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In the Shadow of Rome, 3 Ancient Grape Varieties Stage a Comeback

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Two thousand years ago, vines flourished around Rome, one of the largest cities in the ancient world. All over Europe, in every place they inhabited, Romans planted the common European grape Vitis vinifera and ultimately developed winemaking techniques that continue to shape wine production today.

And though the people of Rome famously enjoyed their vino, the irony is that the wine Roman Emperors drank was nothing like the high-quality bottlings enjoyed today throughout Italy. But recently, three historic, yet little-known indigenous grape varieties—Bellone, Nero Buono and Cesanese—are taking center stage in the rapidly improving Roman wine market.

Bringing Back Ancient Grapes

Originally called Latium, the Lazio region borders Tuscany to the north, Abruzzo to the east, Umbria to the northeast and Campania to the south. Home to Rome, it was also the primary winemaking region of the ancient Roman Empire, and remains quite good for growing grapes. Its volcanic hills supply fertile and well-drained land for vineyards. The abundant sunshine and proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea provide a climate ideally suited for grapes; cool sea breezes temper the drier, warmer temperatures.

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Despite this, ancient Romans were not producing high-quality products. “In ancient Rome, what they called ‘wine’ was vinegar with honey and spices added, or sometimes garlic. But it was considered very good compared to other wines of the time,” explains Leonardo Leggeri, former Fondazione Italiana Sommelier (FIS).

“The wine was not good by our standards, but the grapes had enormous potential,” says Leggeri. “That is what we’re trying to show by bringing back these grapes and making good wine out of them.”

Even in more recent years, producers failed to take advantage of the wine region. For most of the 20th century, producers contributed to the area’s mass production of lower-quality bottlings. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine Fourth Edition, Lazio’s total area of vineyards had “considerably declined” and was not much more than 42,000 acres by the early 2010s. Today, Lazio winemakers want to raise the prestige of their wines while still remembering the area’s rich history.

Elise Rialland of Casale del Giglio says the renaissance of ancient Roman grapes, “makes Rome a point of reference for the area’s winemaking past. Today, we are getting back to our roots.”