Believe it or not, we have the Greeks to thank for Italian wine. Actually, we'd need to thank them for French and Spanish wine too, but the history of winemaking as we know it is largely believed to have begun with Greek settlements in and around ancient Rome. Italy is known for making some of the world's best -- and most famous -- wines, but for those occasions when you're not willing to drop a Ben Franklin for a bottle of the former and have grown weary of the latter, indulge your palate with these five winning Italian wines.
Prosecco is Italy's answer to Champagne. It's ideal for everything from an impromptu weeknight celebration to Sunday brunch mimosa-making. Because it's usually made using the Charmat method (where the secondary fermentation which creates the bubbles occurs in bulk stainless steel tanks vs. inside the bottle), you can count on spending considerably less on this supremely quaffable beverage. Generally lighter in style and body than most bubblies, Prosecco is the perfect spring and summer sipper; think of it as a refreshing upgrade to the Belvedere and soda you've been ordering forever. Two to try: Astoria Lounge Prosecco NV ($12), Nino Franco Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Rustico NV ($19).
Supple. Lush. Exotic. Arneis (pronounced 'are-nay'iss) is a grape indigenous to the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, an area that makes one of the most uniquely fabulous white varietals you'll ever hope to taste. Sometimes these wines are literally bursting with pear, peach and nectarine flavors; others offer nutty or even herbaceous (thyme or sage) overtones. In either case, it'll be love at first sight: The deep golden straw or hay-like colors common to arneis are truly gorgeous. Bonus: Arneis wines are some of the most age-worthy whites around. Check out either the Paitin Arneis Vigna Elisa 2007 ($19) or the truly sublime Ceretto Blangé Arneis 2007 ($30)
How shocked are you gonna be to learn that a white wine you've probably never heard of, never mind tasted, is the second most widely planted grape in the world? Part of the mystery surrounding this wine is that it goes by more than a few other names in its various global incarnations (Ugni Blanc from France is probably its most famous alias), as well as the fact that it typically shows up as a blending grape. But trust me: There's no mystery about the fact that the best of these wines are almost lyrically delicious. Supremely alluring, with notes of white blossoms and orange zest, Trebbianos from the Abruzzo region in central-southern Italy are arguably the best. Right now I'm loving the Valle Reale 'Vigne Nuove' Trebbiano d'Abruzzo ($12) and the Citra Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 2007 ($11).
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This just might be the hardest working red wine you haven't tried. The Italians love their Valpolicella, named for the region in the Veneto from which the corvina, molinara, and rondinella grapes found in the wines hail, for their remarkable ability to multi-task. There are youthful and fruity Valpolicella table wines (tastes like freshly picked Bing cherries), ideal for warmer weather when served lightly chilled. Valpolicella Superiore wines, which spend a minimum of one year in oak, can easily pair with everything from salumi to steak. Open up a Valpolicella made in the amarone style, and you'll discover a wine that's almost port-like, begging for a piece of dark chocolate to be served alongside it. The moral of the story here is that most Valpolicella wines are best enjoyed with food; start with the Zenato Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2007 ($14).
5. Nero d'Avola
Sicily is arguably making some of the best-tasting and value-oriented wines in Europe right now. Pick up a bottle of nero d'avola (translated from the Italian as "the black grape of Avola" -- aka Sicily's rock-star red) and you'll be on that bandwagon in no time. These wines have great acidity, making them wonderful food-pairing partners; they also feature gobs of rich, dark berry fruit, rendering them easy to drink all by themselves. At prices typically south of $15, you can afford to experiment. The organically-grown Oko Nero d'Avola 2007 ($14) is a stunner; so's the Dievole Pinocchio Nero d'Avola 2008 ($12).