For most of us, our familiarity with the region of Lazio begins and ends with Rome. But if you do venture outside the city limits, you will not be disappointed: You might take a short day-trip south to the area known as the Castelli Romani, where Roman nobles once summered, and tour striking volcanic hills and crater-lakes around the villages of Frascati and Marino — two of Lazio’s best-known wine towns. Or you might venture north to Viterbo and the great Lago di Bolsena, another massive crater-lake that’s not far from the picture-book village of Orvieto, in neighboring Umbria (an old-time retreat of the Popes).
Lazio has three principal wine-producing areas. To the north, near the borders with Tuscany and Umbria, a number of noteworthy zones are clustered around Lake Bolsena, and the towns of Montefiascone and Viterbo (the Orvieto DOC is shared with Umbria, in fact). The creatively named Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC is known for light whites from trebbiano and malvasia, but these days the big noise in Montefiascone is being made at the Falesco estate, owned by famed winemaker Riccardo Cotarella, who crafts a number of boutique reds from merlot, cabernet, sangiovese, and other varieties (see below).
The Castelli Romani, not even a half-hour outside of Rome, is where most of the winemaking action is in Lazio. This area is home to the predominantly white-wine zones of Frascati, Marino, and many others, and the delicate whites of these areas find an eager audience in Roman trattorie. Further south still, near the town of Frosinone, a cluster of wine towns turn out a small amount of a spicy, peculiar local grape known as Cesanese, but to drink it you’ll have to get to Italy or be very resourceful here in the USA.
The white Frascati is Lazio’s most famous wine export, but since we’ll be doing a more in-depth exploration of Rome in a future update, I’ve chosen two farther-flung wine areas to focus on — one north and one south. Both of these excellent reds are on our list at Babbo and represent a new wave of winemaking in a zone that has largely focused on what the British call “cheap and cheerful” whites.
Here are two standout Lazio wines from our list:
Casale del Giglio Lazio Petit verdot 1998
This up-and-coming winery is a rather large property in Borgo Montello, a village near the coast of Lazio south of Rome. The area, known as the Pontine Flats, was once a large marsh until Mussolini, in one of his huge public-works projects, filled it in and turned it into a habitable (and extremely fertile) agricultural area. Casale del Giglio has turned to the full array of “international” varieties for its lineup of wines, asserting that grapes such as syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot are the right choices for its rich soils and hot maritime climate. This ’98 Petit Verdot is lush, funky and readily drinkable, with notes of black currant and tar. A medium-bodied choice for dishes like Mario’s barbecued skirt steak.
Falesco “Montiano” 1998
Riccardo Cotarella’s flagship Merlot is a good mix of California exuberance and French refinement, with — most importantly — a dose of Italian gusto thrown in as well. We have an extensive “vertical” selection of this wine and can attest to the fact that it improves with age, despite being such a pleasure to drink young. Right now the ’98 is my favorite of the group, with its great melding of sweet plummy fruit with sandy, savory tannins. If it’s a special occasion, crack a bottle of this with Mario’s “Deconstructed Ossobuco For Two” and waddle out of the dining room a very happy person.