Given the geographic variety of Italy and its often-perplexing regional wine designations, it pays, sometimes, to simply let your palate be your guide. The more I try to understand the wines of Italy via books, the more I’m convinced that I learn best with a bottle in front of me. I guess I prefer to taste my way through Italy rather than to read my way through it. And that’s precisely what I’ve been doing: tasting Italian wines with an eye on frugality. The result: 10 very good, well-made wines, all priced under $20—and many are well under $20. Here are my tasting notes.
Let’s begin with Ruffino, the iconic Tuscan winery, founded by cousins Leopoldo and Ilario Ruffino in 1877. If you’re looking for a straightforward, but brightly flavored unoaked Chardonnay, try Ruffino’s 2011 vintage ($10.99). It’s a fragrant, somewhat floral and tropical-tasting Chard, reminiscent of Viognier, with apricot and pear flavors. For the same price ($10.99), Ruffino Chianti 2010 is a solid, medium-bodied Chianti with floral violet notes and hints of plum—an easy-drinking wine that pairs well with pizza and pasta. And, for those who like Italian bubbly, Ruffino Prosecco ($15.37) is light and delicate, even elegant, with fine bubbles and hints of apple and peach.
While we’re still in Tuscany, let’s take a look at a couple of Chiantis from Piccini. Chianti “Orange” (for its orange label) is Piccini’s flagship Chianti; orange is said to “symbolize the energy, youth and passion” that characterize the Piccini family. This moderately priced ($8.99) Chianti DOCG 2011 is indeed youthful: a versatile, young red wine that is fruity and light on the palate, a quaffable wine to try with simply prepared foods like porchetta or roast chicken with herbs. Piccini Chianti Classico DOCG 2009 ($15.99) is a Sangiovese/Merlot/Ciliegiolo blend with a bit more heft than its little brother. Still, it’s straightforward, with jammy cherry and plum flavors—a juicy mouthful with a long, fruity finish. It goes great with grilled meats and root veggies. Finally, Bibi Graetz Casamatta 2011 ($12.99), also from Tuscany, is a very versatile red wine, made from 100 percent Sangiovese—silky and elegant.
For the next couple wines, let’s head north from Tuscany to Piemonte, Italy’s northwestern wine region. My wife and I both love Gavi, the wine named for the Piemonte municipality of Gavi, near the Ligurian border. Sadly, in Utah wine stores, I’ve only been able to locate Gavi from three different producers. We want more Gavi! Anyway, here’s a good one: Araldica La Luciana Gavi 2010 ($12.99). It’s made, like all Gavi, from the Cortese white-wine grape, and has typical Gavi lemon and lime aromas and flavors of green fruit and citrus. It’s a snappy, unoaked wine that is terrific with fish and seafood, and exceptional with basil pesto. Also from Piemonte comes Luigi Voghera Langhe Arneis 2010 ($11.99), an extraordinary white wine for the price. Arneis translates as “little rascal” due to the difficulty in growing the Arneis grape variety. There’s nothing difficult, however, about guzzling a wonderful wine that’s crisp, with bright fruit flavors and good minerality—full-bodied, but refined. Try it with a wedge of Taleggio.
Now, let’s travel to Orvieto, in Umbria, for lip-smacking Argillae Orvieto DOC 2010 ($14.99), a complex white wine with gorgeous floral aromas and tropical-fruit flavors that pair beautifully with chicken salad.
Finally, let’s wind up back in the north, in Trentino, where zesty, robust, Torre di Luna Pinot Grigio 2011 ($9.99) is made. You’ll love its pretty pear flavors.