Frascati: A washed-up wine wages roaring comeback

Just 15 short miles outside of Rome lies the Frascati wine district, whose vantage point midst the Castelli Romani (hills) overlook the "Eternal City."

Urban sprawl is a constant pressure and many would like to see the vineyards fall to upscale housing because of the incredible view. The drive to keep the hillsides green is a very real and hard-fought battle.

Frascati had its heyday in the 1980s and '90s. Quality made it the darling of the hip and happening wine world, but then consumer demand led to overproduction and this delicate white became increasingly light and neutral.

Now producers are trying to correct the errors of the past and resurrect both the quality and reputation of this endangered wine region.

"Our mission is to improve Frascati," stated Mauro Merz, winemaker for Fontana Candida. "By improving the wine, we increase the land value of the vineyards and urban sprawl doesn't win."

Fontana Candida is responsible for 40 percent of Frascati's total production. They own little land themselves, relying instead on the fruit produced by local grape growers.

"We're responsible for 210 families," Merz said. "We have to succeed."

Part of the problem lies with the malvasia de candia grape, a prolific producer that does not engender the best this variety has to offer. It's a component of the blend but one that gives top quantity vs. top quality. It was widely planted when consumers were screaming for the "house wine" of Rome but is currently being purposefully supplanted by the higher quality malvasia de Lazio in order to craft a better wine.

As testament to its age, the malvasia vine has multitudinous clones or variations. There are 10 different types of malvasia in Italy alone. It's an ancient grape that is believed to have originated in Asia Minor, and it takes its name from the Greek port of Monemvasia, from which it was shipped in great quantities long before the rise of the Roman Empire.

The good versions of this grape deliver a wine that is full in extract, acid and alcohol with a musk-scented perfume and nutty finish. It is this heritage that Frascati hopes to reclaim.

And it will succeed.

The Fontana Candia Luna Mater Frascati is a work of art and a true labor of love.

Merz refers to this wine as a "viticultural project" because Fontana Candia pulls only the best fruit from old vineyards to put into this bottling. Half the grapes are picked, crushed and given skin contact in order to deliver a wine with power and structure. The other half incorporates 3-5 percent whole berries into the vat (which macerates until the February after harvest) and exalts the floral/honeyed nature of malvasia. This modified carbonic maceration technique is labor intensive and expensive but it maximizes all the best qualities this grape has to offer.

"I had to come up with a name for the process in order to justify the expense of what we are doing in the winery," Merz said with a grin. "This wine is made by schiccolamento or berryfication."

And it's berry, berry good.

But be forewarned. It's not the Frascati you drank 10 years ago with its neutral whiff of pear and green apple fruit and touch of spritz. This wine absolutely explodes upon the palate in a riot of peach, honey and jasmine and finishes with a touch of nutmeg. It's almost viognier-esque. Dry but fruity. Intense but clean. and tantalizingly refreshing with layers of flavor.

The Fontana Candia Luna Mater Frascati 2009 ($23) is a whole new world for Frascati and it just might end up saving the old one.

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