By Frank CipparoneBy Frank CipparoneNot that many years ago, doing what the Romans do when you’re in Rome wouldn’t get you very far where wine was concerned. There was plenty to be had, churned out by local producers to satisfy the thirsty legions of visitors thronging the piazzas. Most of it was white, bland and forgotten five minutes after the carafe was emptied. Money was made, tourists were happy, it was one big Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn holiday.But not for Lazio’s winemakers. For them, the Eternal City was an existential problem, a complacent, indifferent market for whatever they made regardless of quality. Commercially a boon but an obstacle to establishing a regional identity like Chianti or Barolo. Lazio had a large wine industry but no wine culture. The general attitude was to leave well enough alone.Part of the problem was the grapes that had grown for centuries in the surrounding hills of Castelli Romani. Trebbiano and Malvasia are still the primary ingredients in twenty DOCs that produce white wine and account for about 80% of Lazio’s DOC output. They are ancient families of grapes whose tendrils have spread in vineyards all over Italy, the source of far too many neutral wines that are hard to tell apart or give any sense of where they come from. In most cases, the regulations are so loosely defined it’s impossible to know which of about 20 types of Trebbiano or Malvasia is being used, or which locally grown “other white grapes” are in the mix.The most noteworthy DOC is Frascati which is, unfortunately, the poster wine for commercial success at the expense of lowered expectations. To offset the dullness of local grapes producers began adding aggressive French varieties — Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Semillon. That strategy may have moved the needle a little but resulted in such a wide range of styles that it became hard to tell what Frascati was all about. Most winemakers didn’t view that as a problem, pointing out that Frascati’s lackluster image had nowhere to go but up. If there was no such thing as a typical Frascati, that wasn’t necessarily a bad outcome. The irony is that the sad state of wine affairs in Castelli Romani could have been avoided or at least altered. Alternatives to French grapes had grown in Lazio forever. Bellone and Bombino Bianco, small percentages of which had been part of Frascati, were cast aside in favor of more productive, less interesting grapes that were easier to grow — Trebbiano and Malvasia.The castaways may have the last word. Though very little Bellone is left, a few wineries near Cori are making 100% Bellone wine, including late harvested sweet versions. Bombino Bianco vines are so sparse pure examples are rare. Many producers just blend it with Bellone, a case of doing what you can with what you have.Winemakers focused on red wines keep their ledgers in the black by turning to French grapes. The results were densely concentrated, massively structured and over the top, wines more characteristic of California or Australia. The best among them were favorably, and sometimes accurately, compared to Bordeaux and the Loire, which raises a question — what do these copycat wines from Lazio have to do with Italy? If you want Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa in your glass there’s plenty to choose from not labeled “Product of Italy.” A prominent Lazio winemaker reasoned that international grapes are needed in an area with no wine tradition, so why not use them to compete in the marketplace with other non-European countries. He added that he viewed Syrah as a future star of his region, where the natural conditions and “vibe” were very New World. Time will tell. Long ago recognized as Lazio’s most important red grape, Cesanese has time on its side. Not the easiest to work with, it was usually made in dry, sparkling and “passito” styles and highly praised at the Vatican. It’s the basis of the Cesanese del Piglio DOCG and two DOCs — Cesanese d’Affile and Cesanese Olevano Romano. As with other Italian grapes whose fortunes rose with renewed interest in “true” wines, Cesanese made a comeback. Hanging on by its roots 20 years ago it has become Lazio’s signature grape, like Nebbiolo in Piedmont or Sicily’s Nero d’Avola. Though not yet as popular as they are it has a chance to become a wine that visitors to Rome will make it a point to order.Thankfully, Rome’s wine bars and enotecas are changing with the times. A pleasant evening can be spent strolling from one to another in Trastevere. Just a few steps outside Piazza Navona are Mimi And Coco and Cul de Sac, wine bars with great food and mind-boggling selections of bottles. There’s Cavour 313, its address on Via Cavour, not far from the Coliseum. They’ll be happy to open a Cesanese, or find a Nero Buono for you. These days, that’s what Romans are doing. IAH
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