As the Wine Minx, one of the questions I encounter most often is about finding good wines that don't cost a lot of money. (Either the economic meltdown is still affecting consumers or the Minx is friends with a lot of tightwads, take your pick.)
Caveat No. 1: Italy's a big wine place. I've said that before - you practically couldn't swing a gatto morto without hitting a vineyard. So the country takes a lot of time to master, especially as there is an extraordinary amount of wine from Italy on wine store shelves all over the US and there is no easy way to summarize these offerings.
Caveat No. 2: Some of the great Italian wine IS really expensive, so we'll save Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, the Super Tuscans, Brunello, Chianti Classico, etc., for another time. (I hope that time isn't too far away though, I just made myself pretty darn thirsty typing that array.)
At a recent tasting of some value-minded Italian producers, I was reminded of the incredible quality of some of the more affordable offerings from Italy and I will share with you some of my favorites.
First up: a selection of 'Terre Forti' wines from Caviro. Caviro is the leading wine cooperative in Italy - comprised of 36 partner wineries and over 18,000 wine growers from all over Italy - and they are passionate about quality at every level. These wines are distributed all over the world, and are expected to be available in wider markets in the US by Fall 2011. So keep your eyes peeled for the following absurdly good values:
2010 Caviro Trebbiano-Chardonnay Rubicone IGT 'Terre Forti': This blend of Trebbiano and Chardonnay from the Emilia-Romagna region was very light, with a nose of florals and citrus. It had a lovely flavor of honeydew melon and grass but wasn't overly acidic.  ~$8
2010 Caviro Pinot Grigio IGT Delle Venezie 'Terre Forti': From Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the NE part of the country, this had a light straw color with floral aromatics, a nice spiciness, and good acidity for such a light wine.  ~$8
2010 Caviro Sangiovese Rubicone IGT 'Terre Forti': Also from Emilia-Romagna, this Sangiovese had a light ruby color and a great red berry fruit nose. Light in style with notes of blueberry, sweet herb and pepper, some acidity and a quiet finish.  ~$8
2010 Caviro Nero d'Avola Sicilia IGT 'Terre Forti' From the island of Sicily (what in the name tipped you off?), this Nero had a violet berry color, with notes of cola, raspberry and red cherry. Incredibly light, with a nice finish and smooth tannins.  ~$9
2010 Caviro Montepulciano D'Abruzzo DOC 'Terre Forti': From... yes, Abruzzo. Super red berry ruby color. Bright nose of red fruits with florals of rose and violet. Lots of crunchy red fruit, super bright and acidic; "summery" was the word I wrote. This was not the more traditional brawny, velvety and peppery style of Montepulciano I'm used to, but quite lovely in its difference.  ~$8
Tucked away in Northern Italy's Trentino region at the foot of the Alps and Dolomites, the Marco Donati family has been producing wine for five generations, focusing on native grapes and small production.
2009 Marco Donati Müller-Thurgau Trentino DOC 'Albeggio': Many producers from this part of the world are doing wonders with Müller-Thurgau, a grape unfamiliar to the majority of American wine drinkers. This was a pale peachy-yellow, with a soft nose of stone fruits. It was refreshing and light with low acidity and yet a nice crispness and notes of peach, straw and mountain flowers.  ~$15
2009 Marco Donati Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 'Situla Rosso': This red is a blend of three local varieties - Lagrein, Teroldego and Marzemino. Bright ruby red, it showed raspberry and violet aromas, with blackberries, violets, sweet cherry, loads of acidity and silky tannins.  ~$19
2009 Marco Donati Teroldego Rotaliano DOC: 100% Teroldego. Totally opaque purple color. Hint of sweetness on the nose, super velvety with opulent fruit. Weighty and rich but not overbearing.  ~$16
Another cooperative, Cantina di Villa, based in Valtellina on the outskirts of the Lombardy region is making some lovely Nebbiolo-based wines.
2003 Cantina di Villa Valtellina Rosso Superiore DOC 'Incontri': Brick red, this unusual clone of Nebbiolo seemed almost fortified to me. Wet leaves, a hint of brandy, dried cherries. Elegant and luxurious.  ~$20
2006 Cantina di Villa Valtellina Rosso Superiore DOC 'Grumello': Dark ruby red, nice fruit notes. Super light and elegant, not too earthy, well-balanced, tastes luxurious.  ~$17
2006 Sforzato Di Valtellina DOCG 'Tinaia': 100% Nebbiolo. Interesting nose of spice, wet leaves, plums. Complex notes in the mouth, almost like a spiced berry preserve from a forest (?!) Not initially a favorite, this really grew on me.  ~$26
From the central region of Umbria, Terre de Trinci is working passionately to highlight the ancient regional grape Sagrantino.
2004 Terre de Trinci Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG: Quite dark red, with a maroon tinge. Perfumey nose with a bit of raspberry liqueur. Velvety feel of lush red berries with late-arriving tannins and a nice earthiness on the finish, very extracted. This wine's grapes are carefully cultivated and aged, so it costs a bit more, but is still quite reasonable for the power and intensity of this lovely wine.  ~$30
2009 Terre de Trinci Umbria IGT Rosso 'Trinci': 80% Sagrantino and 20% Merlot. Dark red, with a nice structure, good red fruit, herbs and fairly dry tannins.  ~$12
2010 Terre de Trinci Sangiovese Dell'Umbria IGT: Sangiovese is the star grape of nearby Tuscany, and this shows off quite well - bright red in color with a pleasant earthy nose, lovely ripe fruit, loads of herbs, a little tannic but easy-drinking.  ~$9
In the Maremma coastal region of Tuscany, the conditions are perfect for Sangiovese, and Casal di Pari takes full advantage with the following wines:
2007 Casal di Pari Montecucco Rosso DOC: A blend of 70% Sangiovese, and 10% each of Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. Dark purply-maroon in color, it had a nose of pepper, red berries, and pine. Tangy cherries and a dusty feel in the mouth, sprightly and acidic.  ~$12
2009 Casal di Pari Montecucco Rosso DOC 'Ciarlone': The same blend as above but vinified slightly differently, this had a bright red color, with nice heady fruit aromas on the nose. Very 'chewy' and tart in the mouth with red fruits and a bit of spice. Quaffable and yummy.  ~$12
So get out there and scour your local wine store's "Italy" section. With a little digging, you may unearth some of these or other fantastic gems that are as wonderful on the palate as they are easy on the wallet. And when the market takes an upswing, we'll return to Barbaresco, Brunello, Barolo and Amarone, etc., together!