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Suddenly it’s boom-times for Cesanese, the most important red grape in Lazio (the region around Rome). Cesanese was the house wine in many Roman trattorias in the 1970s and 1980s; it could be pretty crude, but we have fond memories of lively wines that went perfectly with carbonara and saltimbocca. We’ve tasted many recent attempts to revive and "improve" Cesanese that were over-extracted, over-oaked, international-style wines that negated all that was interesting and distinctive about the grape. Then we met La Visciola, and our faith was restored: Cesanese actually can make wonderful, vivid and vivacious wine. Cesanese isn’t (or shouldn’t be) deeply colored, it isn’t a heavy wine, and the best examples have bright fruit and spicy / peppery aromatics which persist on the palate. It’s very responsive to site – the wines we are offering show clear variations according to the soils in the vineyards. For what might be a useful reference: in some ways Cesanese reminds us of Pineau d’Aunis, with similar weight and structure and good complexity and persistence at a relatively young age.
New wine from La Visciola is on the way, but in the meantime it turns out that there are some other fine practitioners. We were knocked-out when we tasted Riccardi-Reale Cesanese last spring (as an Italian friend said about their wines: “un colpo di fulmane!” – “a real thunderbolt!”), and the wines have just arrived in the US for the first time. Add to those Cioli (imported by Jan d’Amore Wines) and Berucci (Louis/Dressner), and we are too excited about our new Cesanese discoveries to wait!
Piero Riccardi and his partner Lorella Reale started producing wine in 2010 on land that Piero’s family had farmed for generations; there are vines and a range of small-farm products, all biodynamic. They make 3 Cesanese wines from 2 vineyards: the wine called “Neccio” comes from the plot that is rich in reddish volcanic soil, “Ca’Litro" from sandstone, and “Collepazzo” is a blend of the two.
It’s the wine that counts, but I do love the Riccardi-Reale logo of the woman holding wings and a tortoise, which they appropriated from the early renaissance book called Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Art historians say it's a representation of earth and air, of the alchemy of art; (the wings are the symbol of Hermes / Mercury, and the tortoise shell was transformed into his lyre.)
I also like to see it as an illustration of Festina Lente (classicists and students of symbols, please correct me): life requires a balance of diligence and urgency; time flies - and doesn’t; haste makes waste, etc. Jamie Wolff
Maria Ernesto and Francesco took over the family vineyard from their father after the 2009 harvest and wanted to shake things up a bit. So they decided to make a DOCG wine from their “Saint’s Hills” vineyard, which was planted in the 1960s and is rich in volcanic soil and clay. Before then, the family had only produced a few DOC and IGT wines, in addition to running a successful agriturismo and restaurant in the renovated Casa Massimi in Piglio. L’Onda (the Wave) is made from 50% Cesanese d’Affile and 50% Cesanese Comune, two different clones of the Cesanese grape. The wine spends ten months in large Slavonian oak barrels and two months in stainless steel before bottling. It’s beautifully rich with brambly berries and rhubarb, and hints of pink pepper and tobacco. Christine Manula
High atop the red volcanic hills of Olevano Romano, south-east of Rome, Damiano Ciolli works the land that has been in his family for four generations. Il Silene is named after a wild flower that is quite common in the area (Silene Vulgaris) and comes from 100% Cesanese d’Affile vines that were planted in 1981 and 2002. Cioli harvests the grapes by hand when they have reached their peak, and ferments the wine in stainless steel tanks in order to preserve the aromas characteristic of the variety. Fermentation and maceration takes eight days, then after racking he ages the wine in stainless steel for one year and allows for six months in the bottle before releasing. The result is a lighter Cesanese than some others, actually perfect for summer drinking, with tart blackberries and a hint of menthol and violets. Christine Manula
Neccio shows fruit, but it has pronounced smoky stone and ash aromatics – it seems easy to guess that it’s from volcanic soils. It’s light-medium bodied, and a classic type of Cesanese, both serious and easy to drink, with bright fruit, savory forest elements, and that underlying minerality. The wine spends nine months in wood (some of it large old barrels made of chestnut) and eight months in the bottle. 2014 seems to have been a fine vintage in Cesanese country, giving plenty of ripe material and great balance. A fine intro to the grape! Jamie Wolff
Vinified and aged identically to “Neccio”; together the two wines present a clear case for Cesanese’s transparency in reflecting terroir. The Ca’Litro vineyard soils are made up of white sandstone, and this is the most structured and full-bodied of the Riccardi-Reale wines. Dark and tart brambly berries, quite floral, eucalyptus, bigger tannins. (My favorite!) Christine Manula
Collepazzo is a blend of fruit grown on the two distinct soil types in the Riccardi-Reale vineyards: volcanic and sandstone. From biodynamic farming and straightforward vinification with indigenous yeasts; the wine spends nine months in cement and eight months in the bottle before being released. There are beautiful cherry / kirsch notes, along with some stone and clay, and light pepper and baking spices. There’s fruit on the palate but it’s savory and dry, with a thread of tannin, lots of lift and energy. Jamie Wolff