As the owner of an Italian restaurant, I always try to strike a balance of offering both delicious hard-to-find bottles for those times you dine with me and it’s a special occasion or you’re looking for a treat, and affordable wines that deliver incredible bang for your buck and allow you to be able to feel like you can come in and order them any night of the week.
For almost a decade now, I’ve curated my wine list at In Vino like someone might play around with their music on Spotify. I constantly tweak and change, because I firmly believe when it comes to wine there should always be a price balance for every wallet. But not all places do this, or try to make it clear where the real wine values are, so here are the most delicious affordable Italian wines I’ve discovered from my years of experience that fit nicely in the $40-$50 range.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. The Montepulciano grape, mostly grown in the eastern region of Abruzzo, is the cheapest and most ubiquitous Italian wine on lists across the the U.S. of A. In Italian restaurants they are often the lowest-end glass pour, starting at $5 a glass and topping out at $9. Some Italian restaurants (like mine!) go a bit further and sell smaller production examples for around $12 a glass, but that is not the norm. If you want a bottle of wine in the $20-$30 range, then this is your wine. In general they are round, plump and a bit weighty, but more on the medium-bodied side and have nice ripe tannins.
Rosso Di Montalcino:
Besides Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino is one of the most sought after wines in all of Italy. They are often small production and come from the best fruit available. That fruit is called Sangiovese. But in Montalcino they have their own strain which has been dubbed Brunello (little dark one), isolated by Clemente Santi in the mid-nineteenth century. The aging requirements for these wines is pretty intense. They must be aged for at least forty-eight months with four of those months in bottle. That’s a long time to wait to make money. So they created a new designation that only needs twelve months of aging prior to release. This is Rosso Di Montalcino.
Often these grapes are grabbed on the second pass through the vineyard at harvest (the best fruit coming from the first pass). But by no means are these lesser wines. In fact, in years that winemakers don’t think the vintage is worthy of aging, they will put all their fruit into the Rosso classification, which we in the industry call a baby Brunello. And these beauties are often half the price of Brunello di Montalcino or less. These wine are powerful with a fleshy character and wafting with black fruit; black cherry, blackberry, and black raspberry, that is all hefted up on notes of subtle baker’s chocolate and leather. I AM THIRSTY!
Nebbiolo is the grape that brings us wine like Barolo and Barbaresco, which are some of the most amazing and noble wines that Italy has to offer. Nebbiolo is this wine geek’s favorite grape so I could on and on, but let’s focus. Just south of the famous town and region of Barolo is a stretch of hills called the Langhe (lawn-gey). This is where you find affordable Nebbiolo wines that are half the price of the Barolo and Barbaresco with just as much personality, flavor and all around goodness as their pricier northern neighbors. These wines do not age as long and are an absolute joy to drink in their youth. The color of Nebbiolo is a mesmerizing rusty ruby red with strong yet balanced tannins and notes of one of my favorite aroma profiles, rose petals. There is also cherry and a slight hint of tar. As they age the herbaceous notes start to blossom, mingling with hints of truffles (it is the land of the white truffle after all) and soft prune. I am dizzy with wine love right now. I’m gonna take a break from typing and drink a bottle of Langhe Nebbiolo. I’ll be right back.
Grown on the coast of Campania in southern Italy, just north of Naples, comes the ancient Falanghina. It is thought to have been a favorite of the Roman Empire when it was known as Falernian wine. If you want a white wine and Falanghina is on the list, don’t think, just order. It is a shoo-in for an awesome white and quite affordable. Because of its coastal position and constant exposure to maritime breeze, this wine is crisp and lean with ripe pear fruit and racy lemon zest running through it, along with bracing acidity.This is actually a great wine to start with and then move on to a bottle of red (cue Billy Joel).
Italy has two islands within its borders: Sicily and Sardinia. We’re going to talk about the latter. It’s also the smaller of the two, although it has its own mountain range running through the center. Sardenia is a fascinating place. Like Sicily, it has been owned by so many cultures throughout history that the native language/dialect, Sardo, is a mixture of seven other languages. Pretty crazy right? Being an island, they know their seafood and just so happen to have one of the best white wines to pair with it: Vermentino.
Most of the Vermentino you will see on wine lists come from the northeastern tip of the island in an appellation called Gallura. They are always quite affordable and sometimes served by the glass as well. The wine is a golden straw yellow with crazy acidity and juicy tropical fruits on the nose. The coolest part about the flavor profile for me is that when it warms up just a little bit in the glass all the aromatics coast into your senses and you could swear you smell a hint of fennel. FENNEL! Yeah, that’s cool. The density of the wine is significant even though the acidity holds it up, making it great for lean meats as well.