Back at the end of October, while lazing in Lazio, I did take one day out from vacation for what my friends and relations usually refer to – ironically, of course – as “Tom’s work.” With the help of the good people at Vias, the American importer, I arranged a visit to the Principe Pallavicini estate near Frascati – now almost a suburb of Rome and for centuries its closest source of refreshing white wines.
The Pallavicini estate is one of the oldest in that antique landscape. Still in the hands of the same noble family, owners since the beginning of the 18th century (before that the property had belonged to the Colonna, one of the most powerful families of medieval and renaissance Rome), the vineyards roll back bucolically from behind a plain, massive palazzo now fronting on a heavily trafficked road.
On the grounds themselves, among vine rows and old buildings, occasional smooth, black stones had pushed up through the soil — two-millennia-old remnants of Roman roads, once heavily trafficked themselves, now silently and patiently reposing. A very evocative place to visit, with suggestions of a vinous history running farther back than records or memories extend. The site alone prepares the visitor to be impressed. I was not disappointed.
Mauro de Angelis, the resident winemaker and factotum, conducted my visit, and we were later joined by Claudio Latagliata, the CEO of the winery. After the usual tour of the cellars and the winemaking facilities, and just a glimpse of the extensive vineyards rolling over gentle hills to the horizon – unfortunately this was the only cloudy day of my whole week-and-a-half in Rome and Lazio – we adjourned to the tasting room.
Pallavicini’s main production is, of course, Frascati, which used to be the white wine of Rome, served in every caffe and trattoria and the object of weekend excursions to the countryside by every Roman family that could manage them. Pallavicini’s Frascati has always been excellent, even during the period when – as with so many other white wines all around the world – the appellation’s popularity stimulated overproduction and subsequent decline in reputation and sales. Now that Frascati producers are attempting to reclaim their Roman and international markets, Pallavicini is doubling down on quality, as quickly became evident in my tasting.
The first wine I tasted was Pallavicini’s basic DOC Frascati 2011, a thoroughly enjoyable light wine, with lovely white fruit character, slight overlays of a sort of volcanic minerality, and a long delicate finish – exactly what my memory says the ideal Frascati was in its glory days. An auspicious beginning, to be sure.
Poggio Verde, a Frascati Superiore DOCG 2011, followed. This wine spends a good deal of time on its yeasts and consequently develops more body and roundness. It showed a fine, floral nose, nice medium body with good white fruit and minerality, and a long, pronouncedly mineral finish – again suggestive of the volcanic nature of the Frascati zone soils. Much more a dinner wine than a cocktail wine, unquestionably. By the way, it just won Tre Bicchieri.
The third white wine was Roma, Malvasia Puntinata DOC 2013 (made from the grape of the same name, also known as Malvasia del Lazio). I found this wine intriguing – a fully dry Malvasia, with tangerine skin and mineral aroma and palate, big-bodied and round, with, under all the variety’s characteristic notes, the distinctive mineral-and-white-fruit tang of the Frascati terroir. It was very long-finishing, and had the kind of structure that suggests longevity and interesting bottle development. I wouldn’t mind having a half a dozen bottles of this to put away for four or five years, just to see how it matured. I think it would make a great companion to roast chicken or turkey or roasted fresh ham.
Then we switched to red wines, starting with Rubillo 2013, an IGT Lazio Cesanese. Virtually unknown in this country, and indeed not well known even in Italy, Cesanese is Lazio’s indigenous red variety. Not much information is available about its origins or affiliations: Even Jancis Robinson has very little to say about it, other than that it can be a difficult variety. Lazio producers have recently begun to take a lot more interest in working with it, which in my opinion is a very good development, because it tastes to me like a variety of very great potential. Even the simplest versions of it, like this basic Pallavicini example, characteristically show a pleasing softness and roundness (some call it a Merlot-like quality, but aside from the softness, I don’t see that comparison) and inviting blackberry/mulberry fruit notes.
We made a considerable jump up in quality and intensity with the next wine, Amarasco 2012, IGT Lazio Cesanese. This is a selection made from 50-year-old vines, whose juices undergo long maceration on the skins and are then aged for 12 months in tonneaux. It had excellent bitter cherry fruit, deep and dark, and an almost chewy texture – all on top of an evident structure and fine balance. This is an estimable wine, of beginning complexity: I would very much like to taste it again in a few years’ time.
While I was most interested in what Pallavicini was accomplishing with Lazio’s native grapes, I shouldn’t neglect to mention that the estate also produces several bottlings of non-local and international varieties. I particularly enjoyed Moroello 2011, IGT Lazio, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot, grown in the Lazio portion of the Maremma, a soft, pleasing, fruity wine that would be a perfect accompaniment to simple trattoria meals. Soleggio 2012, IGT Lazio, a Cabernet sauvignon from 21-year-old vines, shared the same soft fruit that seems to be almost a hallmark of the Pallavicini red wines. Mauro de Angelis attributes that to the soil: Along with the slight mineral tang, it’s what the Frascati zone gives the wine, he says.