For most people beyond the boundaries of Ciociaria and Rome, the Cesanese del Piglio grape is still a mystery, an idiosyncracy of Lazio whose history is a small paragraph in the stories of Italian grapes and thriving viniculture.
For many, the wines of Lazio are represented by the Frascati whites of the Castelli Romani, more known for quaffing in pizzerias and taverns around Rome and Italian restaurants around the world.
But to the people of the Strada Del Cesanese (the Cesanese road), the local Cesanese grape has always had its majesty, an importance that was recognised in 2008 with the award of the DOCG imprimatur, the first and one of only three in Lazio.
Cesanese has given credibility to Lazio’s expanding wine culture. The vineyards are spread over the hillsides of a few small towns mainly north and south of Piglio, its traditional home (despite the fact that the village of Piglio sits on a spur well above the vineyards).
Yet Piglio valley has been a grape growing and wine producing area since the Etruscan era, and in the Roman era it is first recorded in 133 BC. The agricultural skills of the Romans in Lazio are well recorded and the somewhat ‘poor’ iron bearing red soils based on eroded tufa stone were recognised as ideal for this medium bodied red.
The DOCG area, which encompasses villages of Piglio, Acuto, Affile, Serrone and the towns of Paliano and Anagni, is sheltered by Monte Scalambra and the hills of Paliano and Anagni. The vineyards tend to face southwest and are exposed to a generally temperate climate except during the drought periods of mid-summer when the fruit starts to ripen. Fortunately frost is rare, though ‘temporale’ late summer storms with hail can wreak havoc with the vines. Harvesting of Cesanese is late in the season to give the grape its ‘time in the sun’, otherwise the resulting wine may be too thin for the connoisseur.
There are two subvarieties of Cesanese: Common and d’Affile (with origins in the town of Affile). The notes associated with Cesanese define that it ‘tends to offer fine aromas of forest floor, mulberry, blueberry, violet and juniper. Warmth, balance and elegant tannins also characterize the wines. Pairing possibilities include potato gnocchi, polenta and sausage, pork ribs, abbacchio (lamb) or sheep stew’.
But let’s take a tour along the Strada del Cesanese and find Piglio where from 30 September to 2 October is being held the annual (43rd) Grape Festival, over 2000 years since its founding.
Starting from the north, at Monti Affilani with the town of Affile, the original named home of the Cesanese grape, towards the south you pass the village of Serrone, which offers a splendid view over the valley and is now best known for ‘volo libero’ from the peaks above the village.
Serrone is also the meeting point for the way from Paliano, the hillside town that Marcantonio Colonna selected for his castle and palace, that having subsequently been stripped by Napoleon’s troops of even its door handles, was resurrected as a gaol and still carries forward that function, one however, that does not hinder the growth of Cesanese on the lower slopes around the town.
The journey from Serrone continues towards Fiuggi with the diversion up the hill to Piglio. The old town of Piglio sits in a crescent or horseshoe shape reminding the English visitor of a medieval version of the streets of Bath. Geographically it occupies a rocky spur on the western slope of Mount Scalambra, the environmental protector of this area.
From Piglio further towards Fiuggi we find Acuto, marking the eastern boundary of the area of the Cesanese del Piglio DOCG production. Coming from the south, the territory is bounded by Anagni the “City of Popes”, a city of art, rich in medieval monuments, among them being the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, one of the most beautiful of Lazio: the extraordinary frescoes of the fourteenth century. preserved in its crypt giving it the nickname “Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages”.
But the weekend of the end of September marks the time to stroll through the old town of Piglio, sample the grapes and sip last year’s vintage of the famous Cesanese del Piglio DOCG.