I admit I was skeptical when Lars Leicht, director of communications at Banfi Wine, contacted to say he was bringing a winemaker Mauro Merz of Fontana Candida into town. He said he had “some very exciting newly released Frascatis to show” at a tasting he had planned at Steel. I’ve always considered wines from Frascati, a white wine region on the outskirts of Rome, as bland (when I was not drinking Pinot Grigio that is).
I visited the source over a decade ago to see if they tasted better before they were shipped. My companion and I wandered down an alleyway off one of the streets in the quaint town of Frascati and into an Osteria with a wooden door so heavy you could give yourself a hernia trying to open it. Inside, we settled for a plate of antipasti and Frascati. We knew the wine was local because it was poured from a huge barrel that was one of many set along one wall. It was served in a simple jug, from which we poured it into tumblers. This vineous enigma was dispensed without such fluffery as a name or a vintage. It was just made locally, probably by a co-op, and was what the clientele expected. I had many glorious Italian wines on that trip, but Frascati was not one of them. I didn’t dislike it, it was just totally bland.
Jump for my conversion to a believer.
I signed up for the tasting, which took place at Steel, and had the most educational tasting of the year. Winemaker Mauro Merz of Fontana Candida (a wine Banfi acquired in 2008) has the untrammeled innovativeness of a California chef combined with the discipline of an orchestra lead violinist. The disciplines he imposes on himself are keeping the source grapes strictly from the Frascati DOC (soon DOCG) designated area and using only the traditionally approved varieties. Legally, he can cut the wine with “international varieties.” Decoded, that means Chardonnay. But he won’t. He believes there is an authentic Frascati identity and he aims to make the best example of it. His innovation comes from the techniques he uses in the grape growing and the winemaking processes to deliver that character. He pays growers by quality metrics, such as sugar level, rather than by weight. The small growers (over 100 of them, with vineyards typically less than five acres) earn more if they can sell to Fontana Candida, but, to do so, they have to meet the quality bar. He ages wine in Acacia barrels, a vinicultural practice about as rare as Central Expressway moving at 60 mph in the rush hour.
The results show in the bottle. We started with a simple wine, the 2011 Fontana Candida Frascati Superiore, as a basis for comparison. It had a light nose with lemony aromas, good acid, and light-medium body in the mouth with medium fruit intensity. Fairly typical and what I had expected and a good match with the sushi we paired it with later at Steel. The next wine, a 2011 Fontana Candida Frascati Terre Dei Grifi filled in the gaps in the first wine. The nose was now piquant with citrus notes. The taste added a nuttiness and hints of honeydew melon. Plus this wine had a longer finish. The change started from the source of the grapes. Terre Dei Griffi is one of the best terroirs for grape growing in Frascati. It continued with a fermentation that was extended by the addition of a special yeast culture to an already ongoing fermentation to achieve higher alcohol levels. Aging starts with the wine on the yeasts for four months to extract more flavor and complexity. This wine represents the peak of traditional Frascati. Two more wines like this formed the first part of our tasting, making for facts-on-the-ground regarding traditional Frascati being an interesting wine.
The next four wines might be thought of as the product of Merz’s skunk works. A vertical of Fontana Candida Luna Mater Frascati from 2007 until 2011. Mauro claims he is refining tradition but some will say that that is as disingenuous as Kandinsky claiming to be a portraitist. Merz hand harvests grapes and splits the yield. Half goes into a cold soak to produce a non-oxidative aromatic wine. The other half was de-stemmed, cooled and fermented in contact with the skins to extract varietal character. A few days later, a third hand picking is popped whole off the stems and added to the fermenting must to add flavor and aroma. The result is a wine with more body, fuller flavor, and greater complexity than the first flight. The Frascati lineage is clear, but Merz makes a Frascati the way that Kandinsky may have painted a grape, with considerable license. For me, this new style is an improvement and helps put Frascati back in my wine budget.
Fontana Candida wines are available around town and most sell for less than $20.