions.  To wit, the 2007 Elio Grasso "Gavarini" DOC Nebbiolo d'Alba ($25) enchants with much of Barolo's power and finesse, for a fraction of the price.
Northeastern Italy is home to more than just the famously water-encircled city of Venice: It's also ground zero for some of the finest sparkling wine bargains in the world.  Made by the Charmat method of bubbly production - which uses pressurized tanks to create fizz - Veneto sparklers like the NV Bellussi Prosecco di Valdobbiadene ($13) make the perfect wine vehicles for the likes of picnics, tailgates, and other festive outdoor affairs.  Watch for subtle sweetness, crisp acidity and approachable flavors of pear, flowers and a hint of citrus.  

The hills surrounding the postcard-perfect village of Montalcino give way to the highly coveted Sangiovese-based reds of the Brunello di Montalcino appellation.  And while these wines - which I like to call "the Ferraris of Tuscany" - can be pricey, producer La Fortuna offers an outstanding price-to-value punch in the form of its 2003 La Fortuna Brunello di Montalcino ($40).  Italian wine lovers will delight in the wine's beguiling aromas of musky red fruits, leather and smoke followed by suave notes of plum, tobacco and leather on the palate.  

Trentino-Alto Adige
The mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige near the Swiss border in northern Italy is nearly as famous for its mineral-driven white wines as for its outstanding outdoor sporting options.  There, the 100-year-old Cantina San Paolo produces distinctive white wines that are among the best in the country; don't miss 2007 San Paolo Pinot Bianco Alto Adige Exclusiv Plötzner ($25), a full-bodied romp of a white wine redolent with aromas of tropical fruits backed by laser-like acidity and a finely etched lemon finish. A food wine par excellence.  

Chianti Classico
Chianti DOCG - a vast appellation in Tuscany that produces an astounding amount of wine - can be inconsistent stuff, but the more highly regulated Chianti Classico DOCG designation is almost always a sure-fire bet when it comes to tracking down stellar quality in Italian red wine.  To that end, the 2005 Rocca di Montegrossi Chianti Classico ($26) ably combines the Sangiovese grape's trademark black cherry flavors with nuanced notes of lilac and mineral.  Awarded 2 Glasses by the prestigeous Gambero Rosso review, it's pretty near a sure bet.

Encompassing a jaw-dropping stretch of coastline south of Rome (yes, I'm talking about the Amalfi Coast), Campania is a region that has long been lauded for its wine and cuisine.  And, thanks to a recent upswell of interest and investment in the area's wines, we're now seeing more and more delicious examples on store shelves stateside.  To wit, the 2006 Terre del Vulcano Fiano di Avellino ($16) is a full-bodied white that packs unusually powerful aromatics of hazelnuts alongside food-friendly structure and a long rich finish.  Si, grazie!

Italy's largest wine producing region by volume, sunny southern Puglia is turning heads with its rapidly improving wines.  Fueled by energy and capital from local entrepreneurs and outside investors alike, the best Pugliese wines make the most of the region's abundant sunshine and mineral-rich soils.  To wit, Tormaresca's Boca di Lupo ($38), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (15%) and the hearty Aglianico, offers deeply saturated flavors alongside well-integrated oak in an international style reminiscent of California's flavorful full-bodied reds.

The rolling calcerous hills that surround the stylish coastal city of Ancona on Italy's Adriatic coast produce some of the country's most sought-after whites.  For a song, the 2006 Fattoria Laila Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi ($11) delivers complexity alongside refreshment in a way unique to Italian whites; watch for layered aromas and flavors of flowers, pear, vanilla and almonds before a satisfyingly long crisp finish.  In all, it's an appealingly balanced white that's perfect for pairing with the likes of poultry, vegetables and - of course - seafood.

The wonderfully deep-hued Nero d'Avola grape - native to southern Sicily - is the basis of the rightly affordable 2007 La Segreta Rosso IGT Sicilia ($12) from Planeta.  The refreshing red - raised entirely sans oak in stainless steel - also encompasses a unique blend of international varieties including Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc that together lend the full-bodied red an appealing degree of polish, roundness and approachability rarely seen in wines of its price.  Often compared to spicy New World Syrah, it's an ideal wine for casual fare like pizzas.

This province in north-central Italy is known for growing some of the country's most eccentric wines, and certainly Lambrusco is nothing if not eccentric!  A dry, fizzy red wine made to drink within the year it's created, Lambrusco is best served cold along with a plate of meats like those made so well in nearby Bologna.  Try Barbolini's non-vintage "boutique" Lambrusco ($13) for a fun, fizzy ride - not to be taken too seriously, but absolutely mean to be enjoyed.  


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