Some of Italy’s wine-producing regions are among the oldest in the world. Winemaking in Italy predates even the prolific Romans, who produced wine on a very large scale. But before that, Greek and Etruscan settlers made wine in Italy. Obviously, winemaking in America is of a much more recent vintage. But, without Italian wines, it’s doubtful that renowned American wine pioneers like Robert Mondavi could have flourished. And, according to archaeologists, wine-grape varieties in Spain date back to a period between 4,000 and 3,000 B.C. Modern-day Spanish wines have garnered the respect of wine lovers worldwide and now compete with French and Italian wines; Spain is the third-largest wine producer, after France and Italy.
What follows is a six-pack of affordable wines that I’ve recently enjoyed: two from Italy, a couple from Spain and a California duo. I urge you to seek out any or all of these; they are tremendous bangs-for-the-buck.
One of the most iconic examples of Chianti from Italy is Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico ($24.99). It’s so well-known that I even have a pepper grinder that someone gave me years ago made to look like a bottle of Riserva Ducale. This is a DOCG Chianti, meaning that a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese grapes must be used making the Chianti. In this case, Cabernet and Merlot are also added. Ruffino has been making this wine for a long time; the first vintage was 1927. The vintage I recently sampled was 2007. There are elegant, fruity aromas of cherries and plums, along with white pepper and hints of tobacco. On the palate, soft tannins mingle with dried-cherry flavors and rosemary notes. This oldie but goodie seems to have been made with roast leg of lamb in mind.
More affordable is Fuedo Arancio Stemmari Nero d’Avola 2010 ($8.99), from Sicily. This is a bright, lively Nero d’Avola, with tangy blackberry fruit flavors and a bouquet of strawberries and red currants. Risotto Milanese and baked ziti were both good partners for this inexpensive Italian.
A couple of Spanish wines that, I believe, are new to our state also caught my attention. Made from 100 percent Verdejo, I loved Paso a Paso Verdejo la Mancha ($10.08). The nose is stunning, with gorgeous peach, apricot and quince aromas, followed by kiwi and green-apple flavors on the tongue. I’m not sure really how to best describe this Verdejo, except as “pretty,” and pretty cheap. Another good new find from Spain is Altovinum Evodia Old Vines Garnacha 2010 ($10.99). It’s a custom cuvee from Calatayud, made specifically for the American importer Eric Solomon. Calatayud wines are typically big and bold, mostly made from Garnacha grapes. This is no exception. It’s 100 percent Garnacha sourced from vines over 100 years old, and a whopping 15 percent alcohol by volume. Don’t let that scare you, however; Evodia is very well-balanced wine with intense fruit and a surprisingly silky texture. It would be killer with cassoulet.
Is there a winemaker more synonymous with American wine that the late Robert Mondavi? I don’t think so. And, Mondavi wines are renowned for their quality. Such is the case with Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($21.99). It has beautiful blackberry and cassis wrapped in soft tannins with spicy oak notes. Quite simply, it’s an outstanding but affordable California Cabernet.
I’ve also become enamored with California’s Estancia Pinot Grigio 2011 ($11.99). Fresh-cut pear and apricot aromas grab the spotlight, followed by ripe peach and honey flavors with hints of white pepper. This was the bomb with Thai chicken curry and basil.