I recently received a call from a friend who was looking for recommendations for an Italian wine that he could bring to Italian-themed BYOB restaurant. He liked wine, needed wine to accompany the meal, of course, but did not know really anything about Italian wines. I knew what he had in mind for “an Italian wine” was what most people think about Italian wine for a meal: red, medium-bodied, food-friendly, approachable, and likely having “Chianti” somewhere among the numerous Italian words on the main label.
The menu at this particular restaurant is very similar to most inexpensive to moderately-priced Italian-themed restaurants across the country. Red sauce, melted white cheese and bits of green basil or darker oregano along with scent of garlic are found in a high percentage of the preparations. This is the food that largely derived from immigrants of the Naples area. It is not Italian, it is Italian-American.
Ordering a red wine in Naples today, you will likely be served a wine featuring the Aglianico grape, which thrives in the region (and can make some terrific wines). In this country, by far the most common red wine at an Italian-themed restaurant has historically been Chianti from Tuscany, about 300 miles to the north. Red sauce, spaghetti and Chianti, often bottled in straw-covered bottled denotes Italian food for many. The reason that Chianti is so intertwined with Neapolitan-derived cooking popular here is that the wine industry in Chianti was much more advanced in terms of exporting their products than in other areas of Italy. The fiasco, that straw-covered bottle also became a good marketing tool. Not incidentally, good Chianti, is a terrific food wine that goes well with a lot of foods, especially Italian-American.
I thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of ten high quality red wines from Italy priced under $20 which are fairly widely available that can be helpful for my friend and others in the future who want to pick up something to complement their Italian fare.
Altesino Rosso di Altesino – $17
Made by a top producer of Brunello di Montalcino this features 80% Sangiovese, with the rest split between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are aged in small oak barriques. The Sangiovese is aged in stainless steel to preserve its distinctive characteristic. The wine is fresh, fruity for a Tuscan wine, with evident Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and easy to drink. During my time visiting properties around Montalcino a couple of years ago that Altesino’s wines were the most approachable.
Boroli Barbera d'Alba Quattro Fratelli – $15
Traditionally featuring lots of acidity, a light- to medium-body, light tannins and a bit of dark cherry fruit, Barberas are among the very best food wines in Italy, which is saying something. Made in the traditional leaner style, this is a very good wine to complement a range of dishes.
Cancelli Rosso Toscana – $10
Sangiovese with some Syrah, this wine from a top Chianti producer has plenty of fruit and is easy to drink while retaining enough acidity to do good service at the meal. Earned 90 points from the Wine Spectator, too.
Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino – $20
With the unfortunate, and generally inaccurate, moniker, “Baby Brunello” after the main wine of the region, Brunello di Montalcino, these wines might not be taken as seriously as they should. Made entirely of Sangiovese – the main grape in nearby Chianti– these wines are notable for the pleasant cherry and sometimes strawberry and prune notes that are balanced with a good amount of acidity and evident, but integrated tannins. At their best, these usually full-bodied wines are easy and rewarding to drink, and this a terrific value for the quality
Coltibuono Cetamura Chianti – $8
Also from Coltibuono like the Cancelli, this Chianti is 90% Sangiovese with 10% of the indigenous Canaiolo that is medium-bodied, soft with plenty of acidity and a good amount of the earthiness that Chianti is known for. A good food wine that is an excellent value.
Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – $10
A true bargain from one of the leaders in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this wine has the sturdiness and rustic tones that are associated with the grape, but it opens up nicely for a smooth, rich wine that is complicated enough, especially for the price. Let this breath for a time, if possible, before consuming; you will enjoy it more.
Monte Antico Rosso – $10
Smooth and supple, the Sangiovese-based wine is marketed as the affordable Super Tuscan. Not as rich or tannic as the typical Super Tuscan, this is a very well-made wine year after year that is very easy to drink and will appeal to most American wine drinkers. And most will be amazed at the quality for the price.
Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano – $15
A simpler, more approachable version of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – not to be confused with the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from the other side of the Appenines. This is made primarily with Sangiovese and is relatively straightforward wine with strawberry and plum notes and a bit of the typical earthiness of Tuscan wines that is easy to enjoy. Medium- to full-bodied.
Sella e Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva – $12
Cannonau is a very popular varietal on Sardinia, and is widely planted as Grenache in southern France and Garnacha in Spain. Used alone it typically makes a distinct, rich, dry and sometimes extremely alcoholic wine. This Sella e Mosca version is lighter and more refined than most Cannonaus. Medium-bodied with a good amount of depth, dry, but well-rounded and featuring ripe, plum flavors. Though it drinks easily alone, it makes for a better complement to many hearty meat dishes and sharp cheeses.
Zenato Valpolicella Superiore – $15
Bright and lively with some red fruit on the palate, this well-made medium-bodied wine form northeastern Italy is easily liked and great for the table. It should also be fairly easy to find.