When it comes to Italian wine, most people reach for tried-and-true reds like Chianti, Brunello, Barolo and Barbaresco. While these classic choices, made from the famed Italian grapes Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, can be absolutely remarkable, there’s a lot more to Italian wine if you’re willing to scratch beneath the surface.
Italy is a wine lover’s paradise, with hundreds of hidden-gem grape varieties that offer a ton of excitement and ridiculous value. The best part about these wines is that they are still relatively under the radar, which majorly ups their cool factor and keeps their prices pretty low, for the most part.
Here are eight rockstar Italian reds to seek out now.
When people come to me looking for a great Cabernet Sauvignon, I like to recommend an Aglianico from southern Italy instead. Aglianico tends to be full-bodied, inky in color, high in tannins, and redolent of smoke, leather and black fruit. This funky grape is grown in the regions of Campania and Basilicata at the bottom of Italy’s boot. Look for wines bearing the labels “Taurasi,” which is a subzone of Campania, and “Aglianico del Vulture,” which indicates that the wine was grown on the volcanic soils of Mount Vulture in Basilicata. The wines from this area will taste particularly smoky, which is to say: awesome!
Cannonau is the Italian version of Grenache and thrives on the island of Sardinia, just west of mainland Italy. Cannonau yields soft, juicy and food-friendly wines that are medium-to-full-bodied and pack a mouthful of red berry fruit and exotic spices. If you’re a fan of Côtes du Rhône wines or Spanish Garnacha, Cannonau will be a natural fit.
This obscure grape is pretty much exclusive to the region of Lazio in Italy, and though it can be very hard to find, it’s entirely worth hunting down. Cesanese has three DOC appellations dedicated to its production, including Cesanese di Affile, Cesanese di Olevano and Cesanese di Piglio. With a history dating back to Roman times, Cesanese was traditionally used to make sweet sparkling wines, but modern Cesanese is produced in a dry style with flavors of blueberries and minerals and soft, silky tannins. Cesanese makes a perfect pairing for rustic Italian fare.
Dolcetto always seems to get overshadowed by the more celebrated grapes of Piemonte: Nebbiolo and Barbera. Don’t let this deter you, though, because Dolcetto yields some fantastic, budget-friendly wines that typically have an earthy, leathery core and show distinct notes of black mission fig, licorice and prune. Dolcetto means “little sweet one,” but the wines it produces are actually quite dry, not sweet. Look for bottlings that hail from the subregions of Dogliani and Alba.
Nero d’Avola has become Sicily’s poster grape, but the island is also home to another native gem: Frappato. When bottled on its own, Frappato is light-to-medium-bodied, high in acid and reminiscent of cherry and rhubarb-scented Pinot Noir. Many examples you’ll see are fermented and aged in stainless steel only, without the use of oak barrels. This grape is also used in the venerated Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines, which blend Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes and usually undergo aging in large oak casks, small French barriques (small oak barrels), or terra-cotta amphorae.
Gaglioppo is the red grape of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, and produces wines in a broad range of styles, from light and sprightly to dark and rustic, depending on whether it’s bottled on its own or used in a full-bodied blend. Galgioppo is known to be fresh and lively and typically delivers flavors of sour cherry, hibiscus, minerals and anise. This grape is super offbeat and makes a great introduction into the wines of southern Italy.
Lagrein is native to the region of Trentino-Alto Adige in the north of Italy and yields intensely hued wines that are typically high in acid and high in tannins. This funky grape shows a rich palate of mixed berries but also has a characteristic savory side marked by hints of tobacco, mushrooms and leather. Lagrein is also used to produce some very interesting rosé wines.
Negroamaro hails from the region of Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, and is the primary grape used in the rustic, meaty reds of Salento, as well as in the well-known red blends of Salice Salentino, which combine Negroamaro grapes with another southern Italian variety, Malvasia Nera. Negroamaro means “dark and bitter” in Italian and the wines it produces are indeed deeply colored with a bit of a bitter edge and a characteristic earthy quality. Negroamaro is an absolute diamond in the rough that can be had at extremely affordable prices.
Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.