The Five Top Italian Red Wines for $20

Posted by Keith Wallace

Italian Red Wines 101

Walk into any wine shop, and you will be confronted with hundreds of Italian red wines, ranging in price from six dollars to hundreds. In this scenario, I assume your goal is to get the best bottle of wine for the most decent price possible. The best way to do this is to have a wine education or at least attend a few wine-tasting classes. Without being a trained sommelier, the only real way to get a great bottle of wine into your hands is to give you some tried-and-true rules that have worked wonders in my 30-year career in wine.

What are the best italian red wines?

One of the main reasons it’s hard to make general recommendations is that you probably don’t know three crucial pieces of information: Papillae Genetics, Cultural Preferences, and Sommelier Italian, which are covered in the Core Sommelier Program and expanded upon in the Italian Advanced program from the National Wine School.

You know this already, even if you haven’t heard the term Papillae Genetics: you’ve probably drunk highly rated wines you didn’t like and didn’t know why. However, this list will get you as close as possible to vinous delight without that key information. You may also want to check out our Italian Wine Regions article for a broader understanding.

Italian Red Wines And Vineyards In The Langhe.
Vineyards in the Langhe region.


A contradiction for many, including sommeliers: a high-acid lightly-hued red wine that is deeply flavorful and tannic. Nebbiolo is the grape of the vaunted Barolo, with a price tag that matches its fame. To get a better price, we look to the Langhe region surrounding Barolo.

Two of the best wines that offer great value are the La Spinona Langhe Nebbiolo, which is floral and cherry-forward with just the right amount of funk. The other is the Paitin Langhe Nebbiolo Starda, which brings the same floral notes with an added lemon rind and spice note to the mix.

Food & Wine Pairings

A truffle-cream pasta will bring out the earthiness and tame some of the aggressive tannins for food pairing. Another great option would be short ribs with polenta.

Chianti Classico Wine Region
A Chianti estate near Poggibonsi, Siena, Tuscany,

Chianti Classico

We have the Boomers to thank for how inexpensive these world-class Italian red wines remain. In the 60s and 70s, the Chianti region fell on hard times, and the wine quality suffered terribly. The entire generation of American Baby Boomers never forgot and turned up their noses to these wines, even after they rose again to their historic heights of quality. Nothing quite like market forces to keep a good wine region down.

The main grape in the Tuscan region of Chianti is Sangiovese, which is traditionally very similar to Pinot Noir: high acid, complex, and light-bodied. The Classico appellation is one of the best regions in Chiant for this grape, and quality levels are uniformly high. The best wines are elegant, with sandalwood and leather notes balanced with toasted spices and red fruits.

I love the Castelli del Grevepesa Clemente VII Chianti Classico for its sheer verve and sophistication. Another beautiful bottling is the San Felice Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva which is richer and rounder with a bit more of a modern touch.

Food & Wine Pairings

The classic pairing is a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a rare steak grilled over charcoal and drizzled with olive oil and salt. For a light meal, the cannellini-based Ribollita soup is a great option as well.

Rosso di Montalcino

Montalcino is an interesting place. It isn’t a historical wine region (most plantings happened in the 20th Century), but it quickly rose to fame in the 1970s with its iconic Brunello di Montalcino. The grape in these wines is the same as in Chianti –Sangiovese– in the same general area.

I won’t recommend a Brunello since those Italian red wines are far too expensive for this list. Instead, we are looking at two other wines in Montalcino, both of which are very similar to Brunello: Rosso di Montalcino, which is sourced from younger vines and without expensive oak aging. The other is the declassified wines of the region, which are called Toscana Rosso (as a note, not all Toscana Rossos are from Montalcino).

These Italian red wines are typically much more modern than Chianti Classico wines: richer, darker fruit with more aggressive but rounder tannins. However, the best go in the opposite direction: funky, floral, and reminiscent of my years as a winemaker in Tuscany. Two of my favorite are the Lisini San Biagio Toscana Rosso and the La Colombina Rosso Di Montalcino.

Food & Wine Pairings

With these Italian red wines, I love Lampredotto, but that isn’t something you will find in the States. Instead, I often pair them with a Pecorino di Pienza. If you can’t find that specific cheese, go with a Pecorino Toscana, with at least four months of age (Stagionato).

Mount Etna Vineyard
Vineyard at a winery on Mount Etna Volcano, Sicily

Etna Rosso

The wines of Sicily are undervalued for many historical reasons, but every winemaker in Italy knows that these are some of the best Italian red wines available. They were often used in blends to increase the quality of other Italian red wines (back when such was legal in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

There are two top regions for reds, Vittoria and Mt. Etna. Vittoria is known f its Frappato and Nero D’Avola, while Mt. Etna is famous for Nerello Mascalese. You can’t go wrong with either of these regions, but I recommend the Etna Rosso as Sicily’s top Italian red wine.

These wines are rich, round, and mineral-driven, with an edge of smoke and herbs. The Terrazze dell’ Etna Carusu Etna Rosso and the Tasca D’almerita Tascante Giaia Nera are two of the best in this price range.

Food & Wine Pairings

These wines are surprisingly adroit when it comes to pairings. They are excellent with eggplant-based dishes, especially Pasta ‘Ncasciata. It is also fantastic with savory chicken dishes.

A Vineyard In Fruili For Italian Red Wines.
A vineyard in Fruili.


These wines hail from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. Most American sommeliers know this region for pinot grigio and often forget their wonderful Italian red wines. Refosco is a classic Italian varietal but little known outside of Italy.

These are serious wines, and fans of cool-weather Italian red wines likely find them a perfect fit for their wine cellar. Refosco is a zesty and fresh wine with cranberry flavors balanced with blue flowers and blueberries. The Perusini Refosco Peduncolo Rosso Colli Orientali del Friuli is stellar, and the Luisa Refosco is lovely for a lighter version.

Food & Wine Pairings

This is one of the lighter Italian red wines, but even so, don’t pair this with fish: it typically has a high iron content that will ruin the pairing. Instead, this wine is wonderful with Cjarsons (potato dumplings) or even German food.

That may seem like sacrilege to many of you, but remember that much of Northern Italy has Germanic roots in its food and wine cultures. Cheers!

Wine School of Philadelphia
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2 thoughts on “The Five Top Italian Red Wines for $20”

  1. I was distracted by how many words are missing letters in this article. There are are at least a dozen. (I actually counted 13 or 14). Could not appreciate the article nor take it seriously. Very sloppy.


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