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Intentional Winegrowers Give Cesanese a Sense of Place

Intentional Winegrowers Give Cesanese a Sense of Place

Piero Riccardi & Lorella Reale of Cantine Riccardi Reale | Photo Credit: Matteo Luciani

Once a celebrated grape with origins rooted in ancient Rome, Cesanese should be one of the great native grapes of Italy; yet its troubled past tells a different story. Cultivated less than one hundred kilometers from Rome, proximity to the Eternal City dictated winemaking trends, favoring quantity over quality. Traditionally, Cesanese was a sweet, slightly fizzy wine made for immediate consumption. Intensive agricultural practices of the last century, coupled with a mass exodus from the Lazio countryside beginning in the 1960s, left already fragmented vineyards abandoned and neglected. In the late 20th century, inky robust, jammy wines made their way onto the market as Cesanese continued the search for its identity.

Damiano Ciolli Does It Differently

Damiano Ciolli was the first to focus on quality, territory, and grape variety in the early 2000s, applying vineyard and cellar practices not widespread at the time, such as organic farming, reducing yield through vine management, early harvest, soft pressing, experimenting with fermentation and aging vessels, and shortening maceration times, all to create a stylistically different Cesanese. His take on the grape was one free from over-extraction, heavy wood aging, and blending with Montepulciano and international varieties, characteristics which marked Cesanese wines at the time.

At the outset, locals told Ciolli he was crazy. Historic Cesanese vineyards were still being uprooted to make room for higher yielding varieties, yet Ciolli had a vision. In fact, his wines, Silene and Cirsium, which he cultivates on seven hectares in Olevano Romano, first found success in northern Italy and abroad. “Now the market looks for more lively, fresh, elegant wines [that retain complexity and persistence],” he says. “We’ve always made it this way because that’s what we liked but most people didn’t understand our style of Cesanese back then.” 

Damiano Ciolli & Letizia Rocchi of Damiano Ciolli | Photo Credit: Ettore Maragoni Photography

A New Wave of Producers

Now Ciolli is joined by a group of like-minded winemakers, La Visciola, Maria Ernesta Berucci, Carlo Noro, and Cantine Riccardi Reale, who are breathing new life into Cesanese. Their mission is to farm the land with utmost respect, using regenerative and biodynamic practices, and to adopt non-interventionist approaches in the cellar in order to craft wines that reflect a true sense of place. Seeking vibrancy in their vineyards and wines, these vintners are shifting the paradigm.

Tied to Terroir

Cesanese finds its multifaceted expressions in the three appellations of Olevano Romano, Affile, and Piglio. Vineyards are nestled in the foothills and wide valleys of the Simbruini and Ernici mountains, in terrain that would wow even the most seasoned Italian winemaker.

The variations in terroir here are astounding given the production area is quite small. Across the Cesanese appellations, vineyards are buried deep within a protected patchwork of biodiversity, popping up throughout the vast landscape of olive groves and chestnut, oak, and birch woods. The region spans roughly 400 hectares, with artisan producers cultivating Cesanese on several scattered plots, most coming in at one hectare or less. All three appellations have, in varying degrees, iron-rich red clay, sandstone, tuff, volcanic, silt loam, and calcareous soils, making for distinctive wines. 

Carlo Noro

The new era of Cesanese is all about emphasizing terroir through intentional vineyard and cellar practices. Valerio Noro, young vigneron and son of Carlo Noro, the trailblazer of biodynamic farming in Italy, showcases glass jars filled with soil samples from his Collefurno, Foretano, and Once sites in his wine cellar. Noro oversees his family’s five hectares of vineyards in the Piglio appellation, leaning on biodynamic farming practices backed with scientific research, decades of experience, and tangible results to craft three Cesanese wines based on specific terroir and site characteristics.

”Biodynamics doesn’t just mean using preparations or minimal quantities of copper and sulfur,” he says. “It isn’t about eliminating disease. You have to work on prevention, on strengthening the plants and the soil matter. Soil treated with synthetic chemicals is inactive. Soil that hasn’t been treated is alive, and biodynamics is about bringing life.” 

Valerio Noro of Carlo Noro | Photo Credit: Simone Noro

La Visciola

For Piero Macciocca of La Visciola, it isn’t just terroir that leads to excellence but also specific clones. Cesanese encompasses two biotypes, Cesanese di Affile, having 30 distinct clones, ten of which are ideal for winemaking, and Cesanese Comune, which create subtle differences in flavor profile, longevity, and structure. Macciocca was one of the first to highlight soil differences in the Piglio appellation, and is excellent in capturing the essence of Cesanese with his cru wines, Mozzatta, Vignali, Ju Lattaro, and Ju Quarto.

The decision to produce single parcel Cesanese wines from his four hectares in Piglio came about in 2009 when, due to vintage circumstances, he vinified three plots separately and found that all three were markedly different. His decision to move to concrete aging vessels was gradual, however. “Over time we realized that even old barrels imparted something more on the wine, and Cesanese already has inherent toasted, spiced notes,” he says as we taste the 2022 vintage in his garage wine cellar. “Concrete aging was the next step for us. Having clean, uncontaminated, beautiful wines… That’s how I wanted them.” 

Rosa & Piero Macciocca of La Visciola | Photo Credit: Personal Archive

Cantine Riccardi Reale

Husband and wife team Piero Riccardi and Lorella Reale share Noro’s belief in the power of biodynamics for their Olevano Romano vineyards. They use native yeasts and spontaneous fermentation, cellar practices these other producers share, to craft their Collepazzo, Càlitro, and Neccio wines.

“For spontaneous fermentation to occur we must only use healthy grapes,” explains Reale. Riccardi adds that “with selected yeasts, you can ferment even unhealthy grapes, [but] the wine will have certain predetermined aromas and you’ll have to use additives. In our opinion, these wines don’t represent the vintage, and selected yeasts flatten [the natural] flavor profile [of the grape]. At this point, they are no longer terroir wines. All our Cesanese wines are different, you’ll see they speak of the terroir. That’s nature, that’s native yeast.” 

Maria Ernesta Berucci 

Maria Ernesta Berucci bottles her interpretation of Cesanese under labels Raphaël, L’Onda, and Mola da Piedi. On two hectares of small plots in Piglio, Berucci applies homeopathic principles in her vineyard work in a unique agricultural practice called holo-homeopathy. This concept sees the vineyard as a “holon,” or a complex system composed of subsystems, in which all the organisms present, including man, are tightly interconnected and always communicating.

Ensuring a rich biodiversity within and surrounding the vineyard is paramount, as the focus is on stimulating the web of communication, in part through the use of highly diluted natural substances. The aim is to invigorate the innate resiliency of the vine and ideally eliminate the need for intervention in the long run. “If you have a monoculture, there is no biodiversity. And if you employ [conventional] methods, you sever the entire system,” she says. “Nature wants biodiversity and connection. The goal is to balance and strengthen the entire vineyard system, which in turn benefits the vines, so as to intervene as little as possible and have the healthiest grapes.”

Maria Ernesta & Geminiano of Maria Ernesta Berucci | Photo Credit: Keiko Kato

The road to revitalization is an uphill one but these artisan winemakers move with conviction and passion, and a greater hope of leaving their land, and this world, a better place.

Five Wines to Try:

These 100% Cesanese wines each reflect the vigneron’s unique interpretation of the terroir and typicity of the grape variety. These wines are free from chemicals, synthetics, and additives both in the vineyard and cellar, are manually harvested, undergo spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts, and are unfined and unfiltered. 

Maria Ernesta Berucci 2020 “L’Onda” Cesanese del Piglio DOCG 

Single-vineyard wine from 60+ year old vines planted in volcanic clay soil. Aged 15 months in large neutral oak barrels with additional bottle aging. Intense ruby red with garnet undertones with layered red berry, plum, and dark fruit notes. Delicate aromatics of licorice, tobacco and balsamic notes supported by a beautiful sapidity throughout and smooth tannins. Elegance and persistence. Find it here.

Damiano Ciolli 2020 “Silene” Cesanese Superiore Olevano Romano DOC

Grapes harvested from four separate plots with varied soil compositions. Aged one year in cement tanks with additional bottle aging. Vivid ruby red color. Crisp wild strawberry, raspberry and floral aromas with brackish flavors. Striking minerality with well-integrated tannins for a fresh, balanced wine. Find it here.

Cantine Riccardi Reale 2020 “Neccio” Cesanese Olevano Romano DOC

Single-vineyard wine from volcanic soils. Aged for one year in local chestnut wood barrels with additional bottle aging. Intense ruby red with bright fruit aromas and slight smokiness. Crunchy black cherry and red currant flavors alternate with rose and earthy notes. Racy acidity, marked tannins, and minerality. Find it here.

La Visciola 2019 Priore “Vignali” Cesanese del Piglio DOCG

Single-vineyard wine from 60+ year old vines planted in red clay soils. Aged one year in a mix of concrete and neutral oak barrels with additional bottle aging. Luminous garnet color. Perfumed and delicate with rich notes of red fruit, myrtle, spices and pepper. Velvety tannins with a stunning acidity and minerality. Delicate and persistent. Find it here.

Carlo Noro 2020 “Collefurno” Cesanese IGP Lazio

Single-vineyard wine from volcanic red clay soils. Aged 10 months in used tonneaux with additional bottle aging. Brilliant ruby red with garnet undertones. Notes of ripe red and dark berries, interwoven with touches of violets, dried herbs and spices. Earthy and savory with plush tannins. Freshness, elegance and persistence all the way through. Find it here