I was working in an Italian restaurant when I fell in love with wine so it was only natural that Italian wines were my first favorite genre and my first area of relative expertise. The thing about restaurant wine lists is that they don’t often feature the every day wines that one would typically enjoy at home. These wines fall in the $8 to $15 retail price range; meaning that if a restaurant were to sell them, they would be $16 to $30. This is less money than the restaurant wants you to be able to spend, so they simply don’t offer wines that cost less than $20 retail. Thus, when I was first getting into Italian wine, I was exposed to a great number of excellent bottles, but none that would find their way onto the average wine drinker’s dinner table on a Tuesday night. My exposure to the high-end wines gave me a great respect for the wines of Italy, but when I made the switch to retail I found the general perception of Italian wine to be a far cry from mine.
In retail, it’s all about volume. Lower priced wines move out the door quickly and our greatest challenge is to find wines under $20 that really impress us. The perception among my fellow employees was that Italian wines, the reds in particular, could reach heights of excellence, but they cost a great deal and rarely if ever were worth what you paid for them. Italian wines of even acceptable quality under $20 were a rarity in the store. When I first started at the shop I took a sabbatical from Italian wine. I was being exposed to so many new things that the Italians seemed a bit old-hat to me. I couldn’t afford the things I was used to drinking and the everyday stuff was wretched. But the tide is turning.
There are three regions that are the best known for red wine production: Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. I’ll be brief in my summation of their wines under $20 – avoid them. If you are unable to try the wine before you buy it, then you will more than likely be wasting your money. Of the three, Piedmont is far and away the best bet. As in every region throughout the world, this is not an absolute rule. Good wine under $20 does exist, but it is not something to take chances with.
Why is this? I think that there are two main factors at work. First, the land is expensive in these areas, so the grapes have that extra cost built into them. The other is the level of prestige that the great wines of Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto have lent to the regions as a whole. Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico (which have problems of their own) have enough prestige that they have created the impression that Tuscany as a whole produces great wine. Many producers rest on these laurels and depend on the regional reputation to sell their product, rather than improve their practices.
The Italians realized that they were well behind in this most important of market sectors. If they were unable initiate new drinkers with acceptable products on the low end, why would they try the high end wines when they wanted to splurge? A new source of quality fruit had to be found. Thus began the move to the South.
The southern and island regions are poised to be the next major player in the value wine sector. The inflammatory Euro will pose some problems for the American market, but the land in the south is so cheap that the producers will be able to compensate. I am very excited about this development. I feel it will help to fuel the quality revolution that producers in the traditional regions sorely need.
It is a story that draws many parallels to the state of Spanish wine in the eighties and early nineties. Outside capital comes to a backwater region that has been growing native grape varieties for centuries. The modern winemaking methods reveal the true potential of the grapes. The positive results inspire others to do the same and soon you have a revolutionary new player on the world scene. If we look twenty years to the future do we see a $200 Nero d’Avola from Sicily? It is entirely possible. In the mean time let’s discuss the places and the grapes.
All these regions have the definitive Mediterranean climate. During the growing season it is very dry and windy. This eliminates threats of disease and rot due to moisture, which greatly increases the potential for organic and biodynamic farming.
Puglia is often cited as the region most at the forefront of this value movement. It occupies the heel of the boot between the Adriatic Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. The two red grapes that have come to define Puglia are Negroamaro and Primitivo.
Negroamaro produces fleshy reds with a mixed berry nose. My new favorite producer is of the wine is Cantele. Yesterday their Salice Salentino DOC was the hit of our weekly tasting at the store. This wine is $13 and is one of the first products to arrive from their new wine making facility. According to those who have followed the winery throughout the years, the new equipment is making a world of difference. Previously they had to pump their wine to move it from one place to another. Pumping exposes the wine to an extreme amount of oxygen and the wines were best described as being “rustic”. Now they are very clean and very enjoyable.
Primitivo is the more famous of the two Puglian grapes. It created a stir in the 1990s when it was genetically linked to Zinfandel of California. The majority that I have had are still best given the “country wine” moniker, but I imagine that the strides in quality will yield a Cali-Zin-style wine sooner rather than later.
On the opposite side of the peninsula is Campania. This region was the primary provider of wine for the Romans and created the world’s first legendary wine which was called Falernian. It is rumored that Falernian was made from the grape variety Aglianico, which is still the basis of Campanian red wines. It produces rich, deeply colored wines that are quite full-bodied. The primary sub-region for Aglianico production is the Taurasi DOCG, which is referred to as the Barolo of the South.
In addition to Puglia, Sicily is considered to be the future for value wine production. It has long been the most productive region in Italy, often sending bulk grape must for distillation to mainland Italy and France. It is also home to the much maligned Marsala region. Many producers here have experimented with the “international” (i.e. French) grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah, which has yielded the best results thus far. Still, the best hope for the Sicilians to make their mark is with the local Nero d’Avola. In fact it is often compared to Syrah for its peppery characteristics and black fruits. Colosi is one of the producers to seek out.
Lastly, I have to mention Sardinia if for no other reason than I can’t think of another situation when I would get to write about it. My experience with these wines is limited, but very positive. The island was under the rule of the Kingdom of Aragon in the 1300s. During this time, the Grenache and Carignan grapes were brought to the island from modern-day Spain. Here Grenache is called Cannonau and Carignan is Carignano.
The only wines I have extensive experience with are from Argiolas, which is a producer that should be widely available. Their “Costera” Cannonau combines the fleshy red fruits of Grenache with just the right amount of Italian stank and at $17 it is one of the best wines around under twenty bucks.