In the Shadow of Rome, 3 Ancient Grape Varieties Stage a Comeback

Roman statue holding a bunch of grapes on a designed background
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Two thousand years ago, vines flourished around Rome, one of the largest cities in the ancient world. All over Europe, in every place they inhabited, Romans planted the common European grape Vitis vinifera and ultimately developed winemaking techniques that continue to shape wine production today.

And though the people of Rome famously enjoyed their vino, the irony is that the wine Roman Emperors drank was nothing like the high-quality bottlings enjoyed today throughout Italy. But recently, three historic, yet little-known indigenous grape varieties—Bellone, Nero Buono and Cesanese—are taking center stage in the rapidly improving Roman wine market.

Bringing Back Ancient Grapes

Originally called Latium, the Lazio region borders Tuscany to the north, Abruzzo to the east, Umbria to the northeast and Campania to the south. Home to Rome, it was also the primary winemaking region of the ancient Roman Empire, and remains quite good for growing grapes. Its volcanic hills supply fertile and well-drained land for vineyards. The abundant sunshine and proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea provide a climate ideally suited for grapes; cool sea breezes temper the drier, warmer temperatures.

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Despite this, ancient Romans were not producing high-quality products. “In ancient Rome, what they called ‘wine’ was vinegar with honey and spices added, or sometimes garlic. But it was considered very good compared to other wines of the time,” explains Leonardo Leggeri, former Fondazione Italiana Sommelier (FIS).

“The wine was not good by our standards, but the grapes had enormous potential,” says Leggeri. “That is what we’re trying to show by bringing back these grapes and making good wine out of them.”

Even in more recent years, producers failed to take advantage of the wine region. For most of the 20th century, producers contributed to the area’s mass production of lower-quality bottlings. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine Fourth Edition, Lazio’s total area of vineyards had “considerably declined” and was not much more than 42,000 acres by the early 2010s. Today, Lazio winemakers want to raise the prestige of their wines while still remembering the area’s rich history.

Elise Rialland of Casale del Giglio says the renaissance of ancient Roman grapes, “makes Rome a point of reference for the area’s winemaking past. Today, we are getting back to our roots.”

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Along with returning to tradition and taking advantage of the excellent land and climate, Lazio winemakers wish to capitalize on Rome’s enormous wine tourism potential, long left untapped.

“Rome has always been a big marketplace for Italian wines from every region—except Lazio. Lazio wines were limited to their area of production,” Rialland explains. “This was one of the challenges for Lazio producers, to try and be very present in Rome.”

The Three Grape Varieties to Know

Bellone

Bellone is an ancient white grape variety that Roman historian Pliny the Elder referred to as uva pantastica or pane d’uva, meaning a “grape as good as bread” or a “grape that goes well with bread,” depending on the source. The white grape often brings bright, fruity characteristics of stone fruit, melon and citrus fruits. Some bottles also have flavors of herbs, tropical fruits and toast.

“Bellone is one of the few European varieties that is not growing on American rootstock,” explains Giovanna Trisorio of Cincinnato Winery in Cori, found about 60 kilometers south of Rome. This is because of the root-destroying disease phylloxera that blanketed Europe. “In a Roman coastal town, Bellone grew in sandy soil, so phylloxera could not attack the roots. It still grows on the original roots of ancient times.”

Cincinnato Winery, which derives its name from Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman senator who settled in Cori more than 2,000 years ago, is celebrating this grape variety. As part of the Eternal City’s wine renaissance, Cincinnato has partnered with the Colosseum Archeological Park on a vine-growing project set on the grounds of a former villa, Vigna Barberini, in the center of Palatine Hill.

Trisorio adds, “Cincinnatus was a Roman senator, and Bellone was a Roman grape, so it made sense for us to work on this project. Our idea is to come full circle with the past, to replant Bellone where it started and bring back viticulture to the center of Rome.”

An estate that lies 50 kilometers south of Rome, Casale del Giglio, pays homage to this genealogy with the name of one of its Bellone wines—Radix, which is Latin for “root”—grown on the Roman coast. “Our Bellone in Anzio is a seaside Bellone. You can almost feel the saltiness; it’s very crisp,” Rialland shares. The coastal winery has spent years reintroducing the native grapes of Lazio. Its work paid off in 2022 when the magazine Gambero Rosso gave the winery’s Anthium Bellone (made with the ungrafted vines grown on the seaside) the coveted Italian award for wine excellence, Tre Bicchieri.

Nero Buono

The black (or red) grape variety Nero Buono almost exclusively grows in the volcanic soil of Monte Lepini. Of the 91.5 hectares growing in Lazio, 90 are in Cori. This isolated hill town benefits from fog-driven moisture and daily sea breezes, making it an ideal environment for the finicky grape. Insects do not thrive in its cool, windy climate, alleviating one risk to the famously fastidious grape. The deeply-colored wine brings flavors of dark-skinned fruits, rhubarb and black pepper.

“Nero Buono is difficult; there are no clones. It is very wild and produces many leaves, so we must take them out three times during the year. Berries are tight, squeezed together, so it is incredibly open to disease,” Trisorio explains.

View of Cori, an ancient town near Latina, in the Lazio region of central Italy
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Cincinnato Winery heads a Cori cooperative with 104 member farmers. Although international varieties pervaded Italian winemaking for decades after World War II, the Cincinnato Cooperative resisted.

Trisorio shares, “We have always supported [native grape] production. To give you an idea, in the 90s, Cincinnato used to pay double the market value for Nero Buono and 1.5 times the market prices for Bellone. So even if there was no demand, we wanted to keep those grapes alive.”

Another Cori winemaker, Marco Carpineti, took over his father’s vineyards in 1983 and continued to sell grapes to the cooperative for over a decade, eventually becoming cooperative president. In 1996, he shifted to winemaker and began crafting wine made solely with sustainably grown fruit native to the area. Marco Carpineti Winery’s regard has soared, its vineyards have expanded ever since and today Carpineti is one of the best-known winemakers of Lazio. He devotes 25 percent of his production to Nero Buono and Bellone-based sparkling wine made in the traditional method.

There remains much to learn about Nero Buono. “We are working with the village of Cori to find the DNA origin of the Nero Buono grape, but as of today, they have not found a genetic relative,” says Claudio Gargiulo of Marco Carpineti Winery. “We are [literally] writing the history of Nero Buono now.”

Cesanese

Technically, Cesanese can refer to one of two sub-varieties: Cesanese Comune and Cesanese di Affile. Both are used to make high-quality wines, which were highly prized in ancient times. There are three Cesanese appellations, which include Cesanese del Piglio DOCG, Cesanese di Olevano Romano DOC and Cesanese di Affile DOC. All are within a crescent-shaped, 50-kilometer vicinity.

Cesanese wine is a red wine that often comes with flavors of dark-skinned berries, herbs, cedar and cooking spices. It’s a ruby-colored pour that has high acidity and tannin, with the ability to age for a long time.

Colacicchi Winery in Piglio is home to the Cesanese del Piglio, the only Cesanese DOCG of the three DOCGs in Lazio (the others are Frascati Superiore and Cannellino di Frascati). Here, Carla Trimani and her three brothers own Colacicchi Winery, along with the oldest wine shop in Rome. The shop, which began in 1876, is next door to the oldest wine bar in Rome, Trimani il Wine Bar.

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“Cesanese is the signature red wine of Lazio,” said Trimani. It is grown only in the Ciociaria, a tiny area of Lazio east of the capital. “Ciociaria is a very ancient land to produce grapes and vegetables and was the property of the Catholic Church. In 1280, Pope Boniface VIII had a home here, and he for sure drank Cesanese,” Trimani says.

When asked why Lazio is only now focusing on its native potential, Trimani explains: “In Italy, there were eras. In the 80s, if you did not [grow] Cabernet, Chardonnay or Merlot, you were nothing. In the 90s, if you did not use barrels, you were nothing. At the beginning of this century, if you did not over-mature and over-extract, you were nothing. We finished these eras. We do not need anyone to tell us what to do. We know.”

Published on January 9, 2023
Topics: Indigenous Grapes