One of the hard-to-kill untruths about Italian wines is that the whites don’t age. Some don’t, of course, just as some French, Californian, German or Spanish white wines don’t age. But many do, and a significant number age very well indeed. That includes some that have been around a long time and are undeservedly neglected, like Pomino bianco, some that have steadily held aloft the torch, like Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, and some that were once wildly popular, fell into oblivion, and are now being revived. A prime example of the latter: Frascati.
Frascati has just joined the ranks of resurrected Italian white wines. Like Soave, Frascati was once ubiquitous in Italian restaurants in this country. It had great name recognition here and abroad. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, it was the almost unavoidable tipple of any American visiting Rome. If you asked for a white wine in any Roman trattoria (the wine choice in those days in all but the city’s most sophisticated restaurants was simply red or white) what you invariably got was a vino sfuso from the nearby Frascati hills. Indeed, so close is Frascati to Rome that some of its vineyards now fall within the eternal city’s steadily expanding limits.
Of course, in those days too the white wine you got in Rome was often brown, or at very least tawny. When Italian winemakers figured out how to stabilize their wines to keep them fresh and bright and clear, there was actually grumbling among the older generation of Romans that “they don’t make wine the way they used to” – which was certainly and happily true. That technical breakthrough led to Frascati’s first great wave of popularity here in the States: Suddenly, that light, delicate white wine could travel and still taste just as fresh and enjoyable in Pittsburgh as it had on the Piazza Navona. Popularity led to great demand, which led to increased production, which led to overcropping, which led to a thin, watery, slightly alcoholic, near-tasteless drink, which led to Frascati’s market death. From being everywhere, Frascati suddenly was nowhere, and stayed there for several decades.
Now it’s back, and the good news is that it’s better than ever – better made, fresher tasting, and longer lasting. Early in May, Fontana Candida brought a vertical tasting of Frascati to several U.S. cities to prove all those points. They succeeded handily. (My friend and colleague Charles Scicolone has already written about this tasting.)
Fontana Candida is currently the largest producer of Frascati and was the first commercial bottler of the wine, so the firm has a long history and a lot of experience with the many grape varieties that make up the wine.
According to winemaker Mauro Merz, Frascati regulations call for a blend of Malvasia del Lazio and Malvasia di Candia with Trebbiano Toscano, Greco, Bombina, and/or Bellone, all indigenous grapes, with the permitted addition of up to 10% of aromatic international varieties. Fontana Candida doesn’t use the latter, and in fact is campaigning to have them dropped from the DOC: “With Malvasia, you don’t need other aromatic grapes, and international varieties destroy Frascati’s identity,” says Merz. Instead, Fontana Candida has initiated a program of identifying and propagating the oldest native vines it can find, with the aim of literally returning to Frascati’s roots and producing the most authentically traditional wine possible.
The New York tasting presented the basic Frascati Superiore of the 2009 vintage, followed by the single-vineyard Frascati Santa Teresa of the 2004, 2001, and 1997 vintages, followed by Fontana Candida’s top-of-the-line Frascati, Luna Mater, in four vintages: the barrel sample 2010, then 2009, 2008, and 2007, the first vintage made of this wine. All were impressive and established beyond any reasonable doubt that Frascati not only is back in stride as a real and pleasing wine, but that, contrary to all the myths, it can age very well.
With my usual caveat about tasting notes – they’re accurate for one person, one time – here are my impressions of the wines.
Frascati Superiore 2009: This is Fontana Candida’s basic wine, and a pleasing one it is. Nice light pear-and-apple fruit, medium body with lively acidity, and a long, dry, citrus peel finish. A thoroughly enjoyable white wine of many uses.
Santa Teresa Frascati Superiore 2004: spicy, almost woodruff nose, big apple-and-pear fruit, excellent acidity. Still quite live and very fine, but unfortunately in such limited supply that it’s not available here, since it comes from one very special vineyard, with a soil that is distinctive even from the other vineyards of the zone. (The whole Frascati zone is volcanic, located on the slopes of an ancient, weathered volcano called Laziale.)
Santa Teresa 2001: this was a great year all through Italy, and in Frascati produced a bigger, fatter wine, almost moving toward Chardonnay in its style. No question about its aging ability: this is a live and lively wine.
Santa Teresa 1997: Fully mature but not in the least faded, its aromas are less vivid, but on the palate it was quite elegant – a wine I would happily drink whenever the opportunity offered.
Luna Mater Frascati Superiore 2010: a special wine (this one is available, happily), selected from old vines in several vineyards, and harvested late (the second half of October), fermented and vinified in several different methods, then blended and aged in acacia wood barrels. The result is a full and substantial wine, showing more pear than apple flavors, and activated by excellent acidity. Surprisingly ready and drinkable for a barrel sample.
Luna Mater 2009: A very interesting wine, fermented from grapes that were almost raisined, so it has a fuller body than I expected, but still has the invigorating acidity to sustain it.
Luna Mater 2008: In the same full style as the others, with more evident apple in the fruit, and some lovely balsamic elements as well.
Luna Mater 2007: This one was the very first vintage of this wine, and it seems a little tentative, as if Fontana Candida wasn’t quite sure yet which way it was going. Good fruit and decent acidity, but not as vivid as the others, though, like all the rest, it too showed excellent minerality – the gift of those volcanic soils, no doubt.