Ancient grapes, centuries-old producers, modern techniques, French identified grapes and innovative blends - these all characterize the wonderful enigma that is Italian wine.
Le Marche is a good example. Still largely undiscovered, it has experienced improvements in quality and a boom in organic viticulture. Small estates such as Ciù Ciù maintain tradition using indigenous grapes but also reflect a "back to the future" ethic with a range of certified organic and vegan wines.
The result: 2014 "Gotico" Rosso Piceno Superiore ($20), an earthy, focused blend of montepulciano and sangiovese, as well as a bright, fresh, aromatic 2016 Lacrima di Morro D'Alba ($18) with its recyclable synthetic cork.
Neighboring Tuscany has been a center of innovation over the past several decades even as it preserves many winemaking traditions. Ever hear of a "Super Tuscan"?
Ornellaia, one of the original Super Tuscans from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast, has gained world renown for Bordeaux-style blends. But it is really expensive. A second wine, Le Volte (2015, $30), a fresh, juicy blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, is an affordable alternative.
Similarly, in Bolgheri, Aia Vecchia is the winery of a family of growers for several generations who decided to make their own wine. The 2015 Lagone ($15) blends merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc to a bright, luscious, excellent value. The 2014 Sor Ugo ($35) blends cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petite verdot into a rich, concentrated wine.
But it was in the heart of Chianti where the Super Tuscans came into being as a reaction to the rigid traditional regulations for making Chianti wine. Many, though, are quite expensive. An affordable alternative from my tasting: 2014 Brancaia "TRE" ($23), named for the winery's three vineyards and the wine's three varieties (sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon). It is aromatic with pure fruit and a soft palate.
A more recent entry into this category also showed well: the 2015 Lucente ($30), the second wine of Luce, the flagship of the Marchesi de' Frescobaldi/Robert Mondavi partnership, produced from the same vineyards in Montalcino. It is a nicely integrated, juicy, sleek blend of sangiovese and merlot.
Farther north in the Veneto, two wineries exemplify the tradition/modern contrast. Tommasi, a 115-year-old family winery, is renowned for its Amarone, made using the ancient "appassimento" process (drying grapes to concentrate the juice). The 2013 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($83) amply displays the power and opulence typical of this raisiny, complex wine.
Though just over 20 years old, Tenuta Sant'Antonio also has earned a reputation for traditional Veneto wines. But it also created Scaia, a separate estate that produces wines often including nontraditional grapes and using modern methods such as stainless-steel fermentation. A good example is the 2014 Torre Mellotti ($15), an all cabernet sauvignon wine that would rival any California Cab at that price.
Italy's Alto Adige is largely known for white wines from native varieties, but its red wines are growing in recognition. Alois Lageder, a sixth-generation family owned winery, is a regional leader respecting traditional winemaking methods, while working to advance biodynamic farming. Its 2014 Lagrein ($25), from a native red grape, is uniquely dense and woodsy with pungent notes.