hen I share a meal with family and friends, I often ask them which Italian wine they like best. Many will mention a red from Tuscany, most likely a “super Tuscan,” a 1980s term for Tuscan red blend that uses wine grapes not indigenous to Italy, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
When I suggest a Lazio wine people tend to look dazed and confused, never mind the arched eyebrows when I bring red wine — specifically the Cesanese grape — into the conversation. Lazio does have some identity problems. It’s a somewhat indistinct central region that has long been overshadowed by more renowned neighbors Campania, Tuscany and Umbria. Many visitors to Rome aren’t even aware that Lazio is the region that the capital calls home. In fact, Rome’s importance as a capital can make it feel like landlocked island enclosed by the GRA, its ring road. Few think much about what lies beyond. But leave the sprawling city behind and you soon enter rolling hills speckled with olive groves, orchards and vineyards. These are the Lazio heartlands that host Cesanese, a variety whose roots date to the Roman Empire.
Cesanese has faced an uphill battle to distinguish itself, not helped by Lazio’s longstanding reputation for mass-producing cheap, neutral tasting white wines. That some of those Lazio whites washed up on American shores didn’t help.
Though Lazio is a white wine bastion, the region’s dry, warm weather combined with the ample presence of red volcanic soil make it ideal for reds. The good news is that some Lazio wine makers have finally turned the corner from quality to quantity, improving the region’s overall wine culture while adding a host of reds.
Cesanese has become to Lazio what Sangiovese is to Tuscany, arguably the region’s most important and delicious red grape variety. Most of the best Cesanese wines come from vineyards near the Lazio towns Anagni, Olevano Romano and Piglio.
Piglio’s winemaking history dates back to the first century BC. Its wines later became the favorites of popes Innocent III and Bonifacius VIII. But that early Cesanese was sweet and sometimes fizzy. The modern version, in contrast, is typically dry and fruity with smooth tannins and blueberry, mulberry, violet and juniper aromas. The best pairings include heavy dishes, such as pasta alla amatriciana, coda alla vaccinara and abbacchio (lamb) stew.
Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to bring my friends around. For wine lovers who want to taste and see for themselves, I’ve chosen some Lazio vineyards I think are worth visiting. I based these choices both on the quality of the wines and their diversity. The list includes historic estates as well as small biodynamic wine producers.
— Cantine Riccardi Reale A relative newcomer to the Olevano Romano countryside, Cantine Riccardi Reale was founded in 2010 by Lorella Reale and Piero Riccardi on family land. Lorella is an Italian certified sommelier while Piero started his career in television (studying organic and biodynamic farming practices on the side). Cantine Riccardi Reale produces three biodynamic, 100 percent Cesanese wines planted on different kinds of soil. • Recommendation: Cantine Riccardi Reale, Cesanese di Olevano Romano D.O.C., Collepazzo 2013 (14.5%) €15.
— Casale della Ioria Paolo Perinelli is the heart and soul of this historic estate in the hilly part of Ciociaria, about an hour’s drive south of Rome in the heart of Cesanese del Piglio DOCG wine country. Forests surround the olive trees and vineyards, perched 400 meters up. This is rugged, beautiful country. • Recommendations: Casale della Ioria, Cesanese del Piglio D.O.C.G., Campo Nuovo 2013 (14%) €11 is a great everyday wine. Casale della Ioria, Cesanese del Piglio D.O.C.G., Tenuta della Ioria 2013 (14%) €14 and Casale della Ioria, Cesanese del Piglio D.O.C.G., Torre del Piano 2012 (14.5%) €20 are more complex alternatives.
— Damiano Ciolli Young and passionate Damiano Ciolli is a fifth generation wine maker who took over from his father Costantino and began bottling in 2001. He’s recognized as the first Olevano Romano producer to have upped quality standards, setting him apart from the pack. All the vineyard’s work is manual and Damiano produces two 100 percent Cesanese wines, Silene and Cirsium. • Recommendations: Fresh and fruity Damiano Ciolli, Cesanese di Olevano Romano D.O.C. Silene 2013 (13%) €13 for everyday drinking; Damiano Ciolli, Cesanese di Olevano Romano D.O.C. Cirsium 2011 (14.5%) €29 for a leisurely Sunday lunch.
— Migrante Lorenzo Fanfarillo discovered his passion for vineyards and wine production in 2000. Three years later, he and Giulio Milana created Migrante to call attention to Cesanese di Olevano Romano. Like Daminao Ciolli, the two men bet on quality over quantity and kept yields low. It’s been a winning bet. • Recommendations: Migrante, Cesanese di Olevano Romano D.O.C. Consilium 2011 (14.5%) €13, and Migrante, Cesanese di Olevano Romano D.O.C, Sigillum 2008 (14%) €15.