Ah, Roma – the Caput Mondi. Now just imagine the wine world 2000 years ago. Roberto Paris tell us that “This was the biggest city of the world and the Romans were drinking wines from all over the world, but they were also making wines. All around Rome there were vines everywhere…This was the first and most important wine region of Italy.” That’s Lazio.
Before the Romans, the Etruscans grew grapes in the region and passed on their viticultural knowledge. For centuries, winemakers here have not had to try very hard in their viticultural pursuits, as the capital city drank everything they could produce, regardless of quality. From the emperors to the legionaires, wine was seen as part of everyday nourishment. From the Roman Republic to the Empire and the rise of the Catholic Church and the Papal States, there has always been a big market for all the wine the fertile wine lands of Lazio could produce. Eventually during the post-WWII era, farmers left the countryside and flocked to the city for work, abandoning farms with unique native grapes. Wine experts, books and magazines just seem to skip over Lazio as an area of importance for wines in Italy. Now, a new generation of winemakers is returning to the family farms, or buying affordable land not far outside of Rome, with ancient grape varieties still planted in the vineyards.
Quality and importance of native grapes is on the rise in Italy in general. Wine buyers and drinkers are beginning to discover the treasure chest of unique wines just outside the door of the Eternal City. Italian wine expert and author, Ian d’Agata, is of the firm opinion that, “There is potential gold in the hills of Lazio. The unique combination of specific conditions such as the climate, mix of soils, marine breezes, rainfall, temperature variation, and the plethora of high quality grape varieties give excellent results.” Let’s take a look to see what’s happening in the wine world that is so much a part of Rome.
Lazio Wine Denominations (Map by Federd)
The production is primarily white wine, about 70% and the main grape varieties are several types of Trebbiano and Malvasia. Malvasia Bianca di Candia is not only Lazio’s most planted grape, but also it ranks first among all the Malvasia varieties planted in Italy. There is another very distinct type, Malvasia del Lazio, which is native to the region and is known locally as Malvasia Puntinata, because of the spots on the grape skins. It is an offspring of the aromatic grape, Muscat d’Alexandria or Zibibbo, as it is known in Italy. This variety is part of the Lazio and Frascati blends and is also bottled on its own. Trebbiano Giallo is the primary type of that variety and is traditional in the area of the Castelli Romani. Throughout Lazio, Trebbiano Toscano, known here as Procanico, is a prominent part of the Lazio white blends, adding a bright acidity to make a crisp, light-bodied wine. Another notable variety is Moscato di Terracina, which almost went extinct in the last 100 years. It is a rare aromatic grape, used to make a dessert wine by only a handful of producers and found solely in the coastal area around Gaeta and Terracina. Bellone, Bombino Bianco and Passerina are other native white varieties seeing a comeback. Bellone makes a particularly interesting metodo classico spumante from the area around Cori, in the hands of Marco Carpineti, known locally as the “champagne” of Rome.
Malvasia Puntinata (Photo by Cincinnato Vini)
Kius the “champagne” of Rome Marco Carpineti
There are a number of red varieties grown in Lazio that figure more prominently in other areas of Italy, such as Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Canaiolo – the components of Chianti – as well as Montepulciano, Merlot, Nero Buono and Aleatico. The native red grape is Cesanese and it is grown only here in Lazio. It’s an up-and-coming varietal, now on the radar for red wine drinkers.
Situated at the center of the country, along the west coast, Lazio is bordered by Tuscany on the north and Campania to the south, with the Apeninne Mountains running down the eastern side. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and mild and rainy winters, although snow can occur in the higher elevations on occasion. Paired with this climate, long hours of sunlight, cool breezes from the sea and lakes, along with volcanic soils throughout much of the denomination, there is the potential to create some amazing wines.
Volcanic districts in Lazio (Photo by Nature.com)
Compared to Vesuvius or Mt Etna, the region of Lazio doesn’t first come to mind when looking at volcanic territory in Italy. But millions of years ago, the region of Lazio was a hotbed of activity and this activity contributed to the formation of the Apenninnes. There are four areas in which signifcant volcanic soils are found today, three to the north of Rome and one to the south. The lakes of Bolseno, Trasimeno, Albano, Nemi, Martignano, Vico, Mezzano and Bracciano are all formed by the craters of extinct volcanoes.
There is some discussion now among geologists whether the volcano in the Colli Albani is truly dormant! Monti Sabatini to the NW and the Colli Albani to the SE are found, like Vesuvius in Naples, literally at the gates of Rome – something to ponder on your next visit to the Eternal City.
In fact, Rome itself is founded upon a plateau created by the pyroclastic eruptions of these two volcanoes and consisting of light and porous rock formed by volcanic ash. Wine journalist Kerin O’Keefe points out that “fallout from massive volcanic eruptions once covered the entire region, but over the course of millennia, only select parts of the growing area now have volcanic soils.” These soils are fertile, porous and rich in mineral content, ideal for growing quality grapes.
Denominations of Lazio, DOC/DOCGs (Map by Guild Somm)
About 20 kilometers to the southeast of Rome, in the hills above the city, there’s a group of seven small wine towns on the slopes of the Colli Albani, centering around the two crater lakes of Albano and Nemi. This area was the seasonal playground of the Roman nobility; in the cooler hills can be found the summer palace of the Popes. The vineyards range from 200 to 1000 feet in altitude and the soils from the dormant Vulcano Laziale produce white wines of structure and aromas. Trebbiano and Malvasia Puntinata are the two principal white grape varieties for which the region is known. Home to two DOCGs – Frascati Superiore and Cannellino di Frascati – and nine DOCs, this is Lazio’s most important winemaking area. Wine styles can be still, spumante, frizzante, novello, or sweet; red, white, or rose. Few red varieties are produced here, mainly Cesanese, Montepulciano and Merlot.
Olevano Romano and Piglio
Drink like a Roman! This is Cesanese country, at home in these hills about an hour south of the capitol. It is a wine of ancient origins, believed to have been grown in Roman times and perhaps favored by the emperors, Nero and Trajan. There are two varieties, Cesanese del Piglio and Cesanese di Affile, grown in the area around Olevano Romano and Piglio. Affile is produced solely in the municipality of Affile.
It is a perfect wine for traditional Roman cuisine, the rich pasta dishes of Amatriciana, Carbonara, and Cacio e Pepe, as well as Coda della Vaccinara (Oxtail Stew) and porchetta, roasted boneless and stuffed suckling pig. It was produced in the past as a light fizzy sweet wine, but now is found as a full-bodied still wine – having aromas and flavors of pomegranate, black plums and cranberries, with a spicy note of juniper and black pepper. On the slopes of the Ernici mountains and in the Valle del Sacco in Frosinone, there are vineyards between 200 and 800 meters. Here we find Cesanese del Piglio DOCG and two DOCs, as the quality continues to increase and young growers return to the land of their families. Top producers include Casale della Ioria, Terenzi, Berrucci, Coletto Conti, Alberto Giacobbe, Marco Antonelli, Raimondo and Damiano Ciolli.
The wine growing region of Olevano Romano
The medieval hillside town of Olevano (Photos by author)
Est! Est! Est!! DOC
In 1966, this DOC was the first one to achieve this status in Lazio. Near the town of Montefiascone and Lake Bolsena to the north of Rome, the varieties which make this wine are Trebbiano Toscano and Trebbiano Giallo, as well as Malvasia Bianca Lunga and Malvasia del Lazio. It can produced in a dry, medium dry or sweet, or spumante style. Try it as an alternative to Pinot Grigio.
The name has a interesting legend to its origins – allegedly, in the 12th century, a Bishop and wine connoisseur Johannes Defuk, was in the entourage of Henry V of Germany, on their way to have an audience with Pope Pasquale II in Rome. The bishop sent Martino, his cup bearer, on ahead to taste the wines along his route of travel who was to leave notes on the walls of inns and taverns as to the quality of the wine. “Est” (it is) meant the wine was worth drinking, while “Non est” (it isn’t) meant a decided lack of quality. When the cup bearer arrived in Montefiascone, he liked the wine so much that he wrote “Est! Est! Est!!!
In the SE part of the Castelli Romani region, lies the ancient town of Cori, settled in the 4th Century, BC. The native grapes of Bellone, a white variety, and Nero Buono, a red variety are found here. Producer Marco Carpineti and wine cooperative Cincinnato are the vineyards to visit.
Roman temple to Hercules in Cori, 1st C, BC (Photo by Girl In Florence)