Italy is another wine powerhouse and a region that demands proper exploration. Like France, it can be quite confusing at first, but it doesn’t really have to be. This is why my latest book dives deeper into helping consumers understand Italian wines (Decoding Italian Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Grapes, Regions, Practices and Culture of the “Land of Wine”). I co-authored the book with an Italian film reviewer who brought a great deal of cultural references and tidbits to the story that makes this book even easier to digest.
Italian wines are usually labeled according to the region where they are produced versus the grape, so you will want to familiarize yourself with what’s produced where. And there are a lot of different regions, including some super small ones that produce great wine, but I’m going to stick to the more well known ones that you need for an introductory wine education, and they are the ones that you should be able to find in your local wine shop.
We’ll begin with the 3 Big B’s: Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello.
Barolo and Barbaresco: two of Italy’s greatest treasures. Both wines are produced from the Nebbiolo grape in the famed Piedmont region (your wine shop may have a dedicated Piedmont section). Barolo and Barbaresco wines are big, rich red wines that are full bodied with red berry flavor along with more rustic undertones of chocolate and licorice. Pair these with something that can match their flavor, like lasagna or thick tomato based pasta sauces. Barolo wines are known for their high tannic structure (a bit tighter than Barbarescos) and they are meant to be aged to allow time for the tannins to soften up a bit.
Brunello: made from 100% Sangiovese (San-joe-vay-zee), and probably the highest end region for this grape in Italy. Wines from Brunello tend to have dark berry flavor, highlighted by a dry finish, perfect for many Italian style dishes.
Wines from the 3 B’s of Italy are not inexpensive, but they are unique and really enjoyable when the time calls for them. On the low end, you’re looking at $30-40 (be careful going much lower than that) but to truly grasp the beauty of these wines, you will need to spend closer to $70-80.
Your wine store may have an entire section dedicated to Piedmont since it is one of the premier wine regions in the world with perfect soil and weather to grow many of the famous Italian grapes. In addition to the Nebbiolo mentioned above, you will want to explore some of the other grapes famously grown in Piedmont including Dolcetto and Barbera. These are usually found at much lower price points, starting in the teens.
Another powerhouse wine from the Veneto area in Italy is Amarone (pronounced Am-a-row-knee), which commands a premium price due to its complexity, structure and ability to age. Amarone is made from the Corvina grape that has dark cherry flavors with great tannic structure. While most Amarone bottles start in the $30 range, keep an eye out for Valpolicella wines which is a little sister to Amarone. Many Valpolicella wines are priced around $15-20 and they offer a lot of what Amarone does, for a lot less.
Italian Sangiovese extends far beyond Brunello though, and it gets (arguably) equally as good and even less expensive in other areas, including Chianti. Chianti is produced in Tuscany so your wine shop may include these wines in a special section or bundle them up under “Italy.” Some even break Tuscany down by region which is really helpful.
Chianti is made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape, although a few other ones might be blended in depending on the winemaker. When you see a bottle labeled as “Chianti Classico” this is not a classic version of Chianti. Rather it encompasses the next few towns over, and it has its own wine sanctioning body. I find Chianti Classico wines to exude a little more character than their counterparts down the street. Chianti and Chianti Classico wines can be found starting around $10 and they climb up from there. One of my favorite producers is Frescobaldi and they are a good one to keep an eye out for because they offer different bottles at various price points.
The more I have explored Italian wines, the more value areas I discover so I’d like to cover a few of those now. These wines, in my opinion of course, cost less than $15 on average and offer better quality than almost anything else in its price range.
The first one is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and it is made from the Montepulciano grape. Bottles of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo are starting to appear more and more in US stores, with price points starting around $8. The wines are dry like many Italian wines, with pepper and spice; blackberry in flavor. They are really meant to be paired with classic Italian dishes.
Another favorite Italian value wine is Nero D’Avola, which is produced in Sicily. These are dark wines with peppery undertones and a dry finish. Nero D’Avola wines can typically be found for $10-15.
Italian white wines are also quite good, including the Pinot Grigio that many people think beats out Pinot Grigio from other regions. I’d also keep an eye out for bottles of Soave, a crisp dry white wine that can be scored ridiculously cheap in many cases. A few other Italian whites that I really enjoy are Gavi, Verdicchio and Vermentino – each are reasonably priced (often under $20) and are excellent alternatives to the standard white wines you may encounter.
I’ll wrap up this section on Italy with another mention of Italian Super Tuscans. These are wines blended with Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (as we covered briefly in the Cabernet Sauvignon section). Starting at only $8 they are excellent bargain drinkers, and the high end ones that stretch into the hundreds of dollars can hang with fine Bordeaux that costs even more. When you go to the store remember, you won’t see the words “Super Tuscan” on the label. Rather look for red blends from Tuscany, sometimes simply called Rosso.
Your Italian Wine Check List
– One red wine from either Barolo or Barbaresco. Not cheap I know, but a fun way to experience the Nebbiolo grape
– Red wine from Brunello
– Red Amarone wine
– Red Valpolicella wine
– Red wine from Chianti and/or Chianti Classico
– Red wine from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
– Nero D’Avola from Sicily
– Italian Pinot Grigio
– Italian Soave
– Italian Super Tuscan, red blend
Fast Fact: Italy is currently the largest wine producing country by volume, followed (closely) by France and Spain.
Of all the wines and regions we’ve covered thus far, Spain might be the one where I am buying most of my wines from right now. The price to value on many Spanish wines right now is just too good to pass up. Let’s look at some of the key areas that you need to know about, beginning with areas known for their red wines made from the Tempranillo grape (known there as Tinto Fino).
Rioja and Ribera Del Duero
These are the two quintessential areas of Spain for big, hearty red wines that are food friendly and on the whole, very reasonably priced. Rioja (pronounced Ree-OH-hah) and Ribera del Duero produce Tempranillo based wines that are medium to full bodied, with some noted earthy undertones; expect flavors of red berry fruit. The flavor profile really varies with the time the wine spends aging.
Both areas use the Spanish aging labels. A wine labeled as “Crianza” must age two years before release; a wine labeled “Reserva” must age three years, and a wine labeled “Grand Reserva” must age 5 years before release.
Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines can start in the $8-10 range and climb up significantly from there. The quality across the board, even on the low end, is quite remarkable. These wines are really versatile. You can serve them on their own, with almost any meal, share with friends at a party or bring over to someone’s house as a gift. You can’t go wrong.
Priorat and Garnacha
The next big thing to know about Spanish wines is the Garnacha grape grown prevalently in Spain’s famed Priorat region. “Garnacha” is the same as the “Grenache” found in France and elsewhere. Like many grapes, it is just known by its local name in Spain. Fairly good Priorat bottles can be found for close to $15 but they get incrementally better as you spend more.
Garnacha is an important grape in Spain and it is also beginning to be blended into Rioja wines. Its juicy, fruit forward character and softness makes it a great blending partner but also a wine that is fantastic on its own. We’re seeing more Grenache being grown here in the US as well.
You will also want to explore wines from Navarra. Your wine shop will likely carry a few of these, and they start right around $12.
Spain’s white wines
I think Spain offers some of the best white wine values in all of Europe. The more I try the more I tend to build on that position. Simply put Albarino from Rías Baixas and Verdejo from Rueda can be found for $10-15 and they actually put a lot of fun back into drinking inexpensive white wines. With more character than Pinot Grigio, less oak and butter than most Chardonnays, and more complexity than many Sauvignon Blancs, these wines serve up crisp apricot and peach flavors, perfect if chilled in the summertime. And I love to pair these whites with lighter summer fare such as salads, white fish and chicken.
Wherever you explore in Spanish wine country you will find good wines for a good value. There are many more regions than I listed here, but this should get you going in the right direction, and you can further explore based on what grapes and areas you find favor with.
Your Spanish Wine Check List:
– Tempranillo wine from Rioja
– Tempranillo wine from Ribera del Duero
– Grenache based wine from Priorat
– Grenache from Navarra. Toro is an area not to be missed too
– Albarino white wine from Rías Baixas
– Verdejo white wine from Rueda
Fast Fact: Even though Spain is recognized more for its reds, nearly two thirds of Spain’s vineyards are white grapes due to high volumes of brandy and sherry production.
Most people just starting out on their wine journey don’t associate Germany or Austria with wine country. And I didn’t either at first. But Germany produces some of the best Riesling in the world, and Austria has made a big push into stores recently with their Gruner Veltliner (pronounced GROO-ner Felt-Lean-er) whites and amazing red wines.
Let’s first look into German Rieslings. Riesling thrives in Germany because of its cool climate surrounded by mountains and rivers. Riesling from Germany tends to be sweet like Riesling from other areas, but they taste really pure, with fragrant noses and the rich flavor of peaches, apricots and apples. They are spectacular (and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t normally prefer Riesling).
There are many drier Rieslings available too and we’re seeing more and more of these reaching US stores. The German wine authority has a super complicated system for outlining the ripeness and sugar content of the wines, but I, like many American wine consumers, have yet to figure it out.
The labels on German Rieslings are confusing too but you can start your journey by finding some Riesling from Mosel, which seems to be a popular option in many restaurants and wine shops.
In Austria, Gruner Veltliner is thriving as more wine enthusiasts pick up on what is a great white wine bargain, and one that floats a little off most people’s radar (although I am seeing an influx of new Gruner bottles at my wine shop). Here’s the scoop. Gruner Veltliner is not at all like Riesling. I only included them in the same section because of their geographic relationship (and because my local wine warehouse keeps them side by side).
Gruner Veltliner is light to medium in body, and is dry and crisp; not too sweet. It shares some of the same fruit flavors as Riesling, but is more like a robust, floral Sauvignon Blanc. Gruner Veltliner is really food friendly as well, going with just about anything – seafood, white meat, vegetables or stir fry.
And you can find Gruner Veltliner in stores for around $15-$20. When you are looking for a change of pace, try a bottle of Gruner. It won’t be your last.
Your Wine Check List for Germany and Austria:
– Riesling from Germany (start with Mosel)
– Gruner Veltliner from Austria
Fast fact: German immigrants brought Riesling vines with them in the late nineteenth century and the earliest US plantings occurred in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
Chardonnay is one of the most popular white wines in the world and it is grown extensively in most major wine regions, where it particularly thrives in France (Burgundy) and in the US (California). California Chardonnay was put on the world map when it beat out its French counterparts at the 1976 “Judgment in Paris” with French judges blindly choosing the Chardonnay from California’s Chateau Montelena over their own White Burgundies.
And Chardonnay continues to thrive today, offered in many different styles from different regions of the wine world.
We covered Chardonnay in France pretty extensively. At your wine shop you will want to look for the Burgundy section and then begin to segment out the white burgundies. I would aim to try at least two bottles of white burgundy, one from Chablis and one from Pouilly-Fuisse. This should be easy to find as these are two of the primary areas you will see represented in US wine stores.
French Chardonnay is going to be stylistically different from what you will find elsewhere. It won’t be over oaked and buttery, instead more pure, citrusy and clean. Its fruit flavors will really come to the forefront. In Chablis, winemakers may use stainless steel fermenting to keep the wines even more pure and fresh.
Using stainless steel for fermenting is growing in popularity in other places too, particularly in the US which is a relief from what I’ve found to be severely over oaked Chardonnays. For a time, the US consumer preferred the oaky style, but having recently returned from a Napa trip, I can say there’s been a marked shift, not necessarily to all stainless, but they’ve definitely turned down the dial on oak influence on the wines.
Many of the areas of Sonoma we’ve covered also produce excellent Chardonnay including Alexander Valley, Carneros and Russian River Valley. California’s central coast is also a hot spot, particularly Santa Barbara County, with its cool ocean side climate. And big name Napa producers will offer good Chardonnay as well. Expect to start in the $10-15 to get going, with some of the really tasty bottles priced in the $25-30 range.
Outside of California, you should seek out Chardonnay (and Riesling) from upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region. Given the cooler climate, these grapes fare very well.
Based on the popularity of Chardonnay it’s no surprise that it is grown all over the world. Australia and New Zealand produce good Chardonnay, as does Italy, Chile and Argentina. I would keep an eye on South Africa and Canada, since both are up and coming Chardonnay regions.
Your Chardonnay Check List:
– French White Burgundy (Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse)
– Blanc de blancs champagne made from Chardonnay
– California Chardonnay from Alexander Valley, Carneros or Russian River Valley (Sonoma)
– California Chardonnay from Napa Valley
– California Chardonnay from the central coast, Monterey, Santa Barbara
– New York Chardonnay
Fast Fact: Chardonnay is the top selling varietal in the United States.
Like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that is expressed in many different styles from all over the world. In general, Sauvignon Blanc is a citrusy, grassy white wine with a good dose of acidity (making it often times tarty) and fresh tropical flavors. Each of these components is emphasized more or less in the various styles throughout the world, and some regions, particularly in France and New Zealand have become known for their unmistakable characteristics in their Sauvignon Blanc.
We’ll start with French Sauvignon Blanc, which is the birth place of the grape. In France, Sauvignon Blanc is (primarily) grown in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley including Sancerre where the grape really thrives. As I mentioned in the France section, Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux is frequently blended with Semillon, a practice you are seeing become more popular in other regions of the world including Napa Valley (Duckhorn’s Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite of these blends, $24).
Most of the Sauvignon Blanc in France falls into the more elegant of executions, floral and earthy with mineral undertones and a clean crispness to the flavor. This runs a little differently than we will see from California and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. You’ll want to make sure to try a few white Bordeaux, which are relatively inexpensive (starting around $12) and move into some of the Loire Valley wines which start closer to $15. And keep in mind that Sauvignon Blanc is also an important component to French sweet dessert wines including those from Sauternes.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
Now let’s jump down to New Zealand where Sauvignon Blanc takes on entirely different characteristics, particularly in its famed Marlborough region. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is vibrant and instantly recognizable for its high acidity and powerful citrus flavor. These Marlborough wines also start around $10 in the majority of wine shops with most bottles I see hovering around $15-20.
Some names to note are Kim Crawford (perhaps the most well known in the US), Cloudy Bay, Brancott and Nobilo (a great one for under $10, and also my wife’s summertime go-to wine). Marlborough is one of those regions where you really can’t go wrong, and we’re even seeing other New Zealand areas represented in wine shops including the excellent Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. Jump in, explore New Zealand wines and see where it takes you.
Great Sauvignon Blanc can also be found in the US, primarily in California, but also in Washington State (Chateau Ste. Michelle offers a good Horse Heaven Hills Sauvignon Blanc for around $12). I gravitate toward many of the Napa producers which are good places to start, such as the aforementioned Duckhorn (around $22), Markham ($13) or Honig ($15).
On the higher end, one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs comes from Cliff Lede in Stag’s Leap (around $40; their reds are also a personal favorite). Russian River Valley in Sonoma also kicks out some good wines such as the Frei Brothers which is around $13. Note also, that certain places in California will refer to Sauvignon Blanc as Fume Blanc, even though they are the same grape.
California Sauvignon Blanc is a little tamer on the acidity and toned down a tad in its flavor. It still remains very citrusy (lemon, lime, grapefruit), but a touch of oak keeps the wines a little more mild mannered, and in my opinion a tad more food friendly.
And finally, if you see Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, pick some up. It’s more representative of the European style of Sauvignon Blanc, and perhaps a bit more rustic, but for $8-10 a bottle, it’s a good buy.
Your Sauvignon Blanc Check List:
– Sauvignon Blanc from France’s Loire Valley
– White Bordeaux with Sauvignon Blanc
– Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre (France)
– Sauternes dessert wine (sometimes you can find these in the smaller 375ml bottles)
– New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
– New Zealand Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc
– Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc
– Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc
Fast Fact: Screw caps seal 75 percent of Australian wines and 93 percent of New Zealand wines.
So that’s a good primer on many of the things I’ve learned about wine in the last eight to ten years, all summed up in under 40 pages. I realize I didn’t cover every region or even every important wine, but my intent was to lay out a quick “shotgun blast” approach to getting going in the wine world, and you will have to see where it takes you from there.
Many of the wines I recommend are personal favorites, and that doesn’t guarantee of course that you will agree with my tastes, but it should help you in your exploration. All prices I listed were rough estimates too and will vary across different parts of the country, and by vintage.
So I hope this gets you started down the right path. If you made it this far, I think you’ll do just fine. And if you work your way through the checklists I posted at the end of each section, you will be fast on your way to building a solid foundation of wine knowledge. What you build on that foundation is entirely up to you.
I also encourage you to check out my other books covering French and Italian wines, available on Amazon Kindle as well as paperback. You can also follow my regular wine musings on my website: www.CostcoWineBlog.com.
Thanks again for reading.