The world of Italian wine can seem daunting—in a country smaller than the state of California, some say there are over 2,000 unique native grape varieties, and about 400 of those are used in commercial winemaking. Every province in Italy produces and exports wine, so there’s also an overwhelming number of regions to keep track of!
But the good news is that this means there’s something for everyone among the wines of Italy; the geographically diverse country produces a fascinating range of regional specialties in every style you can imagine and at every price point. But not surprisingly, though, our top pick—Livio Sassetti Brunello di Montalcino Pertimali 2015—comes from Tuscany, one of the most prolific wine regions in Europe.
As an added bonus, the typically balanced, elegant wines of Italy are famously food-friendly across the board, so you’re certain to find the perfect pairing for everything from pasta night to a seafood extravaganza to an antipasti picnic. Here are the best Italian wines to seek out right now.
Best Overall: Livio Sassetti Brunello di Montalcino Pertimali 2015
Region: Tuscany | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Tart Cherry, Strawberry, Truffle, Black Tea
When it comes to history and tradition, no Italian wine region can hold a candle to Tuscany, where viticulture has been practiced since the 8th century BC. The bucolic rolling hills and dappled afternoon light that have made Tuscany the setting of many romantic films and famous works of art also form the spiritual home of Italy’s signature grape, sangiovese. Although Chianti may be Tuscany’s most famous wine-producing region, Brunello di Montalcino is where sangiovese truly shines.
Here, it makes some of Italy’s most complex and long-lived wines, like this ethereal 2015 vintage from a revered third-generation winemaker. There is so much going on in this floral, savory, and herbaceous wine with notes of tart red berries, mushroom, black tea, and anise—and it’s only going to get better with time. Pair it with hearty fare like roasted rosemary lamb, wild boar ragù, or truffle risotto.
Best Red: Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco 2017
Region: Piedmont | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Black Cherry, Pepper, Spice, Violet
Along with sangiovese, nebbiolo is one of Italy’s noblest grapes. In Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco regions, it strikes a balance between power and elegance unlike almost anything else. Nobody does Barbaresco better than Produttori del Barbaresco, a co-operative estate widely regarded as the benchmark producer for the entire region.
The 2017 Barbaresco is the entry-level wine in the range, but the price-to-quality ratio it delivers makes it one of the best buys in all of Italy. It’s somehow rustic and pretty at the same time, with deep black fruit, floral accents, and savory herbal nuances. Alissa Fitzgerald, a former chef at Reynard in Brooklyn, NY, says, “If I see nebbiolo on a wine list, it's always my pick. It can be quite tannic, but with vibrant acidity like a pinot noir.” She loves to pair it with hearty roasted vegetables, but it works with everything from pasta to meats and aged cheeses. Whatever you choose, top it with plenty of truffles, like they do in Piedmont!
Related: The Best Red Wines
Best White: Benanti Etna Bianco 2019
Region: Sicily | ABV: 12% | Tasting Notes: Yellow Apple, Meyer Lemon, Saline, Herbs
Etna bianco is sort of like the chablis of Italy, but with a personality all its own. From the volcanic soils of Sicily’s Mount Etna, this bottling from Benanti balances rich texture with vibrant, almost salty acidity, while crisp citrus and orchard fruit flavors combine with appealing savory character and flinty minerality. Made from 100% carricante—a grape you’re unlikely to find anywhere outside of Sicily—this wine shows the complexity and character you would normally find in a white Burgundy that costs several times the price. Cristian Valbruzzoli, who owns Benanti’s US importer Lyra Wine, says he was drawn to this wine because “it has a strong personality that expresses the culture and terroir of Sicily.”
It may share certain characteristics with white Burgundy, but its unique profile could only come from Etna’s sun-drenched, mineral-rich slopes. This a wine that really shines with fresh seafood—the Sicilians love how its refreshing salinity complements creamy sea urchin pasta!
Best Under $50: G.D. Vajra Barolo Albe 2016
Region: Piedmont | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Cranberry, Rose Petal, White Pepper, Tobacco
If Barbaresco showcases the elegance of nebbiolo, Barolo is focused on the variety’s power. But while these sturdy, structured wines are built to last, they still have those intoxicating nebbiolo aromatics of fragrant flowers and exotic spice. G.D. Vajra is one of the most exciting wineries in Barolo, producing some of the region’s most versatile, accessible, and affordable offerings.
Albe is a blend from several organic vineyard sites across Barolo, providing a perfect snapshot of the local terroir. Tart red cherry, cranberry, and pomegranate fruit gets an aromatic boost from rose petal, tar, tobacco, spice, white pepper, and herbal notes. Albe is the perfect wine for the beginning collector to cellar—although it’s so easy to drink now, it’s hard to believe it can continue to age for another 20 years or longer!
Best Under $100: Bibi Graetz Testamatta 2018
Region: Tuscany | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Blueberry, Lilac, Sage
Artist-turned-winemaker Bibi Graetz has made a name for himself with elegant, pure expressions of Tuscany’s native grapes. In the 1990s, when Super-Tuscans made from cabernet and merlot were all the rage, Graetz was seeking a return to the classics, with a focus on the local specialty, sangiovese. Without any formal training, he quickly achieved cult status with his unconventional and expressive organically farmed wines.
The 2018 Testamatta (Italian for, roughly, “madman,” as Graetz is fondly known to his fellow winemakers!) is fresh, fun, and vibrant, but its richness and complexity will sneak up on you. This wine shows juicy black and blueberries accompanied by sage leaf, white pepper, black truffle, and lilac character. A total absence of new oak puts the purity of the fruit front and center, but fine, ultra-silky tannins will allow this wine to age for decades. This is textbook sangiovese, but somehow, at the same time, it is delightfully different.
Related: The Best Cheap Wines
Best Splurge: Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2012
Region: Veneto | ABV: 16.5% | Tasting Notes: Plum, Blackberry, Mocha, Tobacco
There has never been another winemaker quite like the late Giuseppe Quintarelli. Known as the godfather of amarone, Quintarelli paid meticulous attention to detail and quality in order to create the unanimously agreed-upon gold standard for this unusual wine style made from partially dried grapes. Amarone wines are some of the deepest, richest in the world, with alcohol often approaching fortified wine levels.
Quintarelli’s artisanal bottling, which is only produced in exceptional vintages, is the most intensely concentrated of them all, but it manages to retain almost impossible elegance. The 2012 Amarone Classico is a truly legendary wine, with heady notes of brambly dark berry, black cherry, plum, bittersweet chocolate, holiday spice, tobacco smoke, and leather. This is a special-occasion wine if there ever was one. Enjoy it after dinner in excellent company with an array of aged cheeses or the finest chocolate truffles you can find!
Best Rosé: Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosato 2019
Region: Sicily | ABV: 13% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Strawberry, Watermelon, Orange Peel
This zesty rosé from Mount Etna is everything you’d want in a pink wine. The wine industry cult favorite comes from Tenuta delle Terre Nere, an early pioneer in high-quality Etna wine. The organically farmed estate has become a reference point for the entire region. Terre Nere’s high-altitude vineyards are perfect for making rosé, since cooler temperatures and brisk winds translate to crisp, refreshing wines.
The bright, juicy cherry, strawberry, and watermelon fruit in this copper-hued 100% nerello mascalese is accented by herbs, almond paste, fresh flowers, orange peel, and a hint of ginger. A streak of racy, mineral-tinged acidity makes it an obvious choice for a picnic wine (prosciutto and melon is our go-to pairing), but it will fare surprisingly well with just about any fish or poultry dish.
Best Sparkling: Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige NV
Region: Lombardy | ABV: 12.8% | Tasting Notes: Yellow Apple, Honeydew Melon, Almond, Brioche
We all know and love prosecco, but there’s another Italian bubbly that should be on your radar: franciacorta. Wine journalist Amber Gibson says, “While prosecco can sometimes be too sweet for my taste, franciacorta is much closer in flavor to Champagne.” That’s because unlike prosecco, this Lombardian specialty uses the same production methods and grape varieties as the iconic French region. Happily, franciacorta wines typically offer much better value than their Champenoise counterparts.
Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Prestige is a blend of the best recent vintages, made mostly from chardonnay, and packaged in a unique, eye-catching bottle that makes it perfect for gifting or special occasions. This vibrant sparkler displays yellow apple, pear, honeydew, citrus, and stone fruit aromatics upfront; with time in the glass, intriguing notes of spearmint, oregano, jasmine, chamomile, almond, and toasted brioche unfurl. For aperitivo hour, pair it with baked brie and an assortment of dried fruits.
Related: The Best Sparkling Wines
Best Sweet: Fèlsina Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2008
Region: Tuscany | ABV: 14% | Tasting Notes: Apricot, Pineapple, Honey, Spice
While Moscato d’Asti may be Italy’s most recognizable dessert wine, an amber-hued Tuscan specialty called Vin Santo should not be overlooked by anyone with a sweet tooth. Malvasia and trebbiano grapes are dried after picking to concentrate their sugars and flavors, resulting in a viscous, lusciously sweet wine with remarkably rich character. Classic chianti producer Fèlsina makes one of the best we’ve found, with the addition of sangiovese grapes to contribute sublime depth and complexity.
The 2008 is distinguished by captivating aromas and flavors of candied apricot, peach, and pineapple, fragrant white flowers, maple honey, smoke, toasted hazelnut, dried fig, and brown spice. While it’s certainly sweet, tangy acidity keeps everything harmoniously balanced. Pair this, as the Tuscans do, with almond biscotti (dunking encouraged!), or a spread of pâté, foie gras, and potent cheeses like stilton or gorgonzola.
Best Red Value: La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2017
Region: Abruzzo | ABV: 13% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Blackberry, Black Pepper, Herbs
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is Italy’s ultimate crowd-pleaser. Not to be confused with vino nobile di montepulciano (a Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany), this soft, plum-scented red is made from the montepulciano grape on Italy’s sunny eastern coast. It can make age-worthy, high-end wines, but we love this variety for its ability to produce delicious, easy reds for everyday drinking that don’t break the bank.
La Valentina’s 2017 bottling is all about plush fruit: blackberries, blueberries, and cherries, along with notes of black pepper, herbs, cedar, and a hint of fresh earth; it’s rare to find so much complexity at this price. This is the kind of wine that goes with pretty much everything. Pizza, pasta, and pretty much any type of meat are natural matches; this would also be right at home on a picnic blanket alongside cheese and charcuterie.
Best White Value: Scarpetta Pinot Grigio 2019
Region: Friuli-Venezia Giulia | ABV: 12.5% | Tasting Notes: Peach, Lime, Melon, Jasmine
Pinot grigio doesn’t have to be boring! Some of the best examples of the oft-maligned variety are made in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in Italy’s northeast near the Slovenian border—like this killer value from Scarpetta. The winery plants vines on cooler vineyard sites to boost natural acidity and keep sugar and alcohol levels in check. A brief period of skin contact and lees aging adds textural interest not commonly seen in pinot grigio.
The 2019 Scarpetta is anything but bland—this is not your mother’s pinot grigio! Peach, apricot, honey, lime, melon, jasmine and pear notes are buoyed by crisp, lean minerality in a delightfully aromatic, substantial pinot grigio that defies expectations. A pairing with sashimi or ceviche will really make this wine sing.
Best Party Wine: Paltrinieri 'Radice' Lambrusco di Sorbara NV
Region: Emilia-Romagna | ABV: 11.5% | Tasting Notes: Sour Cherry, Watermelon, Strawberry, Pink Grapefruit
Forget everything you know about lambrusco. There are actually several distinct varieties of this grape; lambrusco grasparossa is responsible for the bubbly, sometimes-sweet reds you usually see. But there’s another type that deserves your attention: “The highest-acid and lightest-bodied lambrusco variety, lambrusco di sorbara is my favorite” says Mark Middlebrook, an importer’s representative for PortoVino and buyer at Paul Marcus Wines in Oakland, CA. “I prefer the pale rosato version—it’s a high-wire act of wake-up acidity, light red fruits, and palate-cleansing fizz.”
This radiant, bone-dry sparkler will be the life of any party, with almost electric notes of strawberry, watermelon, pink grapefruit, pomegranate, and sour cherry fruit and a hint of wild rose. You’ll want to bring it to your next gathering—or just drink it at home, since this vibrant fizz is basically a celebration in a bottle.
Best Uncommon White: Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2019
Region: Alto Adige | ABV: 13.5% | Tasting Notes: Apricot, Green Apple, Lime, White Flowers
Fans of aromatic wines like riesling and gewürztraminer will find a new favorite in kerner. This cold-hardy grape crossing was originally designed to withstand frigid German winters, but kerner has found a home away from home in the high elevations of northeastern Italy’s mountainous Alto Adige region. Riesling is actually one of kerner’s parents, and the two varieties share many characteristics, including high acidity, potential for aging, and enticing floral and stone fruit perfume.
Abbazia di Novacella, a monastery nestled in the chilly alpine peaks, has pretty much perfected kerner. The ripe, succulent apricot and peach fruit in this bottling gives a subtle impression of sweetness, balanced by green apple- and lime-tinged acidity. Accents of white flowers, honey, herbs, and smoky minerality complete the picture. Slightly spiced Thai food like papaya salad or green curry will bring out the best in this exciting and unusual wine.
Related: The Best White Wines
Best Uncommon Red: Velenosi Querciantica Lacrima di Morro d’Alba 2018
Region: Marche | ABV: 12.5% | Tasting Notes: Sour Cherry, Violet, Lavender, Blackberry
This one takes aromatic wine to the next level. Made from the ancient lacrima grape that’s native to the town of Morro d’Alba, this wine is so fragrant, you might want to dab some on your wrists. When you smell it, you’ll likely expect a sweet flavor, but the first sip will reveal a delightfully dry, mouth-filling stunner, unlike any red wine you’ve ever tasted.
Querciantica is all about the floral notes: violet, lavender, geranium, and rose dominate the nose and the palate, followed by a whole spectrum of berry fruits ranging from red to black. You could pair it with roasted pork or seared duck rest in blackberry sauce, but this singular beauty is a sheer delight on its own.
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Nikki Goddard is a wine writer with 14 years of industry experience as well as CSW and WSET Diploma certification. She is passionate about taking the intimidation out of wine education and has taught classes for WSET levels 2 and 3. In 2019, Nikki was named a top young wine writer by Vinous Media.