It’s no secret that the world of Italian wine can be challenging to navigate. There are more than 350 authorized grape varieties, 20 regions, sub-zones, and a complicated appellation system. But this bewildering diversity has an upside: with so much diversity on offer, it’s relatively easy for just about anyone to find an Italian wine to align with their taste and budget.
Data from outlets like USA Wine Ratings and The Drinks Business, have confirmed there’s a general profile favored by consumers, making it easier to choose suitable Italian replacements for the best-selling wines in each style and grape variety. Another notable benefit of Italian wine is that it is easy to experiment without breaking the bank. Even high-end Italian wines are affordable, so it’s easy to find good bottles under $30.
The white alternatives
Chardonnay remains the most popular white wine in the U.S.; with its toasty aromas of caramel, coconut, and vanilla, this style is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to assume those flavors are the characteristics of the grape, rather than the result of winemaking techniques. And while this style of wine is falling out of favor in Italy, an excellent substitute is the Cervaro della Sala, an Umbrian wine that’s 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto, a blending grape of Greek origins. Aged in new French oak barriques, the blend has the kind of tropical fruit aromas with buttery vanilla notes that hit all the right spots for Chardonnay lovers.
Pinot Grigio is the second most popular white wine in the United States, marketed as the antidote to the rich Chardonnays that became popular in the 1980s. Pinot Grigio, itself an Italian wine, has become popular because it’s lighter in body. It usually has light citrus and floral aromas. An excellent alternative for those looking to expand their palate is Arneis, from Piedmont. Arneis di Roero offers a similar taste, and it’s also refreshing and easy to drink.
Then there’s white Zinfandel, which isn’t actually a white wine, but a rosé made from Zinfandel, the third most planted variety in California. Popularized in the 1970s by Sutter Home, white Zin became a cultural touchstone thanks to its sweet profile, which made it ideal to serve with ice. More recently, winemakers have been bringing back older, dryer styles. So while there are both sweet and off-dry examples on the shelf, in general they feature ripe fruit flavors of citrus, strawberry, cherry, and other berries. The best Italian replacement is a rosé made from the Primitivo grape in Puglia; Primitivo is the Italian name for the same grape, Zinfandel, both of which have origins in Croatia. A Primitivo di Manduria Rosato will satisfy almost any white Zin drinker, though it’s rarer to find sweeter versions in Italy. They’re perfect during the hotter months.
The red alternatives
A great Italian substitute for a California Cabernet Sauvignon wine with deep color and lots of extracted fruit is a Toscana I.G.T. or Super Tuscan, which are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese blends. These blends are deeply colored, with extracted fruit aromas like cherry and cranberry, sweet spices, vanilla, coffee, tobacco, and violets. In addition, they’re also smooth and full-bodied. While the best-known examples can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle, there are more accessible alternatives.
Italy also offers plenty of affordable alternatives to the recent wave of commercial red blends like Apothic or Ménage à Trois, which tend to be full-bodied and smooth, and offer plenty of sweet cherry and vanilla aromas. A Riserva di Lagrein hits all the marks, as it is deeply colored and full-bodied with those berry, vanilla, and cocoa aromas. A great Italian replacement, these wines are velvety on the palate and lightly tannic.
And when it comes to Pinot Noir, Italy has options as well. While the grape’s ancestral home is Burgundy in France, there’s also plenty to be found in the U.S., where it tends to have more extracted fruit, a silky texture, and sweet spice aromas from oak-barrel aging. Cesanese has been hailed as Lazio’s answer to Pinot Noir by Italian wine critics since at least the 1900s. A well-made Cesanese del Piglio or Olevano Romano often has berry aromas, floral notes, and pepper, with a silky texture and easy tannins.
6 wines to try:
Fontanafredda is a storied name from the Langhe, a hilly area in Piedmont. Known for their Barolo, they also make this classy white, which offers lime, grapefruit, apples, and stone fruit aromas with a hint of white flowers. Easy to drink and fresh, balancing acidity and body. Serve with stuffed eggplant.
San Marzano is a small village in Campania, that sits on a strip of land between two seas, the Ionian and Adriatic. Founded by 19 winemakers, it’s a testament to cooperation. This 100% Primitivo rosé is an attractive salmon pink that’s redolent of strawberries, raspberries, and orange peel, with plenty of berry flavors on the palate. An easy-to-drink wine, it’s ideal with charcuterie and cheese.
This wine is the affordable little brother of Luce, a Super Tuscan born of a collaboration between Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi, and the first wine from Montalcino that blended Sangiovese and Merlot grapes. Today the project belongs solely to Frescobaldi. This deeply colored, ruby red offers a bold aroma profile with notes of blackberry, dried fruit, vanilla, and cocoa. It is full bodied, very smooth, and sits between dry and off dry, with a good backbone of acidity. Let it breathe for a few moments in a decanter before serving.
This 100% Cesanese di Affile comes from Lazio in central Italy, the region of Rome. The grapes were picked from a vineyard planted in the 1950s and the wine is named for the Silene wildflower that grows there. It offers loads of fresh red berries, raspberries and cherries on the palate, with a touch of spice box, roses, earthiness and black pepper.
Cantina Terlano, one of Italy’s best known co-operatives, has chosen fruit from the Gries vineyard in the Dolomite mountains for this 100% Lagrein. The taste is full of blackberry and damask plums, with light notes of dark wild berries, followed by chocolate, cigar box, and vanilla. The wine is full bodied, with a rich taste, balanced by medium acidity. The finish explodes with berry flavors and a leathery texture, and then lingers.
This wine is named in honor of the Cervaro family who owned Castello della Sala in Umbria in the 14th century. One of the first Italian white wines to undergo malolactic fermentation and be aged in barrel, this 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto blend is bold and complex, with aromas of ripe apples, pears, citrus peel, notes of honey, tropical fruit, vanilla, and butter. While clearly Italian, it does have a touch of Californian style about it.