Indigenous grapes of Lazio

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Praise be to the foresight of the Etruscans and the diligence of the Romans, for without them, the landscape of Italian wine would be very different indeed. The ancient Etruscans brought agriculture to the land, planting vines alongside essential crops. Later, the Romans developed irrigation and further expanded their cultivation of wine—not simply in mass, but in flavour and quality too. With their industry and global commerce came expertise, experience, and a passionate love for wine that carries forward into the modern age.

The indigenous grapes of Lazio, the region where Rome sits, are plentiful. Wine historians believe that there are more than 2000 varieties growing in Italy today, and Lazio has many untamed varieties growing freely in abandoned vineyards along the foothills and coast. A romantic image. As for the cultivated grapes of Lazio, they are mostly white, except for a few red grapes grown in abundance—Merlot. Hardly an indigenous grape, Merlot is of course the darling of Bordeaux and California’s sweetheart. The volcanic soil and gorgeous, sunny climate of Lazio is a perfect fit for Merlot’s temperament, and so winemakers grow more of it here than any other grape.

There is another red grape grown in Lazio, and this one is truly indigenous. Cesanese is the signature red grape of the region, and its wine is the flavour of Rome. A lot rarer than Merlot because of the great efforts winemakers must go to in order to produce high quality Cesanese, this dry, aromatic wine is fruity, earthy, floral, and packed with character thanks to the local volcanic soil. It pairs exceptionally well with pork and fennel, and herby sausages or salumi.

Cesanese grows slowly, and ripens late, which goes some way towards explaining why many winemakers chose to abandon it in favour of more voracious varieties. Thankfully, there has been an explosion of interest in indigenous and unusual grape varieties, particularly with smaller winemakers, which ensures Cesanese will continue to be grown and made into wine for generations to come.

Known by many as the “great white grape of Lazio”, Bellone is a grape of ancient distinction. Known by Pliny the Elder as “uva pantastica” or “grapes as good as bread”, this might be a nod to the variety’s necessity and flexibility—it can be used to make dry or sweet wines. This intensely aromatic and fruity grape has spent thousands of years in its preferred volcanic soil, giving its wines a specific minerality. 

Drank by Romans, Bellone is traditionally used to make Cannellino Frascati DOCG, or else is used in blending to add fragrance and citrus notes. These days, winemakers can make Frascati with other grapes, but they just aren’t the same as the real deal. Keep an eye out for Bellone and enjoy its light, ripe citrus flavours that tip over into tart tropical papaya and mango, before leaving you with a touch of bitter almond. Or, try Bellone from the coastal region of Anzio and soak in the sun-drenched sweetness of its high-sugar, intensely fruity nectar.

The gorgeous purple-blue colour of black grape Nero Buono has also been gracing dinner tables since the Roman era. It’s an extremely local wine, and can be traced to the Lazio town of Cori, where its big, bountiful bunches hang low and heavy on trellises. It’s deep colour is in both the skin and the flesh, making sure wine made from Nero Buono is rich in colour whether it’s spent time on skins or not. 

To try this wine, you might need to shop around, but once you get a sip you’ll realise it was worth the hassle. Dark black fruits like ripe, late summer blackberries and black cherries hide under a mulch of forest floor aromatics and black olive bitterness. It’s a symphony of an Italian woodland.

One of Lazio’s most interesting white grapes is Malvasia del Lazio, and like most Malvasia grapes, it is complex, musky and fragrant, with hints of highly unusual flavours and aromas. In antiquity, this grape was taken from Turkey to Venice where it was hugely popular, and then planted in Lazio where it thrived. It’s light and fresh, with stone fruit flavours of apricot and spice, even in young wines. Its aromatic power is what makes this wine so unique, and perfect for sipping on a humid summer evening.

If you’re looking for a genteel glass of rosé in Lazio, then Aleatico will sort you out. This highly perfumed black grape can make very good dry rosé wines—and red too—with aromas of rose and woody herbs, like rosemary and thyme. It’s an unusual grape because of its complex aromatics, but this only makes it more special. As a rosé it blooms from the glass, feeling refreshing and sensuous at the same time.

Winemakers in central Italy also turn Aleatico into delicious sweet dessert wines using the passito method, where the grapes are dried before pressing to ensure their flavours and sugars are even more concentrated. Its bright ruby colour in this form gives away its freshness—even when sweet, its high levels of acidity make sure that its wine is never cloying.

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