Damiano Ciolli and Letizia Rocchi are an unusual couple – at first glance, they may look like humble folks who vinify Cesanese roughly in their country-house’s basement, but they have studied a lot before taking the reins of Damiano ’s parents’ winery, and possess an extensive knowledge of viticulture and winemaking. Otherwise, they would have never managed to revive Cesanese di Olevano Romano, an emerging wine that is slowly overcoming the stereotypes and prejudices that tarnish the reputation of the wines of Lazio.
A native of Olevano Romano, a tiny village in the outskirts of Rome, Damiano Ciolli started his career as a vintner and winemaker almost by chance. In his teenage years, he had no intention to follow his father’s and grandfather’s steps, and didn’t really enjoy the bulk wine his family used to sell to a shop in Rome. He only developed an interest for wine when his long-time friend Mauro Mattei attended a sommelier course, and started working for Sora Maria e Arcangelo, Olevano’s most famous trattoria (Mauro would then become the head sommelier at the 3-star Michelin establishment Piazza Duomo in Alba).
Mauro introduced Damiano to fine wine, and encouraged him to take winemaking seriously. Together, they started visiting wine regions across Europe, and ended up in Burgundy, where Damiano first sensed how he could revive the Cesanese di Olevano Romano.
Damiano finally took the reins of the family estate between the late 90s and early 2000s. Shortly thereafter, he uprooted all the Trebbiano vines his father had planted to make large volumes of bulk white wine, and planted Cesanese. Meanwhile, he recovered his grandfather’s fifty year old Cesanese plot, from which he will then produce Cirsium, the winery’s Riserva.
In those same years, Damiano’s girlfriend Letizia trained as a winemaker, and traveled all around the world to deepen her knowledge of the field. Letizia first studied oenology at the University of Viterbo “La Tuscia”, near Rome, and then in Turin and Bordeaux. Later on, she did a Phd at Stellenbosch University, and worked as a consultant in Columbia Valley, Rioja and Sauternes before coming back to Olevano Romano.
A crucial step in the genesis of the winery is the transition towards biodynamic agriculture. Everything began when Letizia, who has always been a fierce naturopath, refused to join his colleagues in a protest against the holding of a conference on biodynamics. Rather than opposing what most winemakers at the time considered “pure wizardry”, she decided to start experimenting those practices. “I have always used naturopathic medicine to treat illnesses – she affirms – why should I have protested against the use of natural products in agriculture?!”
Damiano and Letizia released their first wine in 2001. “ Olevano boasts a millennium-old viticultural tradition – explains Letizia – each family here has its own vineyard. The problem, though, is that back in 2001, most families sold the wine in bulk on the Roman market. There were only three bottlers in this area – including us – when we released our first wines. Today Olevano Romano houses a dozen young producers. We work as consultants for many of them.”
Of course, most of the aforementioned young vintners took inspiration from Damiano and Letizia’s unforeseeable achievements. The couple conquered both conventional and natural wine lovers, obtained excellent reviews from wine critics, and accomplished the hardest goal for any producer from Lazio: going beyond the Roman market, proving that the wines are by no means rustic and uncomplicated, convincing importers – who often overlook this region – that they can fit into New York’s and Tokyo’s greatest wine lists.
Obviously, none of these objectives was achieved by chance. In fact, Damiano and Letizia have a very specific winemaking philosophy – they want their wines to be at once uncompromising and devoid of any flaws. “ You must be very proficient in winemaking in order to produce great natural wines – states Letizia – you can’t simply improvise and hope for the best!”
From the vines to the cellar
The eruptions of the “Vulcano Laziale”, the crater of which now houses the beautiful Albano Lake, have shaped the volcanic soils of Olevano Romano. Damiano and Letizia’s vineyards extend over those reddish lands rich in clay for around 6 hectares. Only half an hectare lies, instead, on the limestone soils found in the quadrant of the township that stretches down to the mountains that separate Lazio from Abruzzo. I ask Letizia if she has ever considered producing a limited edition label from that small plot. She replies that they’ve been thinking about that, but they don’t want to produce too many wines from such a small property.
The vineyards are treated with copper and… seaweeds! Yes, that’s right! seaweeds from the Atlantic Ocean that they spray over the vines to fight fungal diseases without using sulfur, which is far more polluting. That goes along with biodynamic preparations. “ Biodynamic practices aren’t innovative for us. Our grandfathers used similar tools before the advent of industrial viticulture.”
An old fiberglass tank is the only relic left of Damiano’s father’s old cellar. Even though they don’t use it anymore, they keep it in the corner of their garage cellar. Over the years, they have replaced those tanks with both concrete and stainless steel vats. According to Letizia, the steel vats help retain the acidity and fruit of Cesanese, while the concrete ones enhance the mineral character. The estate’s unoaked wine Silene spends one year in those containers (about 50-50). By contrast, the single-vineyard Cirsium ferments in concrete, and then ages for about 24 months in large oak casks. Four years ago, the couple also started experimenting with two native white varieties. “ In 2016, we produced a single cask of white wine from the local Trebbiano Verde and Ottonese grapes. Our initial intent was to sell it all in bulk to local customers, but the friends and colleagues who tasted it from the cask found it so good that they literally begged us to bottle it. So we bottled our first white wine and called it Botte 22 (Cask 22). What makes it special is that we never rack it. It ferments and ages in the same cask.”
Finally, I guess I should point out that the couple only employs native yeasts, avoids filtration etc. I believe, though, that all of that is taken for granted when someone claims he or she produces natural wine.
Silene 2019: Tasted from concrete tank, Damiano and Letizia’s entry level Cesanese offers a youthful array of tart red berries, violets, a hint of animal musk, and a touch of flint. The medium-bodied palate is taut and subtle. Super-silky tannins frame the mid-palate, and then give way to saline undertones on the medium-long finish. Critics and professionals often argue this is the couple’s most compelling wine, but this time the 2018 Cirsium strikes me as especially captivating. Anyways, this is the one of the most easy-drinking Cesanese you’ll come across.
Cirsium 2019: Also tasted from concrete tank. The aroma profile is somewhat similar. Here as well I find fresh flowers and tart berries, but the palate is more textural, and, most important of all, varietal hints of spices and dried herbs appear after a couple swirls. The tannins are equally refined, and a lovely touch of yellow peach defines the long(er) finish. I honestly hope the difference in terms of complexity will be starker in the long run…
Cirsium 2018: Tasted from cask. According to Letizia, this is the best wine they have ever made, and I guess she’s right. Exotic, Pinot noiresque aromas of blood orange, dusty minerals and oriental spices literally roll out of the glass as I swirl it. The tannins are impeccable, the mid-palate is loaded with seductive flavors of cranberry and redcurrant, and the finish stuns with suave echoes of balsam herbs framed by mineral undertones. This is by the far the most flamboyant – and one of the most refined – Cesanese I have ever tasted.
Botte 22 2018. Also tasted from cask. Notes of cinnamon, toffee and saffron reminiscent of Oaked Chard dominate both the nose and palate, and yet there’s plenty of underlying acidity, and a bright mineral element that counterbalances the creamy, honeyed flavors on the long finish. This wine is wildly different from any other white currently produced in this region – except maybe for Sergio Mottura’s Latour a Civitella. Served blind, it could be mistaken for Meursault from a low intervention winery.