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The Cesanese Wine Resurgence

Cesanese, an unknown Italian wine gem

Anyone over the age of 30 likely recalls the Pinot Noir mania of the early-2000’s. Sideways, an independent film released in 2004 about a trip through a Southern California wine region, turned the established wine world on its head by creating a craze amongst the common consumer over Pinot Noir.One of the most noble of wine-producing grapes on the planet, with a centuries-old aristocratic reputation, became a laymen’s demand overnight. California producers scrambled to find surplus stocks as far away as Corsica to supplement cheap bottlings that they could sell to the everyday consumer trading up from Budweiser. At the same time, oddly, quietly, an unknown Italian gem – more specifically, a Roman gem – was being reborn.

Historical Background and Revival of Cesanese

In the mid-to-late-nineties, thanks to the resurgence of young Italians returning to the land, returning to the country from the city, many virtually abandoned regions and indigenous varietals saw a sudden surge in care, plantation, and quality production. One in particular, indigenous to the tiny Roman commune of Affile, saw not only a resurgence, but a restyling. Cesanese went from quaffable, sweet, and slightly piquant, to dry, structured, elegant, aromatic…aristocratic.Anthropological evidence backs the Roman roots of the grape, and history shows us evidence of its presence in wine production to at least as far back as the Roman Empire, but stylistically it was something simple and sweet.After the sacking of Rome during the Gothic Wars of the fifth century, production plummeted with the heavily reduced citizenry. Any qualitative elements that existed made way for quantity – the remaining population took bulk, cheap, and easy over anything else.

As winemaking, and glass production techniques increased, the simple, watery wines took on a spritz, aiding in their drinkability. By the late nineties, after decades of loss in demand combined with the grape’s difficult, finicky growth patterns, Cesanese was on its way to extinction as plantings diminished to under 400 hectares.

Characteristics of Finicky Grapes and Cesanese's Potential

Finicky grapes produce the finest wines in the world. Grapes like Chardonnay, Grenache, Riesling, Merlot, and maybe the most beguiling of all, Pinot Noir, all share difficult growing patterns, wild sensitivities to disease, and the odd, almost masochistic tendency to shine when grown at the absolute precipice of success or failure – environments where virtually nothing else would succeed, they shine.Aided by man’s hand, they develop into something that could not be achieved without his or her anthropogenic aid. Enter Cesanese: a grape susceptible to vine disease, exacerbated by a late, long growth cycle, born in the craggy hillsides of the Affilani Mountain Range – a seemingly perfect candidate for an elevated experimentation.As young winemakers revived and replanted the hillside vineyards of Cesanese that graced the southern fringes of Rome and northern Frosinone, along with improving viticultural and vinicultural techniques, wine lovers slowly and quietly began to catch on.

The same year as the release of Sideways, American Porn Star, Savana Samson, was the unlikely candidate to introduce the outside world – most importantly the US market – to the grape. After tasting 80-plus wines, a Cesanese-based blend seduced her into creating her own wine label.

A laudable public reception followed a glowing review by one of the wine world’s most popular critics at the time. Knowledge and reception to the grape outside of Italy has slowly and steadily grown since then, and plantings of the vine have followed suit, more than doubling.

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Variants and Cultivation Challenges of Cesanese

Outside of the characteristic “finickiness” shared among the best wine grapes, other elements shared are structure (generally speaking, acidity and/or tannins) as well as a certain transparency – an ability to translate a sense of place into the wines they create.As far as the grape nobility previously mentioned, these characteristics might be most prominently recognized in the wines produced from Pinot Noir. Cesanese not only shares these characteristics, but also an uncanny similarity to the attractive and aristocratic Pinot Noir, while still remaining distinctly Italian.The grape itself has been identified as three separate siblings: Affile, Comune, and Nostrano. The most noble is Affile.

With over 30 variants – something that only develops over an extensive period – the Affile variant is also, most certainly, the oldest of the three. Comune covers the most ground, quite frankly because it is the easiest to grow, and Nostrano is such a recent discovery that there is no real acceptable assessment of its distinguishing characteristics. While Affile and Comune produce very similar wines, those from Affile are more structured aiding in their potential ability to age.

In general, the Cesanese grape ripens late, leading to its difficulty, as the seasons edge towards fall rains and waning daytime hours.

When the grape is cultivated to full ripeness, the wines produced are driven by aromas of ripe cherry, mulberry, red and purple floral tones, and unmistakable Mediterranean herbal tinges. On the palate much of the same shines through in a bone-dry structure, the ripeness only being felt in the aromas.

There is nothing sweet about this newly elevated expression of Cesanese. It also has quite the ability to display its sense of place via a transparent expression of soil structure and microclimate, which will be discussed briefly below with the regions. The grapes themselves contain enough tannin structure that there is little to no need to introduce the wine to oak – the only other source of tannins in wines. As of now, there has been little experiment with ageing. Since this new style of Cesanese is barely 30-years old, the jury is still out on how the wines will benefit from such treatment, but there are exciting early speculations.

Distinct Regions and Soil Influence on Cesanese

Further comparisons to the noble Pinot Noir are becoming evident as regional, and site-specific research continues to materialize. Three regions have been established around what is the historical birthplace of Cesanese: Cesanese di Affile DOC, Cesanese di Olevano Romano DOC, and Cesanese del Piglio DOCG.Affile and Olivano Romano fall within the province of Rome, while Piglio is in the northern hillsides of the province of Frosinone. Olivano Romano and Piglio are contiguous and therefore share a similar volcanic subsoil. Affile is separated by a small inland hill chain and has a soil mostly consisting of iron-rich clays.Cesanese di Affile is by far the highest in elevation, with vineyards up to 900 meters above sea level (masl). Aromatics and acidity are more pronounced because of the higher location of the vineyards. The altitude also plays into the tannin structure as this element in the grape only develops with a lengthy growing season.

The already late-ripening Cesanese, further slowed by the higher elevations around Affile, showcases a firmer structure which is even further aided by the iron-oxide rich clay soils. Not surprisingly the Affile variant of Cesanese dominate the plantings and subsequent wines here.

Olevano Romano and Piglio are both planted to all three siblings of Cesanese, at between 200 and 600 masl, but have variations in certain soil strata that influence the final wines. Olevano has sand. Piglio has strata of both sandstone and pumice.

The shared volcanic subsoil shines through the wines in both areas but the sands in Olevano Romano create a softer, lighter, more elegant wine, while the complexities of Piglio are still being defined and subdivided on a level that could one day approach the variations we find today with Pinot Noir in its homeland of Burgundy, central France.

Outside of the varying soils of the Cesanese del Piglio DOCG, a multitude of expositions on difficult terrain are continuing to be analyzed on a more fragmented site-specific level.

As may be deduced, it is also the most difficult of the three regions to manage viticulturally, leading towards the presumption that those masochistic elements of the best wine grapes in the toughest areas will produce the best examples of Cesanese wines here. With the high-quality treatment of Cesanese still relatively new, it will be interesting to see how all three areas continue to evolve and display their unique subtleties.

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The Cesanese Wine Resurgence

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