Even in Italy it’s hard to find a place more drenched in history than the town of Frascati, located in the famous Castelli Romani just twelve miles south-east of Rome. Situated on the slopes of Monte Tuscolo in the Alban Hills, Frascati is famous for both its white wine and for the nearby Ville Tuscolane where wealthy and important Romans including Cicero had residences to escape the summer heat and the foetid masses in ancient Rome.
In these same hills today you can see the more lavish 16th century villas that more recent noble Romans built in late Renaissance and Baroque style. The photograph below is of the Villa Aldobrandini, one of the better examples of early Italian Baroque style. Also nearby is the former summer residence of Popes for centuries, Castel Gandolfo, acquired by the Vatican in 1596 when the owners defaulted on a debt to the Papacy. Since 2016 it has been a museum open to the public.
The Frascati white wine, which was one of the top selling imported wines in the US in 1989 only 15 years after it was first introduced, succumbed to greed and overproduction over most of the last 30 years with predictable results. “The prestige and quality of the wine went slowly down” said Fabrizio Santarelli in 2016, the owner of Castel De Paolis. Since he made that observation, Santarelli and the next generation of winemakers have been slowly turning this around but it happened during a period when a resurgence in quality was taking place in many of the other Italian wine growing regions so a reputation was lost by Frascati with both importers and American sommeliers that is taking time to rebuild.
Slowly turning around is perhaps understating the process because there was an article in Decanter Magazine in June 1998 stating that Frascati "looks set for a revival" and "could soon be entering the elite Italian wines". With the benefit of 23 years of hindsight that statement looks a little premature, but there is now solid evidence in your wine glass that improvements are in fact now underway.
Frascati should be capable of producing fragrant, refreshing wines with lots of minerality because the whole area is made up of volcanic soils and has a mild climate with adequate rainfall and good diurnal temperature range due to the 1,000+ feet altitude.
The other historical problem with quality was in the choice of grapes because Frascati has always been a blended wine and many producers took advantage of the Frascati DOC rules that allowed for, or in fact mandated, significant amounts of two white grape varieties that can often produce uninspiring wine: Malvasia Bianca di Candia and Trebbiano Toscano, the latter being perhaps one of the worst white wine grapes used in Italy as we've mentioned before. There was a solid commercial reason behind producers using large amounts of these two grapes in their Frascati, because they are easy to grow and have high yields, so the temptation was always present. However, Malvasia di Candia in the right hands with the appropriate vineyard practices is capable of producing good wine as the De Sanctis wine estate shows.
In 2011 common sense finally prevailed and the rules were made more flexible allowing for the superior grape, Malvasia Puntinata (alternatively known as Malvasia del Lazio), to be permitted at up to 70% either by itself or in combination with Malvasia di Candia in a Frascati DOCG wine (the extra 'G' qualification meaning garantita was also added in 2011 when these changes were made).
The aforementioned Decanter article was right about one thing however when it stated back in 1998 that "the most encouraging aspect of the current scene in Frascati is the energy of the top-end group of producers committed to premium quality".
Santarelli, for example, experimented for 8 years with over 15 different grape varieties and then replanted his entire 25 acres with the best combinations in the early 1990s. He rebuilt, enlarged and completely modernized the entire winery in 2005 and now produces 3 red wines, 3 white wines and a sweet wine.
The best grape varieties for Frascati, notwithstanding the detailed regulations which still permit a wide range of cultivars, would now clearly seem to be Bellone and Malvasia Puntinata, two white grapes that we covered in part 1 of this series on Lazio white wines. Again, as with many Italian wines, it's much more rewarding to pay attention to the winemaker than be overly concerned with the labelling and nowhere is this truer than in Lazio. With Frascati's reputation having been trashed for so long, some good producers resorted to using other more general denominations like Lazio IGT to avoid even mentioning the name Frascati but even this is now changing as a new emphasis on quality is taking hold.
Olivella - Racemo Bianco 2019 - Frascati Superiore DOCG
This is a relatively new operation founded in 1986 and this is their entry level organic wine. The blend is 50% Malvasia Puntinata, 20% Malvasia di Candia, with 20% Bellone and 10% Grechetto.
This is a simple but very pleasant, refreshing wine with floral aromas on the nose and good acidity. They've got the grape blend right and it's a well made wine if a little unexciting. At under 9 euros in Italy it's fairly priced but the Cincinnato wines and also the Principe Pallavicini below represent better value.
Principe Pallavicini - Frascati 2019 - Frascati DOC
(Aged in stainless steel, 13% alcohol)
The blend here is 70% Malvasia Puntinata with the remainder Greco and Trebbiano.
Pale straw yellow. A delightful and quite powerful nose of lychees and orange peel with a rich but dry flavor of citrus. This is a lovely wine and really quite impressive for less than 8 euros.
Principe Pallavicini - Poggio Verde 2019 - Frascati Superiore DOCG
(Aged in stainless steel, 13.5% alcohol)
A blend of 70% Malvasia Puntinata, 15% Greco and 15% Bombino.
Straw yellow. Lovely nose of white flowers, blossoms and citrus. Crisp and fresh with saline flavors but seems quite a light wine despite its 13.5% alcohol. Nice long finish of slightly bitter almonds. The second evening it had faded so this is not a wine to let sit around in the bottle for long. Not the best value at 13 euros.
De Sanctis - 496 Bio 2019 - Frascati Superiore DOCG
(Fermented and aged in stainless steel, 13% alcohol)
More color in the glass than some of the others. Quite powerful and very fragrant nose of pear, peach and yeast. Fresh, clean fruity flavors with good length and a very appealing slight bitterness in the finish. Very pleasant wine and excellent value at just under 10 euros in Italy.
Interesting that this wine is made from 70% Malvasia di Candia, supposedly the inferior of the two Malvasia cultivars, proving that if the yields are not pushed to excess then this grape can deliver quality.
Vigneto Filonardi - Villa Simone 2018 - Frascati Superiore Riserva DOCG
A blend of 70% Malvasia Puntinata, 20% Bombino Bianco and 10% other varieties.
Golden yellow. Understated nose of pear and citrus with floral notes. Soft, full and quite a mellow wine reflecting its riserva status. Lots of flavor and salinity with the acidity largely in the background. Well-made wine and just about worth the 13 euro price.
Castel De Paolis - Frascati 2018 - Frascati Superiore DOCG
(Fermentation in stainless steel, 13.5% alcohol)
A blend of 70% Malvasia Puntinata, 30% Bellone, Trebbiano and Bombino.
Pale straw yellow. Iodine, melon and white fruits on the nose. Follows through with just a touch of vanilla (no information on aging so perhaps some wood used) but nothing unpleasant or heavy. There is a richness and viscosity to this wine with apricot, apple and spices and there's a long, clean finish with notes of wet stones and minerals. This is a very well made wine with lots of nuances and perfectly in balance. The price unfortunately has been going up as the quality is gaining recognition. At 15 euros now it's a little overpriced and no longer a bargain.
The renovations to the cellar at Castel De Paolis (above photo) revealed ancient Roman water cisterns under the floor.