In Rome’s Recalescent Summer, Lessons On Lazio’s Wines

Seventy-four kilometers from the city, mano destra south past the hill towns of the forested and awakening-volcanic colli Albani and the long-ago-tropical-coral-archipelago Monti Lepini, in the small rising vineyards of Anagni (volcanic subappennine valley of the Sacco river and capital city of the Italic Ernici people before the Romans came), the Maestro did co-fermenting, too.

The 2015 Torre Ercolana of the historic 20th-century Colacicchi label is one-quarter Cesanese d’Affile (smaller-bluer-berried and -bunched than the Cesanese Comune variety more often grown in these Cesanese neighborhoods of the Frosinone province’s Piglio DOCG, southern border of Olevano which is instead the countryside of metropolitan Rome with particularly tight ties to the city reflected in the numerous “more or less artisanal” signs announcing vini sfusi along its roads, noted Enogea in 2007, and from whence the Affilano variety), 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, the rest Merlot. Insisting on place, this red wine is not a cellar blend. It is made from a hectare-large plot of those vines an average of 50 years old and growing 310 meters above the level of the Tyrrenian sea 50 km away during ever more regularly improbable weather, of such co-planted fruit fermented together in small stainless-steel tini where malo-lactic conversion happens, too, then raised for a year and a half in 10-hectoliter Slavonian casks neither new nor toasted, finally rested in bottle for two years. It was made by Rome’s historic wine-merchant Trimani family which in 1994 bought the unusual hectare planted by the Maestro, conductor and composer Luigi Colacicchi who in 1947 bottled his first Torre Ercolana, for a while come of age in chestnut casks, and had from the late 1950s until his death in 1976 worked with Marco Trimani as his exclusive purveyor. From 1993 to 2002 the Trimani family replanted some of the original vineyard, massal selection, same composition.

This summer of Italy’s latest hottest days on record, impossible to not think about the repetitive sun and near or past 100F temperature as relentlessly as each day extended this new pattern again and again or, really, to move myself much, I traveled through some of the region’s wines mostly by what I could find at cool-enough tables in the city. “We’re presenting a new Lazio today,” says son Francesco Trimani of a more general recent timeframe when I tasted the wine in a regional line-up hosted by his sister Carla Trimani at the family’s wine bar around the corner from the historic shop. Seeing that we’re in Rome, they explain, their idea with selling wine has always been to present the region first. “Fifteen, twenty years ago a tasting like this wouldn’t have been possible,” Francesco adds. He probably means the variety of styles, and even of varieties, but that the tasting is of wines stemming from the Lazio chapter of the 34-year-old national Donne del Vino association makes this statement ring true twice. It is is true, too, that the Trimanis have long presented Lazio with due honor, evident in for example their 1971 price list. Therein the family’s up-close knowledge and dedication to this region’s wines: within Lazio’s multiple pages, a section for Cesanese offers the two types, both 1968, one from the cooperative winery of the growers of the Piglio (whose Cesanese, Burton Anderson wrote in his 1980 Vino, the Wines and Winemakers of Italy, “with moderate aging takes on bright fruity qualities and a lightly bitter, tannic vein”) where less winemaking has been happening, the other of the fruit of growers in the longer at-it Olevano (where it is impossible today to not think of Damiano Ciolli, fourth generation area winegrower and namesake founder of the Cesanese-based winery in 2001 which he runs with his partner and winemaker, Letizia Rocchi).

The pricelist saw 450 Lire for the cooperative’s bottles, 1,400L for celebrated Fiorano Rosso 1964 at around 12% abv — 1,900 L for the same vintage (up to 14% abv) of Torre Ercolana and 1,100 Lire for the current, 1968, bottling. Of the 2015, in a more accountable version of the 800 to 2,000 vintage-dependent bottles then, 1,500 bottles are made, and today Daniele Proietti, enologist of that Cantina Sociale Cesanese del Piglio and head of his own Abbia Nuova is the winemaker — he “has a Cesanese vision,” Carla describes him, and works his own grapes biodynamically. This day, I taste the 2019s of two other historic Piglio producers. Giovanni Terenzi “Vajoscuro”Superiore Riserva by the eponymous founder’s daughter Pina, varietally fitting medium ruby with a little garnet, then herbal and tobacco and thick red fruit, spice that is much more evident upon tasting, fresh and richly granular upfront fruit; and Casale della Ioria’s “Torre del Piano” by Marina Perinelli whose wine is ruby but darker enough that I can no longer read through it and floral and plum with a tiny amount of that Cesanese funk that makes some say rustic of all the wines, but fresh fruit, acidity driven, plenty of tannins, and an uplifting bitter touch (it is still young). New producer Gabriella Grassi, whose husband Stefano Matturro is the director of Piglio’s cooperative has sent her 2019 here as well: L’Avventura “Camere Pinte Superiore Riserva, more ruby than the first two, but lighter, barely above a medium intensity, and there is a little more funk, a slight and enjoyable VA lift, juicy, and seems to me a statement wine. The lone non-2019 is a 2016: Tiziana Vela and Fabrizio Petrucca’s Petrucca e Vela Tellures Superiore Riserva is a rather concentrated garnet, a little meaty, floral appears later, with a sense of sweet fruit to make one think there might be some appassimento (there is), a sense of balsamic, 16% abv. All these producers also work with the area’s white grape, Passerina.

In 2011 had come Rome’s own denomination, covering what until 2015 had been the province and is now the città metropolitana di Roma Capitale, and spilling from port city Civitavecchia down to Anzio then northwest to the mountains just 20 km away past Monterotondo and following jagged narrow borders to the end of the Romans’ via Prenestina just before mountainous Abruzzo. The Roma DOC is not a great idea, says Francesco, it doesn’t mean much, “you can make it anywhere with anything.” I’d say also that it is an opportunity to think more about where, especially in a city known for rapid and aberrational urban expansion into its own countryside over the past two centuries, Rome actually is. Maybe, eternal name and contemporary attention to winemaking, Rome DOC can be an ambassador for Lazio. Regardless of label — as for example two of the three Cesanese zones are within the denomination’s boundaries — that territory is mostly what I tasted that day, and could be one way out for any producers here “fighting,” as Francesco laments, “against institutions to make these quality wines.” It carries anyway the name of the city, patronymic too of the city’s countryside well vined by Rome’s noble families into the 19th century until Unification, when Rome was first reimagined by national forces as a place just urban and for the eyes of others. Its soils are volcanic and not just the reddened browns of cooled and weathered lava: beneath the city stretch undergrounds of grayed pozzolana, petrified volcanic ash the basis of the Romans’ building technologies.

The usefulness of Rome’s denomination remains to be seen, but there the Romans picked up the Etruscans’ winegrowing techniques and poured wine in local thermopolia and in those days so high were export rates, adds the DOC’s disciplinare, that the “port of Ostia became a true wine emporium.” For that Rome, demanding production and center of the new industry and where much later on its city’s peripheral neighborhoods outside the Aurelian walls German soldiers moved and Allied bombs fell as they did also on Civitavecchia and the city of Frosinone, uprooting vines was once “sacrilega falce” reads the disciplinare — and so in its late days a penalty of death for who, seeking to avoid the ever higher taxes of an ever more unstable empire, did so. While Cesanese’s Piglio is in the Frosinone province, Olevano and smaller and also-named Affile both belong to metropolitan Rome. Near the site of one WWII atrocity, Capizucchi is inside the city; just south along the way to the city’s other international airport, Casale Valle Chiesa and Poggio le Volpi are in the metropolitan area as well. So is Riserva della Cascina and the Tenuta Fiorano. And Tenuta Principe Alberico: later on a new and unrelentingly afternoon I drank a glass, rich gold and chilled, of Appia Antica 400, from fruit harvested the first year of the pandemic, at a shaded table a minute’s walk from a turn of the occasionally breeze-conducting Tiber river within the city center.

Stretching north out of Rome, in the once-Etruscan Tuscia where Lazio becomes instead a partner with Umbria and the Tuscan Maremma, one winery in the tasting at Trimani parameterizes the whole region: in the Viterbo province’s Orte (linked to Ravenna by, following at first the Tiber valley, Italy’s longest national highway) the Azienda Agricola Ciucci grows on spindly armed guyot 250 meters up in clayey soil the region’s prized but sensitive Malvasia Puntinata, adjectivized also del Lazio in official affection. Their 2021 wine is savory, tending toward green and earthy citrus and broader, softer than the same year’s “Galatea” from Eredi dei Papi of Monte Compatri, one of those winemaking hill towns of the Albani south of Rome and together called the Castelli — the wine of this young azienda with older and volcanic vineyards is concentrated with a little floral, lots of yellow fruit, light-med gold (texture evidence of skin contact), some sweet spice, faintly. The grape is semi-aromatic, says Carla. Back north again in Acquapendente, Terre D’Aquesia’s “Santermete” is Cabernet Sauvignon with 40% Sangiovese and practically a Tuscan style, raised in barrique, with that dried olive and savory meat fruit, and a little heat. Ciucci also makes Violone, what Montepulciano is called here, which means it’s been here for a while and which, back to Rome, Capizucchi also planted nine years ago, and then, presumably happy with it, more four years later.

Frascati, town and DOCG in those Albani hills seeable promises of wine and fresh air from many of the city’s streets, is made with that Malvasia, too. Founded by another Rome wine merchant, Piero Constantini, who “had a passion for Frascati,” adds Carla, Villa Simone is now headed by his daughter Sara, and her “Villa dei preti” Superiore 2021 is a selection of vineyards, light gold, rich and precise, a sense of breadth, a little vinous, a little salty. Younger producer Merumalia focuses on Frascati and makes three: “Primo Riserva” Superiore Riserva 2020 is undistracting, a nose of the blend’s signature sweet fruit, gold, floral concentrated, fresh and juicy, fresh hazelnut note, chewiness of acidity and bitter edge. The older Casale Vallechiesa “Heredio” Riserva 2018 is a gold no darker than the previous two, the nose is mentholated, developing and sharp lemon and upon tasting it, the same lemon both preserved and very fresh.

South of the metropolitan border, in the soft hills of the province of Latina almost in sight of the Tyrrenian sea: Bellone, the white grape of the long warm and very sunny Cori DOC is well represented by Cincinnato, a cooperative a short train ride on a heated Rome morning. In Cori, a little Cesanese, reluctant ripener, grows, too, notes Ian D’Agata in his 2014 Native Wine Grapes of Italy, and the 105-member Cincinnato (founded in 1947, the year Italy became a republic) makes a fragrant, bright blend of the comune and affilano varieties that is named Argeo, a Lazio IGT since the DOC doesn’t cover the little of these grapes grown here. The co-op curtsies before the hillside town of Cori, a movement in volcanic ash, calcareous, and breeze across the road from that hill and alongside an older vineyard of the zone’s own Nero Buono (to restore this centuries-old cultivar, Cincinnato has led new plantings, massale selection, and now makes three bottlings from its members’ fruit, including from older vineyards a 2018 raised two years in barrique and still young; Cori’s Marco Carpineti champions the variety, too, describing their bottles as “homage to ancient Rome”), being trained to Guyot from Cordon, and struggling in the new heat. Cincinnato pays close attention to Bellone, with five distinctive and delicious insights: a rich yellow-fruited wine meant for everyday; one of selected grapes and especially fragrant; a certified “bio” more texture-focused and from what one member has been growing for three generations; a three-month Italian method spumante, creamy, fresh, insistently sweet mint; and a traditional method spumante rich in lemoniness, melon, honeyed, whose dosage varies in balance with each vintage.

In the Donne del Vino lineup, from Latina as well, another sparkling, this time of 2017 Grechetto: Donato Giangirolami “Bio Spumante Nynphe” is Lazio IGT, extra-brut, medium gold, and disgorged one year ago, nutty and floral, lemon grilled and blossom, a gentle concentration, driven and finished by acidity and evidence of skin contact, it is a wine of sea and hills. Speaking of spumante, the Roma DOC includes a labeling possibility for Romanella, revamped: this young and lightly sparkling red and sometimes white, which is less a grape definition and more a style and drinking habit of the growers and inhabitants in these hills, has been defined as at least half Malvasia del Lazio, at least 35% Bellone, Bombino, Greco Bianco, Trebbiano giallo, and/or Trebbiano verde. It isn’t clear if anyone is making it.

Poured at the tasting, from those Albani hills which like other parts of Lazio and Piemonte, Veneto, and Calabria provide surrogate kiwi cultivation, facing the preappenine Prenestini mountains kiwi planter Cifero makes a if not for the weightier touch a New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc — from vines “alternating with the original peach orchards and the modern kiwi plantations,” their website notes. (At an outside table outside the Aurelian walls one evening, I drank a glass of Piana dei Castelli’s Calice Sauvignon 27.07, picked in 2013, skin contact and aged in cement until last year — as other international varieties well guided have found particular things to say in Lazio, perhaps this could be, mustard-green yellow and the blocky dins of cicadas-filled trees, a Sauvignon Blanc laziale.) From Poggio Le Volpi a salty and very light rosato picked last year and labelled Roma DOC and you don’t mind a quick glass of it, but whose Cannellino — late-harvested and light-footed dessert wine based on Malvasie di Candia and del Lazio, from vines growing in the elevations of Frascati — is said to be very good. There is a good dry Moscato Terracina: Valle Marina’s “Donna Marina” med-plus gold with a very pretty moscato nose, oily and salty, tangerine and orange.

As the deep dry golden rustling of Ferragosto, quiet Rome day of Mother Mary’s full and direct ascent into heaven, finally and violently the storms came, pushy winds and water slow to run off city streets and toppling out from drainage grates but at last water for the 2022 vintage. Because of the pandemic — ongoing loss of people and shortage of bottles made — the 2015 Torre Ercolana has been held longer than usual, and will be released later this year. On the palate it is is fresh and serious and elevated and herbal and giving. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are massal descendants of the plants the Maestro brought back from Bordeaux by hand in the 1950s, rare examples of older clones that are no longer grown in those more precarious maritime vineyards. In writings on what to do about climate change, novelist Amitav Ghosh notes “innumerable examples of people responding to crises by adopting measures that required greater cooperation,” pooling resources, working with the knowledges of those in your place before you. Here, catastrophic heat is also simply folded into the long gentle heavy grace of summer in this strongheaded city, scented still of sunbaked pine needles fallen from characteristically flat tree canopies in recently milding winters, and now there is a Colacicchi white wine to pour: “Stradabianca,” is of a vineyard that the Trimani family bought in 2002 and made for the first time in 2015, almost one hectare of Malvasia del Lazio, Bellone, and Passarina del Frusinate planted and fermented together, smooth toccata I think it’s clear Colacicchi would have been just as proud of. And from the clay soils of Tuscia, Ciucci ferments their Malvasia del Lazio for 12 days and, unlike Rome and south, does not convert the suddenness of its malic acid into the weightier option of lactic.

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