When Italy surpassed France in wine production for the first time two years ago, the news was not greeted as a welcome achievement.
Aside from bragging rights, Italian vintners were faced with having to sell more wine than ever at a time when regional consumption was dropping.
It meant more Italian wine would be dumped into the so-called Wine Lake, a surplus of wine produced within the European Union, which buys the stuff and turns it into industrial alcohol.
In a European market of increasing supply and falling demand, that is not a winning scenario. Fortunately, however, Italian wineries are having their “Duh!” moment: by offering more well-made regional wines at reasonable prices, they can sell more wine.
For too many years, many Italian vintners suffered from a hubris built on the international success of very high-end wines like barolos and barbarescos and Super Tuscans. Buoyed by industry bureaucrats eager to award the prestigious D.O.C.G. appellation (a denomination of guaranteed high quality wine) to wines of little regional distinction, wineries tried to stick high price tags on wines of no real excellence.
Importers tried to convince wine drinkers that a bottle of unfamiliar verdicchio was worth $50 or a Santa Margherita pinot grigio $60 in a restaurant. As a result, wine lovers began moaning that Italian wines were pricing themselves out of the market.
Now, with sales sputtering and the Wine Lake brimming over, some very fine Italian vintners are getting into the market with delicious wines at prices right on the money. And it’s happening at the retail level more than in restaurants, which continue to hike up margins three and four times above retail.
Happy about what was happening, I visited San Pietro Wine and Spirits in the Manhattan suburb of Tuckahoe, one of the best Italian wine stores in the U.S. which carries bottlings you won’t easily find in larger emporiums.
It’s run by Gerardo and Lucia Bruno, who search out a broad range of the best old and new wineries in Italy, from legendary makers like Bruno Ceretto of Piedmont to small estates like Flaminio in Brindisi. They proudly carry seven wines from the region of Campania, where the Brunos come from.
“Nowadays the economy is what it is,” Lucia said at the store, “and the Italians realize that people who want to enjoy wine more often are looking for affordable value. People will still pay a lot for a great wine, but they don’t want to feel cheated with a lesser one at a high price.”
I rounded up a slew of bottles recommended by Lucia and drank them over the next few weeks with a wide range of dishes, from pastas to chicken burgers. What delighted me most, beyond the very reasonable prices, none above $29, was that they all had a typical Italian balance of fruit and acid, with alcohol levels below 14 percent, and, whether robust or mellow, not one was an overripe fruit bomb or overpowering, tannic blockbuster.
Here are some I thoroughly enjoyed, all available from their store, and elsewhere.
Dorigo Cabernet Franc 2009 ($22) -- Cabernet franc is not widely propagated outside of Colli Orientali del Friuli in northern Italy, but this fine example can stand with the best examples from France, where it is more usually a blending grape. With 12.5 percent alcohol, it is as easy to drink with poultry, as it would be with a strong fish like salmon.
Agricola Querciabella Mongrana 2009 ($20) -- Such a terrific price for a wonderful small estate wine in Tuscany’s Maremma region. It has the same blend as some of the Super Tuscans that sell for three times the price made with 50 percent sangiovese, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 25 percent merlot, making for a well-structured complex red wine perfect with bistecca alla fiorentina.
Agricole Vallone Vigna Flaminio Brindisi Riserva 2007 ($15) -- Five years of age have brought maturity to this Apulian blend of malvasia nera, montepulciano, and negroamaro, grapes only now being recognized for their regional excellence, with the power of the last varietal melding with the silkiness of the first and softness of the second.
Vinicola del Sannio Barbera Vitigno 2011 ($14) -- An unusual barbera, the principal grape of Piedmont, in this case a clone planted south of Naples in Castelvenere in the region of Campania, where the varietal has had this name since the mid-1800s. It has vegetal notes in the background of sturdy tannins, and is a young red wine that is both very versatile, and extremely well priced.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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