As I noted when we profiled Rome’s home state of Lazio a few months back, the cluster of wine zones just south of the city–headlined by the much-maligned Frascati–are starting to become more than just mass-producers of cheap vino bianco. Frascati and its neighboring wine towns comprise a zone known as the Castelli Romani, so named because its volcanic hills and crater-lakes were once a summer retreat for Roman nobles. The soils, altitudes, and microclimates in the area make for good wine-growing conditions, but for the most part the wines of Frascati, Marino and the rest of the Castelli Romani have been more about quantity than quality; since producers could (and still can) sell anything they make to the tourists in Rome, why not stretch production and sell a little more?
Frascati and most of the other whites of the Castelli Romani are made from a blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. The latter is more interesting than the former, but the former, which has a fairly light, neutral flavor, is one of the most prolific vines in all of Italy. As such, most Frascati blends have been dominated by Trebbiano. Without the floral, orange blossom aromatics and peachy fruit of the Malvasia grape, Frascati is likely to be a pretty lame wine.
However, as in so many other corners of Italy, the producers in the Frascati area are doing more and more with their considerable natural gifts. In addition to limiting production and trying to extract a little more character from Trebbiano and especially Malvasia, some producers are introducing other varieties (like chardonnay and viognier) in small percentages to further up the ante. The law only allows up to 10 percent of “other” grapes in the Frascati blend, but whether it’s parking or winemaking, laws are really only “suggestions” in Italy.
The long and short of this is that there are any number of Frascati wines you might really enjoy drinking now. On our list at Babbo I regularly feature the wines of Villa Simone, owned by Rome’s best-known enoteca owner, Piero Costantini, and of Castel de Paolis, whose proprietors are stretching the limits of Frascati with the addition of the fat and aromatic viognier in the blend.
Just a few minutes west and south of Frascati is the town of Marino, home to my favorite Lazio wine estate, Colli Picchioni. This small winery is owned by the lovable Paola DiMauro and her son, Armando, and while they make a terrific Marino Bianco with lots of Malvasia character their premier wine is a red blend called Vigna del Vassalo, which combined cabernets sauvignon and franc with merlot. Paola, a great friend of Joe Bastianich’s mother, Lidia, is a legendary Roman cook and has taught a number of New York chefs a thing or two about Roman cuisine. Vigna del Vassalo is as elegant as the lady who makes it.
Yet while there are an increasing number of local wines to drink while you’re in Rome, the distinguishing characteristic of this city is that, unlike in other major cities such as Florence and Venice, you can find all of Italy–not just the local stuff–on Roman wine lists. Moreover, the city is packed with great wine bars, most of them boasting impressively fat wine lists for you to explore.
Here’s a list of wine bars and wine-focused restaurants to check out on your next visit. The majority of these are located in the Centro Storico or Trastevere, so it’s not impossible to visit two or three in a day, as I am apt to do.
CUL DE SAC
Piazza di Pasquino, 73 Tel: 06-688-01094
Literally a few steps off the Piazza Navona. A cramped little osteria where they hang nets over the tables to keep the thousands of bottles from falling on you (servers often must use those deli-style grabbers to get wines off of high shelves).
Via degli Scipioni, 118 Tel: 06-323-6437
Probably my favorite: Located in the Prati neighborhood north of the Vatican, this wine bar/wine shop is sleek, hip and loaded with high-end choices. A monster list, and some very good food to complement it, including better than 30 cheeses.
ENOTECA COSTANTINI/RISTORANTE SIMPOSIO
Piazza Cavour, 16 Tel: 06-320-3575 (wine shop) / 06-321-1502 (restaurant) Fax: 06-321-3210 www.pierocostantini.it
An unbelievable wine store, with a rather fancy restaurant attached.
ENOTECA IL GOCCETTO
Via dei Bianchi Vecchi, 14 Tel: 06-686-4268
Cool, small, and resolutely local. A real proprietor-driven place, with a list of wines by the glass on a chalkboard and just a few appetizers to nibble.
Via del Moro, 1/A – Piazza Trilussa, 41 Tel: 06-583-33920
A slick and stylish restaurant in Trastevere, with an encyclopedic list.
Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 9 – Via della Frezza, 23 Tel: 06-322-6273
Kind of trendy, with a pizzeria on one level and a more formal ristorante on the second. But what a wine list.
Via dei Balestrari, 12 Tel: 06-686-4413
Another true wine bar of the more humble variety. Just off the Campo dei Fiori market.
Via del Pellegrino 51 Tel: 066879533
Not far from Il Goccetto. A serious-minded osteria with a huge and well-chosen wine selection.