The Conti family have been in the Anagni area for over 1,000 years – possibly longer – and the land that Antonello cultivates has been in the possession of the family for all that time, with one exception. The 13th century was a time when the family was exceptionally successful, numbering no less than three popes among their number and there was a fourth, Bonifaccio VIII, who was from the rival Caetani family (although his mother was a Conti). The Conti land was sold to the Caetani family at the time of Bonifacio’s pontificate, under circumstances that are not altogether understood. Clearly though, this was a matter that the family did not forget because over 500 years later, in 1845, they got it back. The farm, however, retains the name Caetanella.
It is here that Antonello grows that great grape of Lazio, Cesanese. From 16 hectares of vines he, together with resident viticulturist, oenologist, and sommelier, Rosalba Peppe, produces around 40,000 bottles of wine per year. His winery is small and traditional which is the way he likes it. It does in fact limit production so that some of his grapes he sells on but the Cesanese are all his. This is not an easy grape to work with and Antonello described it as his cross to bear. But when you work with it and understand it – and he has been producing wine since 2003 from vineyards that he planted himself – then you can make something very special indeed.
Antonello makes two DOCG Cesanese wines which he calls Romanico and Hernicus. The 2018 Hernicus has a deep ruby colour with the hints of garnet that you would expect from this grape. The wine is fermented on the skins for anything between 14 to 21 days, depending on the year, and it is then matured half in cement tanks and half in barriques of the third or fourth passo. This term means the barrel has been used two or three times before and so the wine can be safely left to mature as the majority of its flavours have passed through previous use. On the nose there is liquorice and also the leather of old books. On the palate there were none of the tannins I was expecting but Antonello explained that at 14.5% alcohol they tend to be hidden. The wine was dry with good acidity and accordingly I would pair it with lamb or perhaps steak.
The 2018 Romanico has a deep ruby colour with a little more garnet than the Hernicus. This is a wine that has been matured for 15 months in barriques of the first and second passo and it is, again, significant because this means the barrel still has a lot of flavour to give to the wine and so must be handled with care. The winemaker will keep a strict check on progress and may move the wine to an older barrel if he considers it necessary. On the nose there is vanilla that comes from the new barrels together with some tannins that, for me, gave a more balanced structure that I would pair with roast beef.
Lastly, I was privileged to sample a 2010 Romanico. Antonello explained that this was a good year weather-wise, with good rainfall at the right times, and plenty of sun. Here the colour was starting to assume more garnet that is the sign of age, with a bouquet, again, of liquorice and old leather. Age has mellowed the palate so now the tannins have rounded. There is a distinct alcoholic warmth which is not surprising when a glance at the label showed that it is 15.5% alcohol. For me this is a vino di meditazione, possibly to be enjoyed with a very mature parmesan.
On the subject of ageing, Antonello thinks his wines will continue to improve for four to five years after which they reach a plateau that they can maintain for at least ten years. All I can add after this tasting is that the words, sumptuous, luxurious, and full-bodied will stay with me whenever I think of his Cesanese wines.