I have a warm, soft spot for Cesanese d’Affile. This lesser-known red varietal from Lazio really resonates with me for a number of reasons. Cesanese has a particularly deep-red translation of soil to fruit, as well as an herbal-tinged flavor profile and a texture that strangely reminds me of a rustic pinot noir. Sounds delicious, right? It is. Think plums, pomegranates, and cranberries, combined with floral aromas of juniper and spice.
Cesanese is quite versatile at the table, able to stand up to heartier roasted meat dishes (think leg of lamb or porchetta) while also able to handle simpler fare like cheese and olives. You can put a little chill on it, too, if the weather warrants such a thing. I might even go out on a limb and say Cesanese d’Affile is one of the more versatile red grapes out there. This late-ripening varietal is equally at home with pizza, anything tomato-centric, garlic aioli, or just a hunk of cheese and a beloved companion.
Cesanese d’Affile thrives in the red, volcanic hills of Olevano Romano, a commune just southeast of Rome by about 25 or so miles. (There is also a distinct, larger-berried clone found in this region, known as Cesanese Comune, which doesn’t quite possess Cesanese d’Affile’s complexity or refinement, but might be used to add richness to a blend.) This is hillside and even mountainous country by some standards. The 450 meters of elevation and a wide diurnal temperature variation (the shift from daytime high to nighttime low) give these wines an incredible lift, both aromatically and on the palate.
My absolute favorite examples of Cesanese d’Affile come from Damiano Ciolli and his partner, Letizia Rocchi. The Ciolli family vineyards sit in a natural amphitheater with a southerly exposure and include seven hectares of Cesanese d’Affile, with some of the vines being close to 70 years old. They craft two incredible bottlings, both from 100 percent Cesanese d’Affile: the younger-vine, concrete-aged Silene and the old-vine, oak-aged Cirsium riserva. Silene and Cirsium are names of local wildflowers that grow abundantly between the vines. These wines are so honest and pure; they bring immense pleasure every time I drink them.
Speaking of undiscovered red varietals from Italy, we have some intriguing options currently in the shop:
2018 Vignai da Duline Schioppettino
From Venezia Giulia, this is a gorgeous wine with subtlety and elegance. Wonderfully black-fruited and earth-driven, with notes of plum and spice, it’s eminently drinkable, yet serious and thought provoking.
2017 Tasca Tenuta Regaleali Perricone ‘Guarnaccio’
This obscure Sicilian red grape, sometimes compared to barbera, deserves more attention. It leans toward the darker side of the flavor spectrum, with a bit more of an earthy edge.
2019 Chessa Cagnulari
A new addition to our inventory comes from Sardinia, and it offers an herbaceous, dark-fruited intensity buoyed by a chord of smoke-tinged salinity. Fire up the lamb and fennel stew!