Discovering Italy’s Finest Wine Values

by Antonio Galloni

Preparing the Best Values issue is always something I look forward to with much excitement. In fact, I get much more satisfaction and pleasure from finding a great budget-priced wine than I do tasting a high-flying wine from one of Italy’s famous regions. After all, a $50 or $100 bottle of wine should be great, but finding a delicious budget-friendly wine takes a lot more work. Even with a very weak US dollar, readers will find a veritable treasure trove of great, inexpensive wines from Italy. In order to make this article easier to navigate, I have divided coverage into four main areas that mirror my broader coverage; Piedmont, Tuscany, Northern Italy, and Central/Southern Italy.

Seeking out the best values often means looking beyond the most coveted varieties and regions. Of course, this plays perfectly to the strengths of a country with somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 indigenous grape varieties, most of which remain undiscovered by consumers on a wide scale. In addition, consider the diversity of Italy’s wine-producing regions, which encompass everything from the dry, desert-like heat of Sicily all the way to the Alpine microclimates of Alto Adige, and everything in between. Add to that a series of strong vintages, and the marketplace today is literally awash with hundreds of compelling wines that can be had for $25 or less, yet will deliver tremendous pleasure.

Given the immense wealth of diversity today’s consumer faces, it is only natural that readers’ attention gravitates towards the highest scoring wines. I urge readers to avoid that temptation and look beyond the scores to read the actual tasting notes as well. The simple fact is that not every wine in the world can be a 90+ point wine. I have spent several months scouring through hundreds of bottles to find the best values in Italian wine, and personally I would be thrilled to drink any of the wines in this article on any day of the week.

Readers are likely to find wines from 2007 and 2006 on retailers’ shelves. 2007 was a freakish year in Italy. There was no winter and virtually no rain in many regions. Temperatures remained warm into the spring, when for the first time in living memory, fruit trees and vegetables were all a full month ahead of schedule. Towards the end of the summer temperatures moderated, but that was only helpful to late-ripening varieties. Broadly speaking 2007 is more successful for reds than whites. The whites are more variable as in some cases the grapes didn’t develop their usual levels of aromatic complexity. The 2007 reds don’t seem to suffer from the same issues. By comparison, it is awfully hard to go wrong with anything in 2006. It is an exceptional vintage in terms of quality and consistency for both white and reds. Generally speaking, the wines are ripe and generous, but also beautifully balanced. It is hard to find a region in Italy that didn’t make great wines in 2006.

Last but not least, a word on pricing is in order. Where possible I have quoted the official retail pricing provided by the US importer, which assumes that every layer in the distribution chain takes a full mark-up. In this challenging economic environment that will often not be the case, and many of these wines may be available for lower prices, particularly in intensely competitive markets. I have chosen to include a handful of wines that are slightly above our $25 threshold because exchange rate volatility has temporarily pushed the wines above this level. Pricing in other countries, of course, will vary. In one of the more fascinating recent trends in Italian wine, several of the larger importers have begun producing wine under their own labels. With retail prices in the $10 range, the wines often offer excellent quality for the money. As consumers trade down in tough economic times, this price point becomes increasingly appealing, and these importers are well-positioned to essentially own large chunks of this market segment, at the expense of some of the better-known and more- expensive brands they represent. It will be interesting to see how this new market dynamic unfolds.


When it comes to sheer diversity, its awfully hard to beat Piedmont for value. That may sound hard to believe considering the prices top Barolos and Barbarescos fetch in today’s market, but the fact remains that Piedmont offers extraordinary diversity and quality at the budget-level. Consider that you could a build a crash-course in Piedmont wines around five bottles in this article covering the major native varieties (Arneis, Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Moscato) and spend a total of somewhere between $100-$125, which divided by a group of six tasters would be around just $20 a person. How many regions in the world can offer that level of breadth? And that is before you add some of the other varieties such as Gavi, Freisa, Brachetto, to name but a few of the lesser-known grapes. When looking for value in Piedmont a good rule of thumb is to stick with entry-level wines of the best estates whenever possible. More often than not top Barolo and Barbaresco producers treat their Dolcettos and Barberas with the same care as they lavish on their higher-end bottlings.

Arneis is a perfect aperitif or summertime wine, but its floral qualities and delicate fruit are best enjoyed up to one year after the harvest. Still, Arneis is an incredibly unique and rewarding wine. The Dolcettos in both 2006 and 2007 are so delicious that my tastings left me wondering why on earth I don’t drink the wines more often. The same is true of the Barberas and Nebbiolos. Most Barberas in the under-$25 price range will be the entry-level 2006s. These wines are typically made in a fresh style, with little or no oak. In a ripe year like 2006 the wines are especially generous and fleshy. I also tasted a number of outstanding 2006 Langhe Nebbiolos that offer terrific value for the money. Lastly, there are few better ways to end a meal than with a glass of Moscato. Unfortunately there is an ocean of Moscato in the marketplace, and the longstanding assumption is that all of the wines are essentially the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great Moscato requires all of the same things needed to make any important wine; a first-class site, low yields and most important of all, the vision and passion of a dedicated grower. I have attempted to highlight the artisan producers who make the finest versions of this great dessert wine.


Although Tuscany doesn’t offer the sheer varietal diversity of Piedmont, Campania, Sardegna and other regions, it compensates for that with an enormous number of delicious, value-priced wines. Tuscany’s strong suit is reds, particularly those where Sangiovese is the principal grape. Readers will find a vast number of choices from all of Tuscany’s appellations. In particular, consumers should focus on the 2006s. This ripe, but well-balanced vintage produced a stunning set of wines at all quality levels across the region’s main production zones. The best 2006 Rossos from Montalcino are fantastic, and in some cases will challenge the higher- priced Brunellos, even if in many cases prices have crept up above our $25 limit. In Chianti Classico I tasted a number of exciting 2006s that are fat, juicy and loaded with fruit. Morellino di Scansano remains Tuscany’s greatest source of value- priced wines. Scansano, and the rest of Maremma for that matter, are home to some of the warmest microclimates in Tuscany and yield wines of notable breadth and ripeness. While 2006 is a vintage that can almost be purchased across the board, the cooler 2005s require a more selective approach, yet I found a number of gorgeous, fresh wines that will deliver considerable pleasure as well, particularly over the near-term.


With the exception of Campania, I can think of no better region to explore the breadth of Italian whites than Alto Adige. Many of the region’s top wineries are cooperatives, something which is quite normal in this part of the country. These estates benefit from a favorable taxation regime, and are able to pass along those savings to consumers in the form of very accessible pricing. Alto Adige excels in a wide range of both indigenous and international varieties. The wines tend to be steely and minerally, with gorgeous aromatics and tons of varietal character. Highlights are Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sylvaner, Kerner and Gewürtzraminer, a variety that was discovered in the town of Termeno. Alto Adige doesn’t do as well with reds in the value category, as those varieties tend to ripen best only in the finest sites with the best exposures. Incidentally, Alto Adige is one of the most beautiful, pristine regions in Italy, and is home to some of the country’s finest restaurants, not to mention world-class skiing. Alto Adige is a great destination for travelers seeking an off-the-beaten track experience in Italy.

Veneto is home to Venice, Romeo and Juliet and a number of gorgeous smaller towns, among other popular tourist destinations, yet the wines don’t get the recognition they deserve. For starters, the sparkling Prosecco is a delicious aperitif wine that embodies the joy of the Italian lifestyle, otherwise known as la dolce vita. There has been a huge boom of interest in this grape as markets for sparkling wines have literally exploded across the world, yet Prosecco is no different than any other high quality wine. Superior sites farmed judiciously by diligent producers yield wines of great personality and character that stand out from the oceans of mass-produced Prosecco that flood the market. In the last few years the rise of interest in sparkling wines and rosés has given birth to one of the most unfortunate creations in recent memory, pink Prosecco. I have yet to taste one of these wines that merits any serious consideration, (that includes other rosé sparklers from Northern Italy) and it is my sincere hope that these wines will disappear just as quickly as they arrived, for they are nothing more than a crass attempt to cash in on a fad. Veneto’s other great white is the Garganega-based Soave. Much maligned in the past, today Soave produces a number of gorgeous whites that merit consideration. The indigenous Garganega is an expressive, generous grape capable of notable nuance and complexity when it is farmed with care. Although Soaves can include international varieties such as Chardonnay, the best wines are those made from 100% Garganega or predominantly Garganega with the addition of other local varieties.

Of course, Veneto is also home to Valpolicella, Amarone and a number of magnificent sweet wines. While many of these fall outside the budget level, I did taste a number of delicious Valpolicellas and other entry-level wines. Like Soave, Valpolicella is a wine with a checkered past, but today’s wines are building a new and well-deserved reputation for quality. At its best, Valpolicella is a soft, fruity wine meant for casual drinking. Readers will also find quite a few ripasso Valpolicellas on retailers’ shelves. Producers give these Valpolicellas a secondary fermentation on the lees of their Amarone to give the wines more color, richness and complexity. Often marketed along the lines of ‘baby Amarone’ the reality is that many of these wines are overrated, but a few standouts merit considerable attention. As always, readers will do best by sticking with top producers.

Emilia Romagna is a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention in serious wine circles, yet I tasted a number of interesting offerings. Lambrusco is another Italian wine that is often dismissed, but at its best it is well worth discovering. Given the intense regional character of Italy’s wines, it is only natural that they pair best with local cuisine. I can’t think of anything better to accompany a plate of artisanal mortadella or home-made tortellini in brood than a great Lambrusco (or its cousin Bonarda frizzante), and take my word for it, there are a few out there. Emilia Romagna is also capable of producing good to excellent Sangiovese. These wines are rarely, if ever, as profound as Tuscan Sangioveses, but the wines can deliver excellent value.

Friuli has been in the spotlight for some time, and as a result, it is harder to find value-priced wines. There is a vast difference in quality among the various appellations, and I often find that an additional $5 or so per bottle makes a huge difference here, as the higher-end wines are often not that much more expensive than the under $25 wines. In Lombardy, the famous Franciacorta appellation is in a similar position. Sadly, the vast majority of wines fall outside our $25 price range. The same thing is true in Valtellina. Only sites with the best exposures make notable wines, and the rugged landscapes are very expensive to farm, both of which result in few wines at the value level.


Campania is a region that fascinates to no end. Blessed with an extraordinary range of highly expressive indigenous varieties, unique terroirs and an oenological history that dates back several thousand years, Campania is a gem waiting to be discovered. Among the whites, the fruity Falanghina can be a stand out, but only when made by quality-minded producers. The intensely mineral-driven Greco di Tufo is a great food wine, particularly with raw fish and seafood. Fiano di Avellino is typically rounder and softer than Greco, yet it, too, can offer notable complexity. I was quite surprised when a well-known importer told me how difficult it is to sell the these wines. There are few whites that are more food- friendly than those of Campania, and they can still be had for reasonable prices. Among the reds, Aglianico reigns supreme. I tasted a number of entry-level bottlings that capture the unique qualities of this compelling indigenous grape. Producers have only scratched the surface with Aglianico. Hopefully, they will soon stop trying to impress consumers with sheer opulence and French oak and begin to focus on making wines of more elegance and finesse that express the full range of this important variety’s qualities.

I continue to be amazed by the stunning quality of the wines of Sardinia. While some producers have succumbed to the temptation of pricing their wines for the billionaire jet set crowd of the island’s Costa Smeralda, plenty of values can still be found. Nowhere is the white Vermentino as convincing as it is in Sardinia. A perfumed, floral white, at its best Vermentino delivers tremendous pleasure for the money. Wines range from the fresher stainless-steel Vermentinos, to those made in a softer, more fruit-driven style. The island’s array of native red varieties is truly stunning. Monica, Carignano, Bovale Sardo, and above all, Cannonau (Grenache), yield wines of notable richness and depth. Amazingly, many of the island’s vineyards date back to pre-phylloxera times. The soils contain a high percentage of sand, which filled holes in the vines and prevented the disease from spreading as it did throughout the rest of Europe. Sardinia remains the most overlooked region in Italy among US consumers, but that won’t be the case forever.

Sicily is another region that is capable of making a wide array of compelling wines. Among the whites, readers should focus on distinctive native varieties like Inzolia and Cataratto, which yield perfumed, aromatic wines. Among the reds, Nero d’Avola is a variety whose potential has only been scratched. Nero d’Avola can be light-colored and delicate, almost like Pinot Noir, but it can also produce big, full-bodied, gamey wines. Nerello Mascalese, which flourishes on the Etna, is capable of reds that resemble Pinot or Nebbiolo, but sadly, these wines remain hard to find in the value space. I confess to not being a fan of international varieties in Sicily, red or white. Will Sicily ever produce a Merlot that can compete with the best of Pomerol, or a Chardonnay that can stand next to a wine from Napa Valley or Burgundy? Not a chance. There are a few interesting wines being made with international grapes, but they tend to be wines that blend indigenous and international varieties with a rare level harmony and grace.

  Abruzzo is capable of delicious Montepulcianos and Trebbianos, as long as producers don’t get overly carried away with concentration and French oak. Apulia is perhaps even more exciting. Although quality is disastrously uneven, the region is home to Primitivo (Zinfandel), Negroamaro and other compelling varieties whose true potential has yet to be fully tapped. In Basilicata it is Aglianico, especially when grown in the Vulture district, that is worthy of consideration. The Marche is most famous for the white Verdicchio, yet the region is also capable of making delicious reds. Umbria is best suited for reds, with the exception of Orvieto, which can be interesting on occasion.