Lazio wines rising on the Italian, international wine scenes

Antonio Benedetti, a sommelier, in his tasting room at Cantine Santa Benedetta. Photo by Marina Pascucci


FRASCATI, Italy — Daniele Cernilli remembers when he was a little boy in Rome 50 years ago, back when Italian cinema was booming and so was the economy. His father used to send him to the local osteria, a small, very traditional family run restaurant, to get a big jug of wine. Through most of the 20th century, Romans bought wine in bulk, kind of like how they buy water now except in bottles the size of small oil drums. It was quantity, not quality. Little Daniele could tell just by smelling the vinegar level.

“The color of the wine was orange, not yellow,” Cernelli wrote in an email. “A wine like that nowadays would be undrinkable.”

Cernelli, known around the world as Doctor Wine, knows more than just local wine. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine (www.doctorwine.it) every year from 2007-09. He’s an international wine judge and his five books include “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” the bible I used to navigate my new wonderful world of wines from Rome’s Lazio region.

A significant draw for me retiring to Rome five years ago was having the best wines in the world within Italy’s borders. Since moving here, one of my most pleasant surprises is some of Italy’s best wines are within the borders of Lazio.

Like Rome’s pizzas and gelato, Lazio wines are the most underrated in Italy.

Crisp white wines. Rich, bold reds. When I go out, wines like Cesanese and Trebbiano and Bellone have entered my lexicon. I’ve even found a high-end, romantic, reasonably priced wine bar in Rome devoted entirely to Lazio wines. VyTA, just off Via del Corso, has become my must stop when I go into the center.

But to get a true taste of Lazio wines, I had to go into the heart of Lazio wine country. I rented a car and in only about 30 minutes Marina and I found ourselves standing in a vineyard of 35 acres of grape vines high in the green, rolling Alban Hills southeast of Rome. This is Frascati, for years home of the only Lazio wine known outside Italy. I remember my first stint in Rome from 2001-03. I’d have picnics in this villa-laden town of 22,000 people. If there’s a better picnic wine than the crisp, cool Frascati white I always bought, I didn’t know it until now.

Showing us around the vineyard was Antonio Benedetti, a tall, suave, worldly sommelier and chef who returned last year after eight years cooking in restaurants from South Africa to London and two as a sommelier in Mazzo in Rome. He’s part of the 13th generation of Benedettis who have run Cantine Santa Benedetta, the oldest winery in Frascati going on 320 years.

Antonio Benedetti in his vineyard at his Cantine Santa Benedetta, the oldest winery in Frascati at 320 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Like Daniele, Antonio, 29, knows the old Lazio wine stories. It wasn’t too long ago when this region supplied Rome’s massive population and its thirst for wine. Wine is one of Italy’s five major food groups and with a 1970 population of 2.8 million, the same as today, quality took a back seat to quantity.

“The first reason is the fact that everything that was made as a mistake, they made in this area,” he said. “Massive production. The big problem here is many, many producers used to have from 10 acres to 200 acres. They helped the big companies and their production.”

Not far away near the town of Zagarolo, Cantina del Tufaio (www.cantinadeltufaio.it) has been around since 1881. So has the big house where Marina and I visited with owner Claudio Loreti who served us a lovely Malvasia-Savignon Blanc blend and a very smooth Merlot. He said local drinking habits were hard to break. He told us a story from the 1940s when his father and father’s cousin made a batch of wine with 13 percent alcohol, high by local standards back then but normal today.

They carted it to a Rome restaurant where the owner took one taste and all but spit it out. So the pair went back to their winery and cut the wine with water, dropping the alcohol level to 10 percent.

Claudio Loreti at his Cantina del Tufaio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Then they returned.

“They gave the owner the vino with water and the owner said, ‘Buono! Good! I like it!’” Loreti said.

Silvia Brannetti of Riserva della Cascina (www.reservadellacascina.it) has a winery within the Rome city limits. It sits right off Ostia Antica, the road where Spartacus’ slaves were crucified during their rebellion (See Spartacus: Failed labor movement). Her grandfather made wine when she was little.

Needless to say, it never made Decanter magazine.

“We call it Vino Scuzzo,” she said. “It’s the kind of wine you come and pick up with your barrel. It was not bad. I know it wasn’t the sort of wine I’d call quality wine. He went around the city and tried to sell it.”

Cantine Santa Benedetta’s vineyard. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In Lazio these days, “not bad” isn’t good. The whole region’s wine makers are pushing out the big wine bottles hanging in wicker baskets on farms and replacing them with elegant displays back-lit in tony Rome enotecas.

“We’re trying to make something that is good and comparable to products in the rest of Italy,” Brannetti said.

What changed? The city of Rome for one. In 1940, Rome’s population was less than a million. People from around the country, particularly after World War II, descended on the capital for work, for glamour, for food. They didn’t come for wine.

“A lot of people prefer to drink wine from the original family’s birthplace,” Cernilli wrote. “So who came from Campania drink Campanian wines. Who come from Abruzzo prefer Montepulciano, etc. etc.”

Complexus, a Malvasia-Bellone blend, and Tre Vecchie, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, as wineries got handed down, younger minds took over. Instead of producing for bigger companies, they started making their own. It turned about 20-30 years ago, coinciding also with the increase in wine-making technology. In Tuscany, you don’t see many big bottles of Chianti in wicker baskets anymore. Technology improved without raising the production costs. Now you get excellent Chianti Riservas for very reasonable prices.

The same thing happened in Lazio.

“It’s changing,” Benedetti said. “It’s coming back in a great quality way. People have their own vineyard. They do their own wine. I mean small production for 20,000 to 100,000 bottles.”

Lazio wines have a built-in advantage. Most of the soil for the vineyards is volcanic. It’s more natural, meaning they don’t have to add the sulphites and preservatives that American wines do. Those are the ingredients that give you hangovers.

Claudio Loreti and Pino de’ Matti, owner of our Casale delle Ginestre B&B. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Lazio wines are so natural, irrigation is illegal. Actually, there is no need. The volcanic soil can absorb a lot of water and release it when the soil around it is dry.

“It’s amazing,” Benedetti said. “The minerals. The potassium. It’s so rich.”

The world is starting to discover Lazio wines. Before, Frascati was better known in Belgium and the United Kingdom than it was in Rome.

Now Lazio wines are going around the world. Thirty percent of Cantine Santa Benedetta’s wines are sold in 47 U.S. states. They also export worldwide. Brannetti travels to wine fairs around the world.

“We’re trying to make something that is good and comparable to products in the rest of Italy,” she said. “For example, I’m going to take part in a fair, the Millizine Beal in Montpellier (France). When people taste my wines, they are shocked: ‘My God, this is Rome? This is Lazio?’”

Grapes at Cantina del Tufaio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Keep in mind, wine was invented 6,000 years ago and Lazio has only been in the serious wine retail business for about 30. Barolo from Piedmont, my favorite wine in Italy, has been around since 500 B.C. Cantina Le Macchie (www.catinalemacchie.it) in Rieti, 80 kilometers northeast of Rome, produces about 70,000 bottles a year, sells in Belgium and its marketing people hit every wine event they can in Europe.

Still, many restaurants even in Rome don’t carry Lazio wines.

“We haven’t the denomination,” said Stefano Proietti, marketing manager for Cantina Le Macchie. “Barolo is a big and strong denomination. We are young. In Lazio we need more time, but I hope one day we’ll be as renowned as Barolo.”

***

Lazio may not have the luxurious wineries of Tuscany and Piedmont, where visits are akin to country clubs with better beverages. However, they’re worth visiting for a weekend. Cantine Santa Benedetta’s tasting room is 320 years old. That’s nothing. When we arrived, Benedetti showed off a stone road that borders his vineyard. He has the only winery in Lazio with an Ancient Roman road running through it. I could imagine Julius Caesar stopping his march toward the sea to tip back a glass of red on the very stones I stood on.

Cantine Santa Benedetta served the best bruschetta I’ve ever had. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Too bad he didn’t have the beautiful room where Benedetti took Marina and me. The room was all polished wood with seven glass chandeliers and antique furniture. Old portraits hung on the wall. The only other guests were four New Zealand women. It was like our own private wine tasting.

He started us out with his best seller, a 2018 Complexus, a blend of Malvasia and Bellone, an intense yellow wine with hints of peach, pear, apple and lemon. (That’s Benedetti’s description. I can’t pick what fruit is in a wine unless the glass holds an apple core.)

He then gave us a 2016 Tre Vecchie (Three Old Women), a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend with tastes of mulberries, blackberries and cherries. Lazio is not known for its red wines but this would go well with any pasta in Italy.

Cantine Santa Benedetta has more than 1,000 olive trees. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Cantina Santa Benedetta has an added plus. At many wineries’ tastings, the lone food is breadsticks and cheese sticks as if their target customer is Oliver Twist. Cantina Santa Benedetta goes all out on the food. The first item that came out was a high-end bruschetta (pronounced brew-SKETT-ah, Americans, not brew-SCHETT-ah): sourdough bread refrigerated, then grilled to get out the humidity, then baked, leaving charbroiled stripes on the soft dough. Benedetti then poured over it extra virgin olive oil made from some of their 1,000 olive trees. The olive oil, oozing with flavor, soaked deep in the soft, fresh bread. The combination was so tantalizing Marina and I fought over the last piece. It was the best bruschetta of my life.

Then came a pecorino romano cheese with fresh cherry jam, perfect with the Tre Vecchie red wine. Finally, he finished with bruschetta topped with fresh sliced cherry tomatoes.

The swimming pool at Il Casale delle Ginestre B&B.


Our base for our, ahem, “research” was a beautiful bed & breakfast about 20 miles away, even higher in the hills overlooking Rome. Il Casale delle Ginestre (www.ilcasaledelleginistre.com) is a 500-square-meter, 120-year-old stone house with three two-room apartments and two apartments with shared bath.

Our room had a beautiful view of the valley below but nothing like the panoramic view from the swimming pool, the perfect place to “dry” out after an afternoon drinking wine. I spent the rest of the afternoon floating on an inflatable raft looking way down at the Lazio valley below. The only sounds we heard all weekend were the occasional mews of cats and kittens who hang out on the grounds and offer their furry bodies for petting in exchange for a little food.

Breakfast is in a big lounge near a garden. Sitting down we were served a string of biscuits, fresh yogurt with berries, cheese pie, cornettos, cappuccino and orange juice.

Cats’ meows were about the only noises we heard all weekend. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Il Casale delle Ginestre (named for the nearby 2,500-foot Mount Ginestro) is technically in the town of Castel San Pietro Romano, a 10-minute drive away that is right out of central casting for 1950s Italian cinema. The town of 870 people is a small, tightly packed collection of narrow roads all leading to a small piazza anchored by the 16th century San Pietro Apostolo church. Inside a huge cross hung over the pews, all overlooked by statues of capuchin monks.

Outside in the piazza, locals sat on stoops under plaques commemorating some of the many films shot in the town, complete with still photos from the film shoots. Ironically, Castel San Pietro Romano was a ruin after World War II and Italian directors flocked here in the mid-20th century for films about economic hardship in Italian villages. The films include “Pane, Amore e Fantasia” in 1953 which won the Silver Bear at the 1954 Berlin Film Festival and earned the best actress award, and breakout moment, for a 26-year-old Lazio gal named Gina Lollobrigida. Today, 92-year-old Lollobrigida is still alive and well in Rome and Castel San Pietro Romano is on many lists as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in Italy.

Scenes from Bar al Caffe in Castel San Pietro Romano. Photos by Marina Pascucci


It’s easy to get a pulse of Italian villages. Just go to the local bar and you can’t get any more local, even with a name, than Bar al Caffe. Tucked at the end of a small alley up from the church, Bar al Caffe sits under a line of flower boxes of pink and red flowers. Old men sat at outside tables on plastic chairs drinking wine out of small water glasses and talking in a crude Roman accent. I went in and ordered the house white. The bartender pulled out an oversized bottle from the cooler and poured me a glass of Olevano Romano, a local white table wine.

Sitting around with old men, the sun setting on a beautiful mountain village only 22 miles from Rome, I raised my glass to Marina and said, “Salute! QUESTO e’ viaggiare! (Cheers! THIS is traveling!)”

The lights of Rome from Castel San Pietro Romano. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We dined around the corner in Ristorante Gasbarri’s outdoor courtyard, featuring a menu of totally Roman cuisine including a scrumptious pasta amatriciana, the guanciale (pig’s cheek) so lean I could’ve eaten it alone. Afterward, we walked along the stone wall with a spectacular view of the lights of Rome off in the distance.

So who needs Tuscany? Why Piedmont? Veneto? Ha! Some of the best wines in Italy are only a short drive away or, in the case of VyTA and other Rome wine bars, only a tram ride away.

Photo by Marina Pascucci


For those coming to Rome and want to go local, here are the most important Lazio wine varietals to know (in alphabetic order):

* Cesanese
* Malvasia
* Montepulciano
* Sangiovese
* Trebbiano

These are the most important denominations (where the wines are from with Frascati an easy No. 1):

* Frascati
* Montefiascone
* Castelli Romani
* Cesanese del Piglio

Italy off the beaten path 2019: Day trips from Rome and an Amalfi jewel

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy but I found the village of Praiano the perfect place to get away.

The Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy but I found the village of Praiano the perfect place to get away.


I never make New Year’s resolutions. Why make one on Jan. 1 when you can make it on July 1? Or March 15? You’re going to wait until the new year to stop drinking boxed wine? It’s a cop out.

If you’re going to resolve to do something in 2019, do this: Travel to Italy. Yeah, my adopted country is starting to lean right. The guy running the country has a Donald Trump bobblehead doll on his Fiat’s dashboard. But deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has no effect on Italy’s great beaches, delicious food or priceless museums.

What will have a lasting effect in Italy is where you go. Fifty million tourists come to Italy every year. Those of you who have done the American tourist triangle of Venice-Florence-Rome should look farther afield. Find a unique, truly Italian experience that is away from the mass hordes you saw the first time around yet has much of the beauty you crave when you come here.

This is where I come in.

I’ve been to 18 of Italy’s 21 regions (missing only Calabria, Molise and Valle d’Aosta) and they all have little towns full of charm and medium-sized cities viewed only as a place to go somewhere else. My girlfriend, the able-bodied photographer, Marina Pascucci, and I stumbled onto a few more places this year.

So when you pull out your 2019 calendar and plan your vacation, add my annual Italy Off-the-Beaten-Path to last year’s inaugural list . Clip it and press it on your refrigerator with a Chianti bottle fridge magnet. It’ll remind you to stop buying wine in hardware stores.

Heretofore are 10 places you likely have never heard of and can add to your next itinerary, in alphabetical order. (Caveat: Do NOT come in July or August, unless otherwise noted. It is stifling hot and the height of tourist season everywhere):

Bolsena

Bolsena


Bolsena (pop. 4,000): Italy has some famous lakes — Como, Guarda, Albano — and Lago di Bolsena often gets overlooked. So does its town. Located about 80 miles north of Rome, Bolsena makes for a memorable day trip from the city’s chaos. The 44-square-mile lake is one of the largest volcanic lakes in Europe and is a fabulous place to swim and sunbathe. The town is oh, so charming. It’s situated on a hill where narrow, cobblestone alleys lead up to a medieval center and the 13th century Castello Rocca Monaldeschi. Have a Prosecco in Piazza Matteotti and poke your head in shops specializing in local foods.
Bolzano. Climates to Travel photo

Bolzano. Climates to Travel photo


Bolzano (pop. 107,000): It’s the gateway to the Dolomites. Many come here as a base for their trekking, camping and skiing but stick around town for a couple of days. Few places in Italy are like it. It’s only 20 miles from the Austrian border and consequently is bilingual. You’re just as likely to hear “Guten tag!” as “Buongiorno!” Consequently, it has a German touch. Tyrolean buildings, some looking like Disneyland castles, share space with pastel-colored buildings on narrow cobblestone streets. Throughout history it bounced from Bavarian rule to Austrian to Napoleon back to Austrian then finally Italian in 1918. It’s only 30 minutes to great hiking and close to 29 ski resorts. Bolzano is a good place to stay cool in July and August. Be sure to dine at Hopfen & Co., for local cuisine such as the leg of pork and the best sauerkraut you’ll ever have.
Cesanatico. Marina Pascucci photo

Cesanatico. Marina Pascucci photo


Cesanatico (pop. 26,000). It’s a quiet respite from the crazy cheek-to-cheek beach in Rimini 30 miles to the south. Cesanatico feels like Venice with its long canal, bridges and marine museum but is a quiet Adriatic port town. Lots of hotel accommodations to provide for the excellent beach that is pleasant and comfortable except for the two crazy summer months. Have a glass of wine on pink antique couches in the kitschy cafe called La Saraghina Ubrica then fine dine at Ca’ Nostra (“Our house” in the Emilian dialect) where you try Emilia-Romagna’s scrumptious antipasti. But don’t miss the region’s signature sauce, ragu, on strozzapreti, the short, twisty pasta named for the shape of rope that can strangle priests.
Frascati. Cultura della Relazione photo

Frascati. Cultura della Relazione photo


Frascati (pop. 22,000). Like picnics? There are few better places to have one than here. It’s only 12 miles southeast of Rome in the Alban Hills. Here is where they make the famed Frascati white wine, a fresh, light wine perfect for picnics, especially with the porchetta (sizzling, suckling pig) sandwiches they serve in the small main piazza. Frascati is famous for its 16th century villas. Popes, rich cardinals and Roman aristocracy built them and they remain today. You can’t miss Villa Aldobrandini, a hulking structure with beautiful Baroque gardens open to the public. Take a picnic and a bottle of wine and walk up the hill to the statue park and dine amongst the marble gods, or find a spot in the grassy park near Aldobrandini. For history buffs, Frascati was Germany’s Mediterranean headquarters until 1943 when Allied forces bombed half the buildings, killing 1,000 Italians and 150 Germans.
Marina and I in Itri

Marina and I in Itri


Itri (pop. 11,000). Marina and I discovered this little town while we stayed in the beautiful Casa Cerqua Landi B&B, complete with swimming pool, in the hills above Sperlonga, maybe the best beach in Lazio. Itri is an ideal place to stay for an Italian beach vacation. It’s only eight miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea and 90 miles south of Rome. It is real Old Italy where the elderly gossip in the quiet town piazza and the gelateria is the town social center. Located on the old Appian Way, Ancient Rome’s road to the sea, it is famous for its Gaeta olives, which have their own festival the first Sunday of every August, and its sauteed wild game like boar, rabbit and pheasant. Even in July it was void of tourists. And it’s cheap. The two best Neapolitan-style pizzas we’ve ever had, a beer and a glass of wine were only 20 euros at La Tavernetta.
Sunset in Praiano

Sunset in Praiano


Praiano (pop. 2,000). The Amalfi Coast is a magnet for romantics and those visiting Italy for the second time. If you want to avoid the crowds in the towns of Positano and Amalfi, try this little village in between. Praiano sits atop a rocky cliff with spectacular views of the royal blue Tyrrhenian below. I had a beautiful AirBnB overlooking the sea with just a short hike up to the village. The excellent SITA Sud bus system runs regularly, connecting Praiano with the other coastal towns. If you’re adventurous, you can hike the seven-mile trail named appropriately Santiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods). It begins in Praiano and goes along the Lattari mountains with gorgeous views of the ocean. It’s about three to four hours to Positano. But stay in Praiano and get some local cheese, bread and wine, sit in the piazza and look at the fantastic sunsets every day. For a dining option away from the crowds of Positano, try Trattoria San Gennaio and have the tagliatelle with clams.
Radda in Chianti. Private Driver Service photo

Radda in Chianti. Private Driver Service photo


Radda in Chianti (pop. 1,600). If you come to Italy for wine, particularly Chianti, Radda is the perfect base. It’s the capital of Tuscany’s Chianti country. Located nine miles north of Siena and 22 southeast of Florence, it’s a medieval walled city and nearby about two dozen wineries. Its cobblestone alleys make for the perfect stroll and it’s not big enough to attract crowds. Get a winery map and take off. If you only have time for one, I suggest Castello di Volpaia, voted No. 3 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2018. One caveat to Radda in Chianti: You’ll need a car. Rent one in Florence.
Santa Marguerita

Santa Marguerita


Santa Margherita (pop. 10,000). Go ahead and join the parade of moving flesh hiking along the Cinque Terre. Stay here. Santa Margherita is a quiet fishing village turned retirement town just 40 miles along the coast north of Monterosso, the most northern of the five Cinque Terre towns. Santa Margherita is right out of a Italian fairy tale: 18th century lanterns illuminating palm trees lining a beautiful promenade along the harbor where million-dollar yachts dock. I stayed at the Hotel Continental, overlooking a swimming pool and a private beach on the Gulf of Genoa. Eat at Da Michele, the best seafood place in town, and try the fresh grilled orata. Everything is about two-thirds the price of stuffy Portofino, three miles to the south.
Spello. YouTube photo

Spello. YouTube photo


Spello (pop. 8,500). This medieval walled city is in Umbria which is the only one of 21 Italian regions that does not border a sea or another country. Umbria may have fewer outside influences than any other region and Spello is in the heart of Umbria. Inside its three huge gates is a city made of stone with overflowing flower baskets lining narrow alleys and small piazzas. It features the Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore, a 12th century confection of white architectural splendor, and the 13th century town hall. Stop by La Bottega di Teresa where Teresa sells some of the best olive oil in Italy and local honeys, cheeses and salamis. Spello is the perfect off-the-beaten-path town to stay in while visiting St. Francis’ old home in Assisi seven miles to the north.
Trapani. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Trapani. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Trapani (pop. 70,000). The Sicilian island of Favignana is one of our favorite weekend getaways. We don’t fight the necessity of spending our last night in Trapani to catch the 70-minute early morning flight back to Rome. Located on the far western tip of Sicily 65 miles west of Palermo, Trapani is best known as the gateway to the Egadi Islands (Favignana, Levanzo, Marettimo). We like Trapani for its wide walking mall in its town center, excellent Sicilian cuisine (our favorite cuisine in Italy) and the long promenades on the water. Despite its relatively large population, Trapani remains more of a fishing port than a tourist destination except on Good Friday when it hosts the longest religious festival in Italy. It’s an all-day affair consisting of 20 floats depicting scenes from Jesus’ final days. It has played in Trapani every Good Friday since 1612.