28 April 2011

n.d.p. in roma: yes, we have no cesanese: maccheroni

On our final night in Rome our friend / host B made it back to town, having been pulled away by conflicting business and family obligations. He brought us to a spot he frequents in the old city called Maccheroni.

It is one of those restaurants where food quality - fine enough, perfectly satisfying - is very much secondary to the lovely terrace atmosphere and the jocular hospitality of the service. But even here - at a restaurant very plainly not aiming for wine-geek clientele - there is a section of the wine list devoted entirely to wines from Lazio, featuring a few reliably excellent producers, notably Casale della Ioria and Sergio Mottura. I was pleased to see that even in Lazio - a justifiably underrated wine region - the stars got their credit at Rome's restaurants.

Only, none of the wines were available. Not just the two producers I mention above - almost none of the entire Lazio page of the wine list, fully half the entire list. It got ridiculous. There I was, the tourist, reaching supreme exasperation because I was unable to get ahold of one of the most dislikeable acidic bitchface red grapes in Italy, demanding of the genial staff in English, "Are you telling me you have no Cesanese in the entire restaurant? What about all this Cesanese listed here? Don't tell me there was some kind of mad run on Cesanese recently."

In the end the server managed to turn up an inexpensive basic 2009 Cesanese by Principe Palavicini, a multi-estate domaine owned by a noble Roman family, whose wines I've historically avoided, simply because they produce an enormous, commercially ambitious range that includes many non-native varietals like Syrah, Merlot, Petit Verdot, etc. Part of this is just small-producer political / hipster instinct; on the other hand it's pretty reasonable to expect wines from smaller producers to be on the whole riskier, more interesting, more idiosyncratic, less consistent, less generic, less market-savvy than their incorporated counterparts. In this sense the search for typicity and quality in wine-drinking is often inseparable from the desire to support the little guys.

That said, I give any estate credit for simply producing Cesanese. It really is an eminently unfriendly grape varietal: high acid, tannic, with a raspy, brittle sort of fruit. It is like a table companion who keeps standing up to make points in conversation; you can't relax around it one bit.

Some bufala topped with landslides of salty bottarga.
Cesaneses, accordingly, fascinate me. Not because I enjoy them very much, but because I enjoy the thought exercise they present, as I attempt to situate the wines within the greater culture of Lazio, Rome, and the regions cuisine. What on earth would inspire generation after generation to continue producing such a beast of a grape? I'd submit that Cesanese is comparable to Aligoté in Burgundy: a non-noble varietal whose widespread production belies its laughably limited potential.* I have, however, had fairly profound versions of both grapes in the past, and applaud their continued production like I would applaud any perverse or counterintuitive commercial strategy. Right on, folks! Stay weird.

This particular Cesanese was, as the saying goes, nothing to write home about. Steel aged, sourced from 35 year old fines, raspy and blackfruited, acid as all get-out, the best thing you could say about it was that despite its large scale production, it remained admirably rugged. Maybe Cesanese is the zebra of Italian ampelography: compelling, disagreeable, famously resistant to domestication.

There remains the mystery of why on earth Maccheroni would present a wine list that falsely purports to heavily feature local wines. The rest of the list was mostly familiar Tuscan names, all of which I suspect sell in immeasurably greater volumes than the weirdo Lazio unknowns. I can only presume that little by little the restaurant just ceased reordering the Lazio wines, and tourists ask for them so rarely that the wine list was never changed - the management just left it there, a touchingly hollow show of regional pride.

Image jacked from bagnidilucca.wordpress.com.
* The key difference being that in Burgundy Aligoté plays a distant supporting role - a walk-on, really - to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Whereas Lazio's Cesanese is arguably the region's most distinctive native varietal. 

44, Piazza delle Coppelle
00186 ROME
Tel: +39 066 8307895

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Roma: Obikà
N.D.P. in Roma: Da Enzo
N.D.P. in Roma: Freni e Frizioni
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Restaurant
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Bakery
N.D.P. in Roma: The Jerry Thomas Project

A really surfacey uneducated gloss on Principe Pallavicini @ ItalianNotebook
A more engaged tasting of Principe Pallavicini wines @ AltaCucinaSociety

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