Lazio: All Roads Lead to Rome

Despite 3,000 years of wine history, Lazio remains better known as the home of Rome than as a region of fine wine production. Its five provinces, Roma, Latina, Viterbo, Rieti, and Frosinone, are spread across 17,227 square kilometers and boast a plethora of terrains and microclimates. Lazio (called Latium in English) is hilly and partially mountainous, with only 20% flatlands. At the foothills of the Apennines to the east, the sloped terrain is rocky, with porous and well-draining limestone soils. The Tiber River weaves through the region until it drains into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Most dominate in the landscape are two dormant volcanoes, the source of the region’s agricultural and cultural heritage: phosphorus-rich volcanic soils set on hillsides. On these slopes, there are many hours of sunlight during the growing season, and heat is mitigated by sea winds and the cool air from crater lakes. Paired with Lazio’s typical Mediterranean climate, with its mild, rainy winters and long, hot, dry summers, the region boasts an excellent environment for grape growing.

The wines that best represent Lazio’s potential are its top Trebbiano and Malvasia blends from DOCs such as Frascati, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone, and Castelli Romani, as well as the wines made from the native Cesanese grape coming from Lazio’s first DOCG, Cesanese del Piglio. That said, Lazio doesn’t have a defined personality like many other Italian regions, and the proximity of Rome is a mixed blessing. Winemakers have a nearby, enthusiastic audience, but they are constantly at the whims of fashion.

A Brief History

Vines were cultivated in Lazio before the birth of Rome in 753 BC. Even before the Greeks Hellenized the south, Etruscans were in northwestern Lazio cultivating vines, making wine, and using it as a commodity. While we don’t know who first cultivated grapevines in Italy, we do know that the Etruscans eventually supplied the Gauls in modern-day France with both wine and viticultural knowledge. Etruscan vineyards reached well into northern Italy, and the oldest discovered amphora with a cork stopper is Etruscan, from 600 BC. The cultivation of vines and the production of wine was key to this civilization’s prosperity. As the expansion of vines and olive trees grew, wine made its way to the local table, beyond its historic sacrificial use. By the Republican era of Rome, wine was essential to the daily caloric intake of the Romans. It was also during this period that rudimentary production laws were implemented. By the imperial age (the Roman Empire), vines were a dominant feature of Lazio’s landscape. Wine survived the fall of Rome and many Barbarian invasions in the early Middle Ages. The wines of this era, of course, were still made in a very rustic style. Wine culture began to thrive again in the late medieval period under the tutelage of monastic orders such as the Benedictines. Then, during the Renaissance, Lazio wines began to appear on the wine lists of the official papal table, under both Paul III and Leo X.

It was not until the late 20th century that producers started to focus on quality over quantity. As in Tuscany, some were driven to opt out of regulations in the mid- to late-20th century so that they could make wines led only by their own philosophies. The most famous of these producers is the late prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi. In the late 1940s, he replanted the vineyards at his estate, Fiorano, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sémillon. He practiced organic agriculture even when the region embraced chemical farming in the 1960s and 1970s, his low-yielding vines were surrounded by high-yield vineyards, and he took a slow, low-intervention approach in the cellar. He made three wines: a red Bordeaux blend, a Sémillon, and a Malvasia di Lazio, highly celebrated by wine critics in the 1970s and 80s.

Lazio obtained its first DOCG appellation with the red Cesanese del Piglio in 2008. Urged by Mauro de Angelis, President of the Consortium of Frascati from 2007 to 2016, Frascati Superiore and Cannellino di Frascati obtained DOCG status. Today, Lazio has three DOCGs, twenty-seven DOCs, and six IGPs.

Three-quarters of Lazio’s DOCs are dedicated to white wine, most of them calling for some percentage of Trebbiano and/or Malvasia. It can be difficult to identify distinctions between these zones, but quality continues to improve. According to sommelier and writer Sandro Sangiorgi, in the past 10 to 20 years, growers have begun shifting from high-yield production to a focus on healthy vineyards. Viticultural practices are improving, with a significant shift toward organic production. Sangiorgi expects that even the reluctant will follow, as they will soon be surrounded by larger companies who have made the conversion.

The Key Regions of Lazio

Castelli Romani

Castelli Romani, the “Roman Castles,” is a group of communes to the southeast of Rome on the slopes of the Colli Albani, or Alban Hills. This area is one of the most important wine regions in Lazio, and its historic significance is also key. The region provided refuge during the tumultuous 14th century, when the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and the church (along with the region as a whole) was in a state of turmoil. The wines of Castelli Romani remained an afterthought until Rome became the capital in 1870. But even then, the region was an important getaway: Roman nobles looking to escape the heat of Rome during the summer would come to the towns and palazzi of the Alban Hills.

Within Castelli Romani are two DOCGs and nine DOCs, including Frascati, Montecompatri-Colonna (Montecompatri), Marino, Velletri, Colli Lanuvini, Colli Albani, and Castelli Romani itself. These DOCs produce about 80% of Lazio’s DOC wine. Frascati is the most well-known zone, though its international reputation is for wines on the low end of the market.

Located in the Alban Hills is the now-dormant Vulcano Laziale, which has provided ideal soils for winemaking, porous and high in potassium. The soils are especially rich in more northern reaches like Frascati, where the Mediterranean influence isn’t felt as strongly as in Marino or Velletri. The vineyards range in altitude from 200 to 1,000 feet and flank the crater lakes of Albano and Nemi. Considering its resources, it’s fair to say that the region has untapped potential.

Frascati Superiore DOCG

Frascati Superiore DOCG wines are the most famous of Lazio’s wines, and for good reason. The potassium-rich volcanic soils produce white wines with beautiful aromas and structure. The blend must be a minimum of combined Malvasia Bianca di Candia and/or Malvasia del Lazio (Malvasia Puntinata), which provide fruity and floral notes. The wines may contain a maximum 30% Bellone, Bombino Bianco, Greco Bianco, Trebbiano Giallo, and/or Trebbiano Toscano. The last of these lends structure. A maximum of 15% of other white grapes is also allowed.

When Frascati Superiore was promoted to DOCG status, there was, of course, a tightening of regulations. As compared to the wines of Frascati DOC, Frascati Superiore DOCG wines are subject to stricter yield requirements and a minimum potential alcohol of 12% for Frascati Superiore and 13% for Frascati Superiore Riserva (Frascati DOC has a minimum alcohol of 11.5% for white wines and 11% for spumante, which is also allowed).

Cannellino di Frascati DOCG

An often-overlooked region that also received DOCG status in 2011 for its late-harvest white grapes, Cannellino di Frascati DOCG has traditionally harvested late, often not until the end of October. By this time of year, the region enjoys misty mornings and dry, warm afternoons—perfect conditions for botrytis-infected grapes. The DOCG regulations established in 2011 forbid growing grapes in the previously common pergola system, but there is a grace period until 2021. The permitted grapes are the same as those of Frascati Superiore DOCG.

Cannellino di Frascati wines are subtly magnificent, with less pronounced sweetness than many other botrytized wines. The minimum residual sugar requirement is 35 grams of sugar per liter, compared to the 120 grams per liter of Tokaji.

Northern Lazio

The northern part of Lazio can be broken down into two zones: coastal and inland. The area is dominated by medieval hilltop towns, rolling hills, and fertile volcanic soil well suited to viticulture. Hot sulfur springs dot the region thanks to the dormant Vulsini volcano complex, now the site of the picturesque volcanic crater lake Lago di Bolsena.

Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC

The story goes that a bishop on a pilgrimage to Rome sent his page ahead of him to write the word est (Latin for “it is”) on the door of any inn where the wine was good. At an inn in Montefiascone, just north of Rome in the Bolsena territory, the wine was so good that the page wrote, “Est! Est!! Est!!!” on the door. It’s said that after the bishop arrived, he forgot his pilgrimage and stayed there enjoying the fine wine until his death. The validity of the story can’t be proven, but it bestowed up on the region a reputation for great off-dry to sweet wines.

The Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC allows Bianco and Bianco Classico (secco, abboccato, or amabile) and secco spumante wines. Today, somewhat uninspired wines from high-yielding vines have been more common that the great ones suggested by the region’s history. However, like other regions in Lazio, this DOC has been experiencing a rebirth of quality in recent years. One interesting example is Falesco Poggio dei Gelsi, a blend of 40% Roscetto (also spelled Rossetto, and the same as Trebbiano Giallo), a rare, indigenous, low-yielding grape, along with 30% each of Trebbiano and Malvasia. The wine is elegant and well balanced, with a complexity beyond what would be expected from a simple tavern wine.

Aleatico di Gradoli DOC

Four styles of red wine are allowed within Aleatico di Gradoli DOC: Dolce, Passito, Liquoroso, and Liquoroso Riserva. Appellation laws specify yields, sugar levels, minimum alcohol, and aging requirements. The wines must be produced with at least 95% Aleatico grapes. Local legend suggests that the grape was brought to Lazio by the Greeks, but it more likely came through Tuscany.

Orvieto DOC

The Orvieto DOC takes its name from the gothic hilltop town in southern Umbria and spans a large region that extends into both Umbria and Lazio. It is more often associated with Umbria than Lazio. In the Middle Ages, these wines were sweet and quite well regarded. Both dry and sweet wines are permitted today. They must be must be at least 60% Grechetto and/or Trebbiano Toscano (also known as Procanico), plus other local varieties.

Cervetri DOC

Further south from Lago di Bolsena is Cervetri DOC, a region whose Etruscan history and links to ancient viticulture are perhaps more exciting than its wines. Called Cere in ancient times, Cervetri has been home to viticulture since at least the eighth century. The DOC is a blanket appellation that includes red, white, and rosé wines and amabile, frizzante, and dry styles. Currently, some producers are seeking to reinvent the area by replanting with indigenous grapes.

Southeast Lazio

Cesanese del Piglio (Piglio) DOCG

Lazio’s first DOCG was Cesanese del Piglio. It includes Cesanese del Piglio, Cesanese del Piglio Superiore, and Cesanese del Piglio Reserva. Most of the wines are made dry, but off-dry and sweet wines are also permitted. The wines must be at least 90% Cesanese di Affile and/or Cesanese Commune. Most producers agree that the smaller-berried Cesanese di Affile makes the best quality wines. The grapes ripen late, and picking at ideal levels of both sugar ripeness and phenolic ripeness can be difficult. Often, producers have a waiting period around harvest and must be ready at an instant to pick.

Cesanese di Olevano Romano (Olevano Romano) DOC

The Cesanese di Olevano Romano DOC shares many vineyard areas with the Cesanese di Piglio DOCG. Both regions are situated in the foothills of the Monti Ernici, with Olevano Romano in the Provincia di Roma and Cesanese del Piglio in the Provincia di Frosinone. The two appellations are so close that often, little more than legalities distinguish them.

South Coast

Cori DOC

Established in 1971, Cori DOC is just south of Castelli Romani. With an average elevation of 400 meters, it is well suited for wine production, with well-draining volcanic soils and warm, dry summers that are mitigated by gentle sea breezes from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Currently, the area has only four producers, all of them focused on quality and careful viticultural practices. The appellation allows for both red and white wines. The Bellone grape takes center stage in the white wines, where it must be at least 50% of the blend, with smaller percentages of Malvasia and Greco Bianco. Rosso wines feature Nero Buono at a minimum of 50%, along with Montepulciano (20% minimum) and Cesanese di Affile and/or Cesanese Commune (15% minimum). Cori DOC is currently enjoying some well-deserved attention due to its focus on indigenous varieties.

Terracina (Moscato di Terracina) DOC

Terracina DOC is the most recently established DOC, recognized in 2007. It is located in the southern reaches of the Latina province, on the coast midway between Rome and Naples. Though uncommon in the rest of Lazio, Moscato di Terracina has been cultivated in Terracina since the early 1900s. It is best as a dry aromatic wine, but amabile, passito, and spumante styles are also permitted. The dry, off-dry, and passito wines must include a minimum of 85% Moscato di Terracina, while the spumante requires 100%.

Lazio IGP

Lazio IGP can be made in a variety of styles and with many different grapes. There are interesting producers currently making Lazio IGP, often doing so to experiment with ancient grapes not permitted in the DOC system. Marco Carpineti is one such producer, focused on innovative techniques and indigenous varieties in Cori. He makes wines with Nero Buono, used in the blend for Cori DOC but not permitted on its own, as well as a 100% Bellone passito. Also notable is Casale Cento Corvi in Cervetri, the only producer working with the ancient grape Giacchè, which produces a powerful, full-bodied red wine.

The Future of Lazio

With varied zones home to unique indigenous grapes as well as prime soils and climates for grape growing, Lazio is a region with enormous potential. Yet the quality of production has varied throughout the years, always dominated by the desires of Rome. When Rome demands high quantities of cheap wine for travelers and locals, Lazio farmers comply. When Rome wants higher quality wines, Lazio again complies.

But Mauro de Angelis, former president of the Consortium of Frascati, is hopeful. He explains, “Lazio has halved its wine-growing areas over the years and is heading for a viticulture of terroir and quality. The consumption of wine in Rome remains relevant, varied, and influenced by tourism. The level of the service is constantly increasing, and this has led and will lead to a further increase towards the products and regional wines.” The poor reputation of Lazio’s wines is often a stereotype, de Angelis says, though it’s rooted in the trends of the past. Now, the region must move beyond this stereotype, a challenge that will require investment in innovation and hard work to recapture the attention of the wine industry and consumers alike.

Vines at Le Coste

A Few Suggestions

We asked a few of GuildSomm's resident Italy experts for advice. Below are a few favorite Lazio wines from , Co-Owner and Wine Director at SPQR, A16, and A16 Rockridge, , author of the blog On the Wine Trail in Italy, and , Beverage Operations Director at Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group.

Principe Pallavicini “Poggio Verde” Frascati Superiore DOCG

Alfonso: Is there a quintessential white from Lazio? Yes: Frascati. [This is] my current favorite. Malvasia del Lazio, Greco, and Grechetto blend together for a rich, delicious white that rivals the finest Verdicchio and Fiano di Avellino.

Casale Marchese Frascati Superiore DOCG

Jeff: A Roman classic! This is not just a delicious drink but Frascati with depth and substance. This wine exemplifies quality-to-value ratio. Vibrant, fresh, citrus, white almond…a perfect summer aperitivo.

Palazzo Tronconi "Fregellae" Lazio IGT

Jeff: This is a Native Grapes of Italy primer in a glass. Palazzo Tronconi is producing wines from forgotten grapes and killing it! This wine is unique without being weird. Floral and fruit aromas that are upfront and elegant with a sublime palate that lingers even after a few more bites of pasta.

Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Bianco Lazio IGT

Shelley: About 12,000 bottles made by legendary winemaker Giampiero Bea for 80 sisters of the Cistercian order living, organically farming, and working at their monastery in Vitorchiano. It is perfect for pairing [with] a full spectrum of flavors and dishes, from artichokes and asparagus to pancetta and bottarga.

Cincinnato “Castore” Lazio IGT

Jeff: Bellone is one of the key grapes in Frascati, and this cooperative is bottling it on its own because it’s AWESOME! Citrus fruits mixed with a touch of stone fruit, white flowers, and honeycomb, add a nice kiss of acidity, and boom!

Shelley: Bellone made on its own used to be more difficult to find, but today there are a few producers recognizing the beauty of this grape. It has a balance of acidity and richness that, of course, makes it a great pasta wine.

Casal Pilozzo Colli di Catone Colle Gaio “The Old White”

Alfonso: A real treat. Malvasia del Lazio with a lengthy maceration and slow fermentation. What should normally be a wine to drink young has become almost cult-like to its fans, of which I am one. Normally people consider old white wine from Italy to be onerous. In this case, I say, “Not so!”

Damiano Ciolli “Silene” Cesanese di Olevano Romano DOC

Shelley: Located southeast of the Rome province, Damiano Ciolli's Cesanese di Affile wine called “Silene” derives its name from a wild flower. The tannins are round, similar to a Barbera, yet the flavor has a bit of black pepper, cassis, mulberry, and iron.

Alfonso: One of the most searched for wines from Lazio.  Short fermentation, no oak, fresh wine style—lovely.