5 Underrated Italian Wines

The best-known Italian wine is probably Chianti, and having lived in Tuscany, I certainly agree that a good Chianti Classico deserves its fame, but those raffia-wrapped bottles often turned into candle holders on the tables of old-school Italian-American trattorias are not necessarily the best examples of this distinguished and ancient wine, and there are many other Italian wines that are undeservedly little-known outside of their home country, even when they are easy to find and very reasonably priced. 

  • 01 of 05

    Primitivo, Salice Salentino, and Negroamaro

    fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

    I really love these rich, dark reds from the region of Puglia. They tend to have jammy red-fruit flavors of cherry and plum but balanced by a peppery spice and without cloying sweetness or overbearing tannins. They're very approachable and easy to drink, pairing well with hearty food. (Trader Joe's tends to carry some excellent and very well-priced examples of all of these, from Epicuro.)

  • 02 of 05

    Nero D'Avola

    Michal Osmenda [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    This is another full-bodied, hearty red, this time hailing from Sicily. A bit similar to Syrah/Shiraz, it has a rich, dark color and somewhat smoky, spicy flavor. It pairs well with pizza, hearty red-sauce pasta or beef dishes. (Also available at Trader Joe's from Epicuro for a good introduction.)

  • 03 of 05

    Rosato

    Marco Vacca/Getty Images

    Rosé in general is still battling a generally negative reputation outside of France, where it is widely appreciated for what it is. What is that, exactly? The other day, a friend said to me, "Rosé is always good, but it's never great." and that pretty much sums it up -- but rosé is not trying to be a fine wine to be revered. It is a great aperitivo wine and particularly wonderful for hot summer days, for picnics and something light, refreshing and pleasant that will not overwhelm delicate flavors or make you sleepy. There are many dry rosés that are not cloyingly sweet, but rather have light fruity or mineral-y flavors. Italy is lesser-known for rosato, but it still has a long tradition there. Rosato from the north (Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol),  tends to be dryer and more delicate, while from the south (Calabria, Sicily, and Puglia) it's still dry but fuller-bodied.

  • 04 of 05

    Lambrusco

    Lambrusco di Sorbara tasting. Aaron Cansler/Getty Images

    Lambrusco is rather unique: a bubbly red wine that is served chilled. So, like rosato, it is a great summer drink and aperitivo. Though, also like rosato, it has a somewhat tarnished reputation. It has, however, four official DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) appellations: Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce (well-balanced), Lambrusco di Sorbara (delicate and fragrant), Lambrusco Reggiano, and Lambrusco Grasparossa (a bit more complex) di Castelvetro and the best examples are crisp, dry and effervescent - perfect for spring and summer. 

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Fragolino

    Glass of fragolino. VersatImage, via Wikimedia Commons

    I hesitated a bit about including this, because, unlike the others on this list, it is very difficult to find -- even in Italy! Many ersatz versions of fragolino exist, and they are quite disgusting -- wine with overly sweet, artificial strawberry-flavored syrup added. That is not real fragolino!  True fragolino is a sparkling red or pink wine made from the Isabella grape or uva fragola ("strawberry grape") and it's a dessert wine with a subtle, delicate, flowery, fragrant flavor. It's hard to describe, but it is quite fantastic. When I lived in Italy, friends of mine would buy it directly from a producer, unbottled, or "sfuso". I mention it, then, because if you are in Italy and happen to have an opportunity to taste it, you definitely should -- it is one of my favorite wines.

    (See also: "The Best Wine You Can't Buy: Fragolino," from Modern Farmer)