Value Vino: Trader Joe's Italian varietals 

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Trader Joe's (in)famous Two Buck Chuck has been three-buck plonk for a while now. Yes, we know it has its defenders. But we're about to suggest an even more astonishing leap—all the way up to $5.99. Stay with us here.

TJ's Epicuro line of Southern Italian varietal/regional wines is simply and handsomely packaged for starters; it's a factor that, to the design snobs among us, always suggests that a little care might also have gone into the contents. And for the most part in this line of four, such is nominally the case.

From Terre Siciliane comes the 2012 Nero d'Avola IGP (indicazione geografica protetta—the approximate equivalent of a French vin de pays). It really does need the grilled meat accompaniment suggested on the back. But considering that The New York Times' Eric Asimov recently called tasting nero as "entering a time warp" to an era of big fruit bombs (he thinks it needs a blending partner), TJ's keeps the lid on a tad, showing some cranberry, a little coffee and decent spiciness, all of which improved in the glass. The negro amaro grape gets some assistance from malvasia nera in the 2011 Salice Salentino DOC blend (denominazione di origine controllata—slightly classier than IGP) that's named for a small town in southern Apulia. There's more sweet red fruit in this one, complemented by a hint of caramel, all wrapped up in silky mouthfeel. No guts, no glory, but good with hand-sliced prosciutto. The 2011 Beneventano Aglianico from Campania exhibits this grape's almost inky coloration—and yet on the palate it offered up unexpectedly light cherry (barely PG-13, said one taster) bolstered by a touch of coffee and leather, that turned a little grapey the next day. Probably our least favorite.

"New boot leather," claimed one taster of the group fave, the 2012 Primitivo from Puglia. At 14 percent, it confesses the highest alcohol level, and yet it didn't come across as hot—rather it led with peppery spice and berry/dark cherry flavors and flaunted a touch of tannin, no less. Still, these are all mass-produced products, and though they are fine as popularly priced, unpretentious table wines, for a better look at what these grapes can offer, I asked a couple of pros, Kye McCammon at the Whole Foods in the Quarry and Joe Saglimbeni of his eponymous shop, to recommend some more varietally distinct (admittedly pricier) options. Here they are:

• Tola Nero d'Avola IGT Black Label ($19.11, Saglimbeni Fine Wines)

• Sire Negro Amaro Salento IGP ($17.99, Whole Foods Market)

• Livelli Passamante Salice Salentino Negro Amaro ($12.99, Whole Foods Market)

• Rocca del Dragone Aglianico Campania ($17.99, Whole Foods Market)

• Papale Primitive di Manduria ($22.99, Saglimbeni Fine Wines)

Start low but aim high, we say—when feeling flush



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