Italy’s Finest Values

by Antonio Galloni

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there has never been a better time to be a wine consumer. The range of high- quality wines coming out of Italy today – and other countries, too – is amazing for its breadth and diversity. Growers are increasingly paying more attention to their entry-level wines because these are the only bottles that are selling well in today’s market. In many cases, producers are using juice that was once destined for their higher end wines to bolster their less expensive bottles. Even better, the recent weakness in the euro has made many of the wines in this article more affordable than they have been in years.

Tasting through Italy’s wines under $25 is always a fascinating exercise. Each year I come across seemingly dozens of wines that are new to me, many of which deliver incredible value. The country’s diversity of microclimates, terrains and winemaking styles is breathtaking. Moving all the way down south, the island of Pantelleria, which is best known for its sweet wines, is actually closer to eastern Africa than it is to the Italian mainland. These are but two brief examples of a country that consistently delivers a mind-bending array of bottles readers can enjoy without breaking the bank. I tasted a total of 784 wines for this report, of which 455 (58%) are reviewed in this article.

It is always difficult to speak about vintages in a broad article such as this one. Most of the new releases in the under $25 category are 2008s and 2009s. Vintage 2008 is proving to be inconsistent across the mainland. The spring was quite damp, which created problems with rot in many regions and forced producers to treat the vines more aggressively and more often than is normal. In general, the 2008s are mid-weight wines with good acidities but modest structures. Thus far I have tasted very few wines that I would want to follow for more than a few years. Overall, 2008 appears to be more successful for whites than reds.

The key event in 2009 was a massive heat spike throughout much of Italy that began in mid-August and lasted about ten days, a period when temperatures typically begin to fall, particularly in the evenings. I visited Alto Adige, Friuli and Tuscany during that time and it was scorching hot, even at night. In Alto Adige, which excels in steely, mineral-driven whites, I came across a number of excessively heavy wines. Based on what I have tasted so far, 2009 seems to have favored reds over whites, but it is early days, and I have yet to sample many of the most important wines, both whites and reds. One thing does seem fairly obvious, though. For reds, 2009 is more consistent across the board than 2008.

This year I was particularly struck by the wines I tasted from Valle d’Aosta, a small Alpine region nestled between northwestern Italy and Switzerland. A number of the best producers are high-quality cooperatives, which keeps prices low, while the wines remain largely unknown to the broad public. That won’t always be the case, but today Valle d’Aosta offers some of the finest values in Italy. Readers will have to spend some time getting familiar with Valle d’Aosta’s indigenous grapes (Picotendro, Petit Rouge, Mayolet, Fumin, Petit Arvine and Prié Blanc, to name a few), but it is an exercise well worth the effort.

A Word on Coverage of Italy For The Rest of 2010

Because of the recent birth of my daughter, I did not make my annual summer trip to Italy this year, which is when I typically do a large number of tastings, particularly of wines that do not enjoy wide distribution in the US. I have therefore moved coverage of Tuscany and northern Italy back one issue to October and December respectively. Many of the less expensive wines from those regions are reviewed in this Values report, so I will not be surprised if the Tuscany and northern Italy articles are ultimately somewhat smaller than they were last year. I will be using our website, to keep readers informed of the most exciting wines I taste in between publishing cycles. Lastly, readers who need a fix of higher-end Tuscan wines may want to see my reviews of thirty or so new releases I posted on the site a few months back.