pringtime makes you want to turn beautiful weekend days into outings. One such day found me reading about a small town near Rome, Monte Porzio Catone, which has both a wine museum and a vineyard with a Pinot Noir I’d been eager to try.
The comune, or municipality, is among many nestled in Lazio’s Alban Hills, located southeast of the city. At night, you can see the towns of the so-called Castelli Romani shining in the distance like so many beads on a necklace.
Thanks to a mild climate and rich volcanic soil, the Alban Hills have a booming wine tradition (with Frascati considered its viticulture capital), supplying Rome with most of its best and best-known table wines.
The town of Monte Porzio Catone was named after Marcus Porcius Cato, a Roman-era politician, general and author who was born nearby and nicknamed “The Censor,” a Roman Empire role he actually held (apparently he disliked Greeks, luxury, and overly lavish parties, not necessarily in that order). The city also hosts the Rome Observatory, one of 12 astronomical observatories in Italy.
The first order of business was deciding who’d drive. The car idea soon went out the window since both travelers (namely me and my best American friend, a chef) love food and wine. No car for us. We decided instead to hop the Metro to the outlying Anagnina stop (the last stop on the A line) and board the CO.TRA.L. bus that runs from the Metro stop to most of the Alban Hills castle towns. Since plenty of Rome employees commute from the town to the city using the Metro, the buses run fairly regularly (every 40 or 50 minutes between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., with the final bus at 9:30 p.m.). It’s a cheap and easy way to tour the hills.
In less than an hour the bus dropped us off at the first leg of our day-long itinerary, the town’s wine museum, which opened in 1999 (Museo Diffuso del Vino, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 7; admission €2).
The museum is divided into three parts, one dedicated to archeology, iconography and documentation, the second to wine-making utensils and machinery, a third a makeshift wine-cellar that tries to simulate the ideal conditions for preserving wine (the wine cellar isn’t open to the public yet).
From the outside, the building looks like an old inn, the kind that once had basket full of leaves outside the door to tip off weary travelers that they could stop for refreshments, namely wine. In most of the hill towns, “La Fraschetta” is a synonym for an informal local trattoria, the dining staple of Castelli life.
The museum staff, young women mostly, greeted us graciously. We got a free tour and a lecture on the history of local wine. It was pleasant enough for my America friend to quip that maybe I should find a good wife along with a good wine.
After the tour, we lunched at Cantina Romoletto (Via Verdi, 25. Tel: 06.944.9495. Closed Monday), among the most popular restaurants near the museum. I decided to pay tribute to Roman tradition: I ordered homemade pasta (excellent) and grilled meat served with funghi porcini, also grilled. We scanned the rustic wine list and picked the “Censore Rosso,” a Lazio IGT that combines Merlot, Sangiovese and Ciliegiuolo grapes. A pleasant surprise, since I’d never heard of it. Later, we sipped Jacopo Poli grappa. The bill came to about €25 each, confirming the Castelli Romani tradition of fine food and drink at affordable prices.
We then decided to visit a nearby winery. I expected to find mostly Frascati Superiore DOC, the best-known local wine and a major Italian export, so the variety I found instead surprised me. You name it, they had it: Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet sauvignon, Trebbiano, Malvasia, as well as the “super locals” Bellone and Bombino. Overwhelmed by this maze of grapes, we decided to buy 10 liters worth of different wines to learn more about them. They were cheap, between €1.20 and €1.80 per one liter bottles (it’s a fantastically useful price for those interested in purchasing an array of wines to learn about similarities and differences.)
Wines in hand, we moved on to Casal Pilozzo, a property located on the outskirts of Monte Porzio (about two kilometers from the center) where I wanted to taste the Regina Vitae, a pure pinot noir. We met Antonio Pulcini, who runs both the beautiful central farmhouse, nestled among verdant hills, and the nearby Cantine Colli di Catone vineyard. His family has owned the villa for three decades and he took us on a tour (you can book your own on the website), noting that the actors Orson Welles and Tyrone Power, Hollywood icons of the 1930s and 40s, had stayed on the main building, which overlooks the city.
Down we went into the wine caves, limestone grottos where the temperature is regulated at 15C. The final spot was an altar with a tabernacle. Historians argue about its origins, with some saying it dates to the 8th or 12th centuries, others insisting its roots are pre-Christian. After listening to more stories and legends, the time had finally come for the main event, tasting the Regina Vitae. It was well worth the wait. The 2002 was as good as advertised and I picked up a bottle, sold at the vineyard for €20.
We came home sated and delighted. The day also saw me resolved to take a closer look at Monte Porzio Catone’s wines. Here are some I tasted and recommend (prices are approximate and may vary slightly):
- Casal Pilozzo-Regina Vitae 2002 (€20).
- Casal Pilozzo-Passione (€11).
- Poggio Le Volpi-Epos Frascati Superiore Doc 2009 (€8-9).
- Cantina Sociale di Frascati Superiore DOC-Monteporzio Single Wineyard 2007 (€5).
- Cantina Sociale di Monteporzio-Il Censore rosso IGT Lazio (€3).
- Fontana Candida-Frascati Santa Teresa Superiore Doc 2007 (€8).
- Fontana Candida-Kron 2004 (€18).