Big Sippers

Italian wines are made for pleasure-and priced attractively.

Anyone attending the Genoa International Boat Show this October 7 to 15 will undoubtedly fall under the spell of the city itself, as easily as he or she is charmed by the exquisite yachts from Azimut-Benetti and Ferretti. Even back in the 13th century, an anonymous poet sang of Genoa's ships: "So great is their fleet that it covers the entire sea./Their ships are so rich that one is worth two of anyone else's."

Set on the northern edge of the Italian Riviera, Genoa is a sprawling city with a big northern Italian appetite for la dolce vita. Its cooks created the basil-and-garlic sauce called pesto and the puffy bread called focaccia. Sorry to report, then, that the region's wines are not among the country's best. Which shouldn't stop anyone from drinking the great wines from the rest of Italy, all available in profusion in the U.S.

Twenty years ago Italian vintners made technological strides that put many in the top ranks of international viniculture, and names like Tignanello, Sassicaia and Angelo Gaja now fetch as good a price as some of the finest Bordeaux and California wines. Indeed, many think lesser Italian producers have priced themselves out of the American market, with too many wines selling above $50.

Fortunately, the most appealing and readily available Italian wines are in the middle range, from, say, $15 to $40, and they offer extremely good value over a wide array of styles, from sparkling spumante and dry reds to well-fruited white wines and intensely sweet dessert wines. Italians have also made changes in the way they vinify their wines so that the biggest and boldest of them, like Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, Barolo from Piedmont and Amarone from Veneto, are ready to drink at an earlier age than what was once recommended. Some-and this would include me-are nostalgic for reds that date back 50 years and taste magnificent, but I ain't getting any younger, and I now buy wines I can drink within five years.

Thus I would recommend Brunellos by Col d'Orcia, Castello Banfi and Tenuta Caparzo; for Barolo, Vietti, Giuseppe Mascarello, and Michele Chiarlo; for Amarone, Allegrini, Bolla and Masi.

Some of the most exciting new red wines out of Italy are from young producers who have adopted modern technology, researched what's done in the very best vineyards and then radically changed outdated traditions. Take, for instance, a winery such as Poggioargentiera, founded in 1997, whose "Bella Marsilia" Morellino di Scansano 2004 (only about $18) has garnered justifiable praise. This light-weight red with plenty of fruit and a velvety texture perks up when it comes in contact with black pepper in foods like grilled chicken and pork loin.

Chiantis-so long underrated because of their "pizza wine" associations-are much different from what they once were when made by huge wineries for commercial bottling. Poggio della Torre Chianti Riserva 2001 is remarkable in that it does have a DOCG-Denominazione 'd'Origine Controllata Garantita, a denomination of guaranteed controlled origin-the highest ranking by Italian wine law, yet only costs $14. It has a big, beautiful aroma of the sangiovese grape, and it is the kind of red wine you drink with a veal chop or pasta with a rich wild mushroom meat sauce.

Poderi Marcarini Ciabot Camerano Barbera d'Alba 2003 ($18) is a revelation. Barbera d'Alba is a Piedmont varietal that usually plays little sister to prestigious Barolo (which Marcarini also makes). This Barbera has wonderful structure but with less tannin and just enough oak. Drink this wine with red meats.

Alba Marcarini also makes a super Dolcetto d'Alba called Fontanazza ($16), whose delicious fruit flavors of black cherry and figs pack sufficient acid to cut through a dish like osso buco or a pasta with a lusty bolognese ragù.

The most welcome news out of Italian winemaking these days is how the government's IGT category-indicazione geografica tipica-allows winemakers to work out for themselves the best blends to make distinctive, even unique wines. Producers of Chianti Classico, for example, can now make their wine from sangiovese alone or with a blend of the traditional sangiovese and native varieties like canaiolo and colorino.

Thus, a wine like Corte dei Sassi Toscana Rosso 2000 ($13) is an IGT wine whose label says it comes "from Tuscan Hills," which gives it very wide latitude. It is of medium body, with very rich fruit and the robust sangiovese flavor, with loosened-up tannins and a pleasingly long finish, making it a great wine to go with a rare porterhouse.

I am also delighted by another IGT sangiovese, this one from the region of Molise, not much recognized for fine wine. Di Majo Norante 2004 is a wine with a big robust thrust of leathery tannic flavors underneath dried fruit that reminded me of a well-aged Amarone. With venison or any game meat, this is a wine I would both drink and, at ten bucks a bottle, use to make a red wine sauce.

Italian white wines have also been impressive. Livon Collio makes a Pinot Grigio 2004 ($15) in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region that is a terrific example of this varietal, very fragrant, green-gold in color, with fresh apple and citrus flavors and a surprisingly long finish. It is ideal as an aperitif or with any shellfish from mussels to lobster.

Despite its Germanic-sounding name, Schulthauser St. Michael-Eppan Weissburgunder Pinot Bianco 2004 ($19) is a distinctive northern Italian DOC wine from the Alto Adige region, very light in color and amazingly high in alcohol (14 percent) for a white wine, giving it good body with the zing of lemony notes on first sip. Enjoy in a Lake Garda trattoria with grilled trout drizzled in a benediction of olive oil and lemon.

Italian sparkling wines-spumanti-have also begun to receive respect, especially the drier styles, made by the complex champagne method of vinification. Maurizio Zanella's Ca' del Bosco is one of the finest sparklers in Italy, and at $30 a bottle, costs a lot less than a low-grade champagne. Just as appealing, though usually not made by the expensive champagne process, are Vento's fresh and delicious Proseccos, heretofore known as a key ingredient, with peach juice, in a bellini cocktail.

The new Proseccos, from producers like Adami Prosecco Vigneto Giardino ($19), Drusian Prosecco Brut ($14), Valdo Prosecco Cuvee del Boj ($18), Zardetto Prosecco ($18) and Folli Bortolin Prosecco Cartizze ($35) are easy to drink (they are fairly low in alcohol) and have marvelous fruit and a light frizzante sparkle that makes them ideal for summer.

Italian dessert wines have also improved measurably, especially those from the island of Pantelleria off Sicily, where they make marvelous, aromatic sweet wines from the Moscato (Muscat) grape called Passito, which run around $20 to $25. In the north, Picolit is a dessert wine of true elegance and medium sweetness to be enjoyed with biscotti. Ronco and Jermann are two producers to look for.

That these wines are ideal with Italian food seems obvious. But to increase the pleasure of drinking them, try doing it on an Italian yacht off the coast of Liguria.