Some tips for finding wallet-friendly alternatives to Barolo, Amarone and Brunello

Italy, both for red and white  wines, has a very wide assortment of grape varieties and types of wine to choose from.  But with so many to choose from,  a wine buyer can be left stumped, not knowing where to start.  So if you are planning for a special evening calling for a nicer red wine, here are some tips to help you find alternatives to your usual italian wine selections.

In general, whether you’re looking for a good red or white Italian wine, you won’t be led astray by choosing a wine classified as DOCG, or ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita’, which will indicated on the label.  DOCG Italian wines are those officially recognized as having the deepest traditions and the best quality. Among the most well-known and prestigious DOCG red wines are Barolo  (made from the Nebbiolo grape variety, native to the Piedmont region),  Brunello di Montalcino (made from a specific type of Sangiovese grape from Tuscany), and Amarone (from Veneto and made with a technique in  which the grapes are left out to dry, to become raisin-like, before the wine-making process starts).  These are all complex wines which have been aged for several years, so they are pricey (e.g., are difficult to find less than 20€) and pair with rich, typically red meat, dishes.  But there are also DOCG red wines which are reasonably priced, like some Chiantis which cost less than 5€.

Usually, you get what you pay for, so a more expensive wine will usually be more interesting and enjoyable while the cheaper one will be more of a standard, every-day wine.  I like to experiment, trying different wines at different price ranges and then remembering the ones that I really liked… especially if the price is right!  To help decide whether to splurge for a more expensive wine, I often seek the advice of wine experts working at  local wine shops to help me choose a bottle of wine that fits with my budget and expectations, and, most importantly,  to explore and try new wines and producers.

Here are some delicious alternatives to Barolo, Amarone and Brunello worthy of trying:

Barolo: Gattinara DOCG, from Piedmont:

Besides Barolo, there are many other fantastic Piemontese wines made from the Nebbiolo grape variety, for example Gattinara DOCG. I recently tried one from 2010 vintage, by the producer Travaglini. It was complex and intense, with a rich fruity bouquet with vanilla, spicy undertones, and it has a balanced taste, without being overpowered by tannins.    I found a bottle at my local ‘enoteca’ costing 17€, not bad!

travaglini gattinara

Gattinara DOCG, is a good choice if you like Barolo, since it is made from the same grape and is from the same region.

Amarone: Valtellina Sforzat DOCG & Valtellina Superiore DOCG, from Lombardy:

Right next to Piedmont, the Lombardy region offers some excellent red wines (as well as some fantastic white sparkling wines, worthy of a separate article!).  Valtellina red wines are delicious, such as Sforzato (or Sforzat) di Valtellina DOCG which is on par with Amarone. In fact, it is made in a similar fashion, so drying the grapes before starting the wine-making process. Here is one from the producer Plozza that costs 23€.

sfursat valtellina

Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG is a delicious alternative to Amarone!

A ‘cugino povere’ (i.e., ‘poor cousin’, tongue in-cheek!) of  Sforzato di Valtellina is Valtellina Superiore DOCG. I tried the 2011 from the producer Sassella at Mia Cantina, costing 14€, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t quite as balanced as the Gattinara, as it had a bit of a tannic edge to it. Yet, its complex notes and pleasant taste that lingered in my mouth made it stand out as exceptional, especially for the price.

valtellina superiore

Here is my pick for best overall price, quality and taste, a Valtellina Superiore DOCG!

Rosso Conero DOCG, from Le Marche:

I took advantage of a recent local wine tasting organized by AIS, Associazione Italiana di Sommelier, to get to know Rosso Conero DOCG, which is made mostly from the Montepulciano grape variety, from the Marches region (aka ‘Le Marche’) which lies just to the east of Tuscany.  Rosso Conero DOCG is considered an ‘important’ wine, especially the ‘Riserva’ version, since it is matured for many months, often in oak barrels, so giving it much more personality compared to an ‘everyday’ wine.

One of the nicest things about attending wine tasting events in Italy is that often the actual producer is serving the wine. With most Italian wine producers being small, family run operations, they are often passionate about what they do and love to chat about their wine, their town, their local cuisine,  history, etc. Many have their own agriturismo (i.e., like a B&B on a farm) and/or restaurant, which are usually worthwhile to try.

Some of the exceptional Rosso Conero DOCG wines I tasted were:

  • Cantina Polenta’s Gianco, Rosso Conero Riserva, which had an Amarone-like rich taste which was full of flavor, costing 20€. They have another Rosso Conero DOCG, Poy, which costs 17€, which had a fruity, complex nose.   For more info,  to order wine,  or find out about their agriturismo, go to cantinapolenta.it
  • Fattoria Lucesole offers two Rosso Conero DOCGs which were very  interesting and enjoyable: Nyphma, which is matured for 12 months in oak, and Vigna Solagna, which is matured 24 months in oak. For more info, go to fattorialucesole.it and try out their restaurant which is supposed to be good!
  • Winemaker Catia Spinsanti offers a pure, very genuine tasting Rosso Conero, ‘Adino’, which is named after her father. I loved Catia’s story, who in the mid 90’s, while working an ordinary desk job, was encouraged by her brother in Germany to take advantage of her family’s land near Monte Conero and start producing wine. So, taking a ‘what the heck’ approach, she quit her job and poured her savings into starting a winery, learning everything from scratch. Today she produces 5 different wines, focusing on quality and staying true to the local terrior. For more info go to http://www.spinsanti.eu

Ciao for now,

Sheila Donohue

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