While the DOC around the historic town of Viterbo is called the “Colline Etruschi Viterbesi,” not much wine comes to us in the states form this appellation. The whites, like most white wine appellations in Lazio, are a blend of Malvasia and Trebbiano, while rosé and reds call for a blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes. That having been said, I have yet to see a single label of Colline Etruschi Viterbesi white, rosé, or red, on this side of the pond. Viterbo is also close to the Lago di Bolsena and the DOC’s of Orvieto and Montefiascone, two regions that have been dealt with in prior articles.
Just to the northeast of Viterbo is the very small town of Vitorchiano, home to the Convent of Our Lady of San Giovanni, a Benedictine convent with nuns of the Trappist (Cistercian) order, who have been making wine and other agricultural products for decades, which have been sold in specialty shops around Europe. The proceeds from the sale of their product go towards the missions that they support in Eastern Europe and Africa.
Further north, in the region of Umbria, outside of the town of Montefalco, is the Paolo Bea winery, one of the most respected and traditional of the Montefalco appellation. The winery is run today by Paolo’s son Giampiero, who some years ago also volunteered to take on a position as consultant to the nuns and their winemaking operations in Vitorchiano. His goal is to augment the quality of the wine made at the convent, as well as to find (as a result) better distribution and enable the nuns to get a better price, thus helping the charity. It has not been an easy task, as old habits die hard and it can often be difficult to get the nuns to see things his way.
The Bea style of winemaking is very evident in the wines produced by the convent whose name on the label reads “Monastero Suore Cistercensi.” The white wines from the Paolo Bea winery are made in the old traditional style of leaving the grape must in contact with the skins for a controlled period of time during fermentation, producing an unusual color, texture, and a very unusual array of flavors. They are also fermented on the natural yeasts that some in with the grapes from the vineyard. There are two wines that come from the winery to date, both using the name “Coenobium,” Latin for Convent. There is the basic “Coenobium,” and the “Coenobium Rusticum.” They are both made from the same array of grapes, including Trebbiano, Malvasia and Verdicchio, as well as a small handful of other stray varietals that happen to be there in the vineyards, but while the basic “Coenobium” is left in contact with the skins for just a few days, the “Coenobium Rusticum” is left on the skins for a full 15 days, giving it, as the name suggests, a very rustic quality.
I often describe wines of this style as white wines that are made like red wines, because of the skin contact that happens during the fermentation. They are not the crisp, fresh style so often associated with Italian white wine (think of the typical Pinot Grigio), nor are they rich oaky wines like the more modern style Chardonnay. As rich as these wines tend to be, they are equally unusual, and when done right, spellbindingly exciting. For pairings with food they can be very versatile, pairing with rich seafood dishes as well as poultry, veal, game bird, and especially pork dishes.
It is interesting and exciting to think that by drinking a glass of “Coenobium Rusticum” at Babbo along with our pork chop, quail, or especially our new pork tenderloin dish that is featured on our “Traditional Tasting Menu,” but also can be ordered a la carte. The tenderloin is given a savory porcini rub, grilled to a medium temperature and served with asparagus, roasted cipolline onions, and grilled lemon vinaigrette. On the tasting menu we pair this with a red wine to satisfy the (inexplicable) demand of the guest for reds, but with the flavor of the porcini, aspargus and citrus, the dish seems made for a wine like this.
We look forward to seeing you all at Babbo sometime soon to taste and explore these fascinating wines, while simultaneously helping a good cause.