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WINE 2014: A new look at Lazio

WINE 2014, a trade delegation to the Lazio region surrounding Rome, brought together journalists, importers and top area vintners. A joint effort of Aspin, Italy-America Chamber of Commerce New York and Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West, it was an eye opening introduction to little-known wines, mostly from the province of Frosinone.

Tenuta Colfiorito's Paola Ramondelli
Roberta Rinaldi
Opening remarks
Roberta Rinaldi

Consider a getaway here. Wineries in renaissance, intriguing medieval hill towns and spa destinations dot a restful landscape, where agritourism is welcomed with open arms.

Viticulture in Lazio dates back to the ninth century B.C. The center of the Roman Empire, grapevines from all over the world were brought here from conquered lands--somewhat ironic in a region without much recognition outside Italy, except for the easy-drinking whites Frascati and Est! Est!! Est!!!

Fast forward to 2008, when global interest was focused there, when the noble, cesanese del piglio, was awarded the area's first DOCG. Proclaimed “the wine of kings” by popes in the Middle Ages, it is an earthy red, redolent of violets, roses and tobacco, with mascara cherry notes. Bold tannins make it age worthy; with age it becomes elegant. In some versions there is an ineffable sense of horse sweat and mud that increase its intrigue.

Cesanese del Piglio’s production zone is in Lazio's southeast corner, Frosinone province, and includes the communes of Acuto, Anangi, Paliano, Piglio and Serrone.

DOCG standards require the wine be made from 90-100% cesanese comune, and/or its more refined cousin, cesanese di affile. The remaining 10% can be from the red grapes: barbera, montepulciano and sangiovese, or from the whites: bombino bianco or trebbiano toscano, sometimes used to boost acidity. The rosso version must reach a minimum 12% alcohol, superiore 13% and riserva 14%. Riservas are aged 20 months in barrel and at least six months in bottle. In general, there is a tendency toward stainless steel aging.

The IGT and other DOC wines here deserve attention, too. Outside cesanese, vintners are making beautiful passerina, a compelling, lemony white, generally associated with the Marche. In addition, there is a long history of cultivating French grapes, introduced to the town of Atina in 1860, by noted agronomist, Pasquale Visocchi. This has resulted in the Atina DOC, which requires 50-70% cabernet sauvignon (dubbed cabernet di atina) and 10-30% cabernet franc, merlot or syrah. Fifteen percent can be made up of abbuoto and other local grape varieties.

Although a few producers work almost exclusively with French grapes, the most captivating wines are from indigenous vines. Three producers stand out for making strides with them: Azienda Agricola Marcella Giuliani, Azienda Agricola Maria Elena Sinibaldi and Tenuta Colfiorito. All welcome tastings by appointment.

Bring along an interpreter when visiting Giuliani and Sinibaldi. Frosinone's Chamber of Commerce can provide referrals to bilingual tour guides, who are experts at organizing outings to points of interest between winery visits.

Begin your explorations at Tenuta Colfiorito, an organically certified farm, a few kilometers east of Rome. Owners, Paola and Peppe Ramondelli, have turned their hilltop estate into an oasis, where guests can stay in charming converted farmhouses set in lush gardens.

The property is on volcanic soil, and enjoys a breezy, but rainy Mediterranean climate. Its thirty hectares of vineyard and 5,000-tree olive grove produce excellent wine and exceptionally smooth, fruity olive oil.

The Ramondellis, in conjunction with winemaker, Daniele Di Mambro, have three current releases:

2013 Rosa del Venti IGP is a savory sparkling sangiovese, with a lovely floral nose--great as an aperitif.

2013 Sorgente IGT (50% grecco, 50% malvasia) is a graceful, citrusy white, with aromas of acacia and a bitter almond finish.

2012 Villa Coccela IGT (40% cesanese del piglio, 60% sangiovese) has scents of violet, mascara cherry and vanilla, which persist on the complex palate.

An hour south, Fiuggi makes a restorative hub for trips to the two remaining wineries. A city famed for its curative waters, spa hotels abound. Their spirit of relaxation is reflected in the town's leisurely lifestyle. Enjoy the simple pleasure of a passegiata, the community evening walk, when residents amble into bars and gelaterie.

Our group stayed at Hotel Ambasciatori, located in city center, noteworthy for its old-world ambiance, attentive service and lavish buffets. Its special draw is the multilevel Tangerine Spa. In addition to the usual pampering, its staff offers individualized hydrotherapy programs.

Azienda Agricola Marcella Giuliani is just twenty minutes west of Fiuggi. Ms. Giuliani claims she was "called by her roots" to tend a small patch of vineyard and olive trees, that are part of a larger family estate established in 1870. Her dream is to have the world see cesanese del piglio and passerina in their true glory.

The winery has been completely renovated, with new stainless steel vats and French oak barrels for aging. In 2007, Ms. Giuliani converted to organic farming. Efforts are paying off in praise from Gambero Rosso. With winemaker, Dr. Ricardo Cotarella, Ms. Giuliani has released wines as lovely and sophisticated she is herself.

2008 Dives Riserva Cesanese del Piglio DOCG (100% cesanese di affile), is full-bodied and aromatic with plum and flowers. Twelve months aging in new French barriques adds spice, vanilla and roundness.

2011 Alagna Superiore Cesanese del Piglio DOCG (100% cesanese di affile) is a more typical, stainless steel-aged example--intensely floral with earth and cherry, broad and deep flavors.

2011 Passito di Cesanese IGT (100% cesanese di affile) is a purple-red dessert wine with a precise balance of bright acid and sweet red fruits. Mild tannins give it backbone.

Azienda Agricola Maria Elena Sinibaldi is also a short trip from Fiuggi. When meeting Ms. Sinibaldi, one sees wine in her DNA. She recounts fondly that her first job, at age seven, was in her maternal grandparents' winery--only she had small enough hands to dislodge grape skins clogging the fermenter.

This tiny powerhouse of a woman is passionate about preserving autochthonous vines, and is credited with rescuing the ancient white grape, bommino, from extinction. Her philosophy is to create, " that is made (only) from grapes." To preserve varietal integrity and terroir, she uses minimal cellar intervention, and for aging prefers stainless steel or concrete vessels that don't impart flavor. Her wines have purity and character.

2013 Passerina del Frusinate IGT is a white blend of 80% passerina, and 20% combined bellone, malvasia puntinata and pagadebiti, all grown in clay soil. Bright yellow with intense aromas of tree fruit and acacia, it is full-bodied, with a flinty, satisfying finish.

2012 Bosco Castello Frusinate Rosso IGT (40% cesanese di affile, 40% bommino and 20% ciliegiolo) Austere and multi-layered at the same time, it has a fine, persistent nose of red fruit, a silky texture and long, dry finish.

2012 Bivi Cesanese del Piglio DOCG is 100% cesanese at its best: earthy, floral and complex with cherry, red berry and leather notes. It is more savory than fruity, with firm tannins, giving it good aging potential.

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