VINO, VIDI, VICI
Wine and life are virtually inseparable to Italians, writes, who explores their capital glass by glass
IN A SMALL crowded bar, halfway along a cobblestoned alley in the ancient centre of Rome, a group of customers are excitedly extolling the virtues of the contents of a bottle on the counter. “E buono, molto buono,” echoes the cry around the room as glasses clink. The source of the excitement is a previously untried wine produced on the slopes of Etna in Sicily. Wine lovers in Rome know that they’re on to a good thing and that they can find just about every wine produced in Italy in the small enotecas or wine bars.
The ancient Romans made wine a part of their culture and it has been highly valued ever since. Today, more than 1,000 different grape varieties are grown in Italy. But be warned, if you choose to tramp around Italy’s wine regions – from Veneto and Tuscany to Lazio and Sicily – you won’t necessarily be able to try the best that each area has to offer. If, however, you go straight to Rome, you can sample excellent wines from the north to the south of the country, and all within the city’s compact historic centre. The Roman enoteca is a wonderful place to start your quest for discovery and, as most wines are sold by the glass, you can dip into a few bottles in one night.
In Rome, many of these small establishments started out as shops selling both wine and olive oil, as Mario, the owner of the popular wine bar Angolo Divino, remembers. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says, “locals would pop in to buy home supplies and, while they chatted with the owner, they would sample a few small glasses of wine.” Regular customers were also offered a few slices of ham or cheese as a friendly gesture.
You’ll still find that food and wine go hand in hand in Italy, and that it’s uncommon to drink without something to nibble on. Today, in what were once simple establishments, you can buy tapas-style snacks or even more elaborate meals, while you work your way around the map of Italy enjoying the huge variety of wines. Bar owners such as Mario, who know their vintages, will guide you in matching the food with the drink. Part of the appeal is the informality of these small venues. You can pop in for a quick drink and a bite to eat, or make a night of it with a more substantial meal.
The humming Angolo Divino, just metres away from Campo dei Fiori, has hundreds of bottles stocked along its walls, representing the length and breadth of Italy’s wine production. The well-worn wooden bar is backed with elegant stemware, while at one end sits a glass display case containing a mouth-watering selection of Italian cheeses, including an impressive parmigiano, which can be served drizzled with chestnut-infused honey.
Although an extensive wine list is chalked up behind the bar, it’s best to talk to Mario – a trained sommelier – and allow him to guide you. You’ll appreciate his assistance; there are more than 700 varieties to choose from. A current favourite is Vigna Caselle Riserva 2000, produced in the southern region of Basilicata near Puglia, using Aglianico grapes. It has an excellent, well-rounded balance of tannins after maturing for 20 months in oak barrels, and tastes of red berries, spices and dark chocolate.
Just a short stroll away on the other side of Piazza dei Fiori is Il Goccetto, noted for its great wines from the Lazio region, as well as appetising salami and snacks, such as the stuffed red peppers, which owner Sergio will select depending on the wine you order. “I love travelling and discovering new wines, particularly little known gems of vintages from small villages,” he says. One of his recent discoveries is the delicious Merlot from the boutique Duca di Salaparuta winery in Sicily, where the soil around Etna brings out earthy aromas as well as vanilla and red-berry nuances in this delicious wine.
A relatively new concept in drinking and eating in Rome, Pastificio San Lorenzo is housed in a former pasta factory, just minutes from the busy Termini train station, and comprises a wine bar, art gallery, artists’ studios and crowd-pulling restaurant. Whatever your needs, you’ll find that this urban-styled venue hits the spot. Owner Flavio is thrilled at his venture’s success in just a few months. “I realised that Rome needed something new and fresh,” he says as we sit at the bar beside an impressive ’50s meat slicer. “I wanted to bring together my love of Italy’s finest wines as well as tasty regional dishes in a modern atmosphere that reflected the heritage of the building and this area of Rome.
Pastificio San Lorenzo’s informal, white-painted wine lounge has large armchairs and quirky, retro-style furniture softly lit by standing lamps. Near the bar are high, leather-topped stools, perfect for perching on while sampling the excellent ham that’s shaved in paper-thin slices. The wine list is chalked up on a mirror above the bar; Flavio and his partner Antonio know their wines and will make sure that you try something interesting. “Popular wines at the moment are the new vintages from the northern region of Veneto, such as Arcole, which comes from just south of Verona and is a crisp white with a full, fruity flavour,” says Flavio.
Of course, while the small bars are fun, you can also visit the upmarket haunts and enjoy wine in grand style. Along the tree-lined Via Veneto there are beautiful places where the clients look as if they have stepped straight out of the pages of Vogue. The Westin Excelsior’s H Club>Doney is the epitome of Italian style and glamour. Its plush interior is a mix of purple velvet and silk, with deep-buttoned leather sofas, all set off with modern art. The wine cellar is the pride of one of Rome’s best sommeliers, Massimo Azzurro, who personally buys and deals with the wine producers. Relax with a glass of red or white served in elegant crystal stemware by the young attentive waiters. The mood is perfect for romance. With such a discerning clientele, you can be sure that the vintages served here are among the best in Italy; wines to look out for include the white Vermentina from Sardinia and the Sangiovese-like red Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany.
Rome has been built on again and again for more than 2,000 years, but the Di Vino private cellar and wine bar in the St Regis Grand Hotel has walls that once formed part of Diocletian’s 4th-century Roman baths. Descend the spiral staircase into the depths of the building to enjoy a glass or two of Barolo 1989, produced from Nebbiolo grapes; this is a wine definitely for the connoisseur. Considered the king of wines by some, it’s a deep garnet colour with a fragrant bouquet that’s thick and complex. Some vintages are flowery with traces of violets and roses, while others are fruity with traces of liquorice and oak, and a big, bold finish.
A short walk from the Villa Borghese and gardens, at the top of the Via Veneto, stands Harry’s Bar, an emblematic watering hole that has been attracting the rich and famous for more than 50 years. Although open for lunch and dinner, it’s later in the night that the wood-panelled interior and open-air terrace really come alive. For enthusiasts of the grape there are countless bottles to try, but a good start is the fruity white Friuli from the Venice region. It’s perfect on a warm evening, when sitting around with friends. Add a selection of scampi and lobster and it’s la dolce vita. If your taste is for something red, don’t miss the excellent 2005 Merlot Borgo Conventi, which has a warm velvety aroma and lingers beautifully on the palate.
Rome holds many secrets, and its wine bars are just one. With good food in your stomach and great wine in the glass, you’ll be enjoying one of Europe’s best wine destinations.
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