Winemakers in the Italian region of Lazio have a problem. The problem is Rome, the great metropolis at its center that is both blessing and curse.
Lazio’s hilly provinces, stretching in all directions from the Eternal City, have produced the Mediterranean staples of wine, wheat and olives for millennia.
Yet in modern times, Lazio—with its whites based on Malvasia and Trebbiano and reds on Cesanese—became the source of a river of cheap wine for Roman trattorias and consumers.
“Rome is a market that always bought everything we produced without regard to quality,” explains Antonello Coletti Conti, 59, son of a noble family in Anagni, who began producing wine 15 years ago. “There was no push to do better.”
“Now all of that is changing,” he adds. “But in 20 years, you can’t completely make up for the past.”
Sure, Lazio wines and their image have improved with brands like the Cotarella family’s Falesco, operating out of a base just across the border in Umbria. And you’ve likely heard of the quaffable white blends from the Frascati appellation. Still, Lazio has remained largely obscure despite its long history and unique local grapes.
During 2018’s harvest, I travelled through the southern half of Lazio on my way from Rome to Naples and was struck not only by its history-rich towns and some gorgeous pastoral landscapes, but also by lesser-known producers striving to make quality wines in styles from old school to new wave.
If there is one grape that embodies Lazio, it is arguably Cesanese, often disrespected or blended with other varieties and capable of producing wildly varied wines.
Coletti Conti’s eponymous winery is known for its Cesanese del Piglio DOC bottlings, called Hernicus and Romanico, at the ripe end of the Cesanese spectrum. The wines are dense, barrique-aged, high-alcohol versions of Cesanese, with the variety’s signature bitter-fruit finish.
“I like wines that are chewable,” explains Coletti Conti, who produces about 3,750 cases from about 20 acres of vines dominated by what’s considered Cesanese’s best subvariety, Cesanese di Affile (also the name of a DOC in Lazio).
In 2015, he planted a new 3-acre vineyard propagated from a selection of vines that produced the tiniest bunches and berries. “It is a Ferrari,” he enthuses of the vineyard, after his first experiments. “It could be a revolution in Cesanese.”
Nearly 20 miles northwest, in the higher-altitude hills of Olevano Romano, Damiano Ciolli, 41, shoots for an opposite effect with his Cesanese di Affile.
“Cesanese is not a vino nobile like Nebbiolo. You can’t age it for 30 years,” he says. “But it’s a wine that’s versatile at table. It’s spicy, it’s floral and, in a cold year, it can be like Pinot Nero.”
As a child, Ciolli helped his father sell the family’s wine, filling plastic jugs from the back of a truck. In 2001, he took over the vineyards, and he began selling wine in bottles in Rome. But he didn’t achieve success until he began selling wine in northern Italy and exporting; today he sells the more than 1,600 cases he makes annually in 30 countries.
Ciolli farms 10 acres of organic vineyards on volcanic soils and works in the winery below the family home where he lives with his partner, enologist Letizia Rocchi. Fermenting with indigenous yeasts, he makes two 100 percent Cesanese wines—his fruit-driven Silene and his more complex, longer-aged Cirsium.
“Roman food is heavy, and heavy cuisine demands wines that are lighter and fresher,” he says. “Cesanese is the opposite of Amarone.”
To the southwest of both these producers—along the first line of hills of the Lepini mountains, about 20 miles inland from the Tyrrhenian sea—sits the ancient town of Cori, where Marco Carpineti, 59, is a wine leader.
Carpineti, the son of a farmer who sold wine to négociants, quit his job as town electrician to mind his family vineyards after his father’s death in 1983.
Carpineti sold his grapes to Cori’s Cincinnato cooperative, and he eventually became coop president, championing endangered local varieties like Bellone Bianco and the deeply colored Nero Buono di Cori.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we make wines with our own grapes? With 2,500 years of history, why are we planting Cabernet and Chardonnay in Lazio?’”
In 1996, Carpineti struck out on his own, renovating his father’s small rustic winery and producing his first 400 cases of wine. Over more than 20 years, he has expanded to 160 acres under vine, all farmed organically, and 29,000 cases.
A restless experimenter in the vineyards and cellar, Carpineti has built his renown on Bellone, making a couple dry whites and a sweet wine. Starting with the 2015 vintage, he added a small-production, golden-colored and complex white called Nzù; sourced from vineyards largely farmed by horse and plough, it is lightly aged in amphorae.
More significant, since 2007, he has made a pair of Champagne-method sparklers—a brut from Bellone and an extra brut rosé from Nero Buono. Called Kius, they have become his flagships.
When his first vintage of Kius Brut was released in 2010, Carpineti met resistance in Rome. In particular, he remembers the owner of a popular trattoria refusing to taste it: “He told me, ‘It doesn’t interest me. In Cori, they don’t make sparkling wines. From Bellone? Organic? No way.’”
A few years ago, the man quietly placed an order. Nowadays, Carpineti says, his bubbles have caught on, and some restaurants are even beginning to call it “the Spumante of Rome.”