Super-Lazio, No Rules

Lazio character, dialled up to 11


At its zenith around 110 CE, the Roman Empire sprawled from the British Isles to modern-day Iran, and from the north-western tip of Africa to the heights of the Caucasus. Its epicentre, Rome, boasted an impressive population exceeding one million citizens. All major roads led to its gates. The city stood as the literal centre of the world—and of viticulture too, as Rome is often celebrated for its historical role in spreading wine culture throughout Europe. Just last year, archaeologists excavating the ruins of an ancient Roman military outpost in modern-day Bulgaria unearthed a built-in ceramic structure believed to have been used for storing wine and perishable foods.

Although the Roman Empire has long gone, Rome still stands as one of the world’s most iconic cities, attracting countless international tourists daily. Its viticultural heritage, on the other hand, has largely faded into history. Indeed, despite the historical importance of viticulture in Roman culture and the surrounding region’s current status as one of Italy’s leading wine-producing areas, the wines of Lazio remain among Italy’s least recognised, both domestically and internationally.

In today’s ever-crowded global wine market, such a lack of recognition can pose significant challenges for producers. Yet, some winemakers in the region view this as an opportunity rather than a setback. They see Lazio as a sanctuary for experimentation and a realm of winemaking freedom—a sort of Italian New World of wine. In a movement reminiscent of the Super Tuscan revolution that emerged before the end of the last century, Lazio winemakers are increasingly embracing this freedom by intentionally sidestepping the region’s lesser-known appellation and its accompanying regulations, choosing instead to craft “super-Lazio” expressions labelled as IGT Lazio or as simple table wine.

Katharina Börner CEO, Ômina Romana Winery

“The appellation designations of our production area are DOC Roma, which was established roughly 10 or 15 years ago, and also, DOC Velletri,” says Katharina Börner, CEO of the Ômina Romana winery near Rome, renowned for producing some of the most highly-regarded wines in the region. She explains that since the foundation of Ômina Romana in 2007, she has focused her work on the use of international varieties such as Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. This decision forced her to forgo the region’s denominations, whose production regulations emphasise the use of local varieties like Malvasia or Montepulciano instead.

“When we founded the winery, we conducted a long and thorough research on 18 different grape varieties to understand which ones were best suited to our terroir and which best expressed the peculiarities of our vineyards, always with a view to offering the consumer wines that represented our philosophy. We found that Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes could give the best results,” she says.

The usual, international suspects

The use of internationally popular grape varieties like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Merlot is a defining feature of super-Lazio wines. These varieties were introduced to the region in the last decades of the previous century, primarily in areas with minimal viticultural history along the Tyrrhenian coast. Enologist Paolo Tiefenthaler of Casale del Giglio, a winery located in southern Lazio’s Latina Province, undertook significant viticultural experiments in the late 1980s. He tested 57 different grape varieties across various soil types to determine which would thrive in the region. Eventually, he narrowed down the selection to include Viognier, Petit Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay for white wines, and Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds. His work led to some of Lazio’s finest wines. His deep, dense, spicy Syrah-Petit Verdot Lazio IGT blend, Mater Matuta for instance, stands as one of the most esteemed labels from the region. The potential of international varieties across Lazio is such that even Gotto D’Oro, one of Italy’s largest cooperative producers, has entered the scene in recent years with its Vinea line of premium wines. 

“For some of these varieties—above all Viognier, Petit Verdot, Syrah—it is sometimes possible to obtain an even superior result compared to what’s achievable in their territories of origin,” says enologist, Paolo Peira, explaining the motivations behind Gotto D’Oro’s intensified focus on international grape varieties. “The reason simply lies in the fact that our area is characterised by volcanic soils and a Mediterranean climate.”

A Tuscan influence

When the Super Tuscan movement came onto the scene, its winemakers turned to French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc—which benefited from their association with the greatest wines of Bordeaux—to enhance the perceived quality of their own wines.

These varieties maintain a favourable reputation today, but Lazio winemakers are drawn to them for reasons beyond their marketing potential. The likes of Merlot and Chardonnay are widely cultivated globally (Cabernet Sauvignon alone covers approximately 5% of the world’s vineyards) so winemakers can easily access exemplary expressions to benchmark their own production against industry standards.

Furthermore, the widespread cultivation of these grapes has led to the gradual accumulation of knowledge on their effective and efficient cultivation, from insights into the best clones to preferred rootstocks for specific climatic conditions. Such knowledge makes it easier for winemakers to achieve desired stylistic profiles and quality levels compared to experimenting with lesser-known grape varieties—be they indigenous or imported.

Emanuele Pangrazi oversees San Giovenale, a winery located on the northern Lazio coast that produces a modest 10-to-11,000 bottles annually. When Pangrazi commenced operations in 2006, he opted to cultivate grapes like Grenache, Syrah, and Carignano which he believed were perfectly suited to the area’s arid, Mediterranean climate, and could help him achieve the taste profiles he desired for his wines.

San Giovenale

“When I began here, there was no viticulture whatsoever. This means there were no native vines either, so I had to look for varieties that made sense in a place with a characteristic windy, dry, coastal climate,” he says. “If you think about it, I have not really done anything strange here. Grenache, Garnacha, Granaccia, Alicante, Cannonau… these are just different synonyms for a grape that is found all over the Mediterranean in regions that have a similar climate to us, like the coasts of southern France, Catalonia, and Sardinia.”

Pangrazi incorporates Grenache, Syrah, Carignano, and Malvasia Nera in a blend for his flagship Habemus White Label, while in his crown jewel, the Habemus Red Label, is a varietal Cabernet Franc of exquisite quality. “The idea of making a varietal Cabernet Franc comes precisely from the fact that this is a grape that makes a very varietal-driven wine, in the sense that it adapts its own character to the terroir, allowing you to express your territory,” he explains. 

“I have always just wanted to make a good wine. One that tastes good even to an audience that does not necessarily know much about viticulture or winemaking. My pride is that people feel they are drinking a wine whose complexity is not cryptic.”

Pangrazi’s approach to selecting grapes and crafting blends mirrors the broader mindset of Lazio winemakers. Rather than emphasising specific grape varieties, they prioritise communicating the essence of their wine and their unique narrative. For them, grapes only serve as tools to express the distinctive character of their terroir. 

“I want the typical Roman welcome to be felt in my wine,” he says, “so the ‘grape variety narrative’ takes a back seat when I talk about it.”

Such an approach has its drawbacks, of course. Unlike producers who adhere to one or more of Italy’s many Italian denominations of origin, these winemakers miss out on the promotional activities organised by consortia and trade associations. But flying solo offers plenty of perks too. It allows producers to communicate their own story more effectively, especially with drinkers who appreciate that quality wine does not necessarily need to conform to denomination regulations.

“The more experienced public, to whom Ômina Romana is addressed, is aware that denominations in Italy are not quality classification systems, but rather a tool for interpreting an idea of typicity, linked to the traditions of a given territory,” Börner explains. “In Italy, there are many quality winemakers that get rewarded by industry critics both in Italy and abroad, but who prefer to play outside the denominations that would be available to them in their regions. These are legitimate choices that are made in line with their own production philosophy.”

This somewhat flexible approach to how a wine of great quality may or may not be labelled and marketed largely originates from the Super Tuscan revolution. Love them or loathe them, Super Tuscans have paved the way for the acceptance of a certain nonconformity when it comes to quality Italian wine, marking a clear departure from an overly traditional and stagnant past, leading consumers to recognise that wines, especially Italian wines, do not necessarily need to bear a denomination on the label to be exceptional.

Now, Lazio winemakers are leveraging this acceptance to create wines that distinguish themselves in an ever more crowded wine world. In a region like Lazio, where DOCs and DOCGs lack international renown, winemakers avoid discussions about obscure varieties and subregions. They eschew denominations altogether, directing their focus towards their own unique identities as producers, their own stories, and the inherent qualities of their super-Lazio wines, which, perhaps more than any others in the area, succeed in unlocking and showcasing the full potential of their region.

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