As a tour guide I often travelled along the Autostrada del Sole – the motorway of the sun – and when close to Rome I would see the sign for Anagni with the words ‘City of the Popes’ beneath it. Many times I would wonder what it meant and, like so many towns in Italy, Anagni has a fascinating history. The epithet refers to the glory days of the town in the 13th century when Anagni produced no less than four Popes with three from the same family, the Conti. However, perhaps the most interesting was the fourth, Pope Boniface VIII. He sought to sustain the principle of Papal authority in temporal affairs and this inevitably brought him into conflict with the nascent states of Europe. But perhaps he is best remembered for being condemned to the eighth circle of hell by Dante, in his Divine Comedy, for the sin of selling church offices or simony. Whilst all this was happening, in the hills surrounding the city, with the eternal rhythm of the seasons, the Cesanese grape quietly produced the wine that had been drunk in the area since Roman times and probably earlier.
Cesanese is the grape of southern Lazio and, as such, has been,- and probably still is in the shadow of wines from areas like Tuscany and Piedmont. The wine received DOC status in 1973 and in 2008 achieved the prestigious DOCG classification. In order to discover for myself what this lesser known variety is all about, Vinnie and I went to visit Casale della Ioria. We met Paolo underneath the 200-year-old holm oak that stands in front of the cantina. That the tree is evergreen just serves to emphasise the feeling of permanence that pervades this place; when you enter the farm there is a feeling that time here is not measured in hours or even days but by the passing of the seasons. Paolo’s family have been cultivating grapes here since 1921 and the estate has 38 hectares of vines as well as olive trees and woods.
In deference to the sense of tradition here, and also being conscious of my mission, we restricted ourselves to tasting the three Cesanese del Piglio DOCG wines that Paolo makes here. But that does not mean that he is stuck in his ways. He is producing a sulphite-free version and also is resurrecting another variety of grape, Olivella, but those are stories for another time.
The first wine we sampled is called Campo Novo and was from 2017. Fermented and matured in steel the colour is bright ruby with a bouquet of cherries and plums with a hint of pink pepper. In the mouth the taste is almost sweet raspberries with a good acidity and soft tannins.
Next we tasted Tenuta della Ioria, a Cesanese del Piglio Superiore 2017. From a different vineyard a little higher than the previous wine this is, again, fermented in steel before being matured in 20 hl oak botti. The colour is a dark ruby and on the nose there were plums with tobacco and vanilla. It is drier than the Campo Novo with more acidity and bitter cherries on the palate. Paolo recommends pairing this with a very typically Lazio dish called abbacchio which is milk-fed lamb and I think it would also accompany steak very well.
Lastly, we tried the 2017 Riserva. This is what the French would refer to as a cru as it comes from a single five hectare vineyard planted with old vines up to 35 years old. Fermented in steel again but with the skins left in longer than the previous wines, it is then matured in a mixture of barrique, made of French oak, and barrile, made from Slovenian oak. The result is a delicious wine with an intense ruby colour. On the nose it is clean and fresh with notes of plums and violets and, strangely, none of the vanilla and tobacco that I was expecting. On the palate there is a subtle acidity with cherry and cranberry, with hints of liquorice, and an altogether fine structure with a long finish – something that can only be achieved by a winemaker who truly understands the grape he is working with. I suggest you pair it with braised meat or cheese or just enjoy it after dinner.
I left Casale della Ioria with huge respect for Paolo as a winemaker but also with a new regard for how good the Cesanese grape can be when in the right hands.