Castelli Romani is the DOC title for wines from the hills just south-east of Rome, in central Italy's Lazio region. It is named after the 14 Castelli Romani, a group of hillside and lakeside villages in the Colli Albani hills, which once played host to the nobility of ancient Rome during the summer months. The most famous of these (in wine terms at least) is Frascati.
Because of their hillside location, the Castelli Romani villages enjoy a slightly cooler, fresher climate than the campagna romana plain below. They have long been a preferred summer retreat for the inhabitants of Rome, just 15 miles (25km) away. Even today, they remain one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations, and one of the villages, Castel Gandolfo, houses the Pope's summer residence. It is not just human beings who favor this climate over the stifling environs of Rome in summer; the vines here provide much crisper, more balanced wines than could ever be produced on the hot, dry, alluvial plain below.
These villages became known as the Castelli Romani in the 14th Century, when they provided refuge from the economic and political struggles that dogged Rome at that time. The struggles were the result of the Avignon Papacy, when Pope Clement V (the Frenchman after whom Chateau Pape Clement in Graves is named) moved the papal seat to Avignon, France, where it remained from 1309 to 1378. This move caused significant rifts between the papacy and Rome and came to represent the struggle for power between the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire.
With the cooling influences of altitude, and of the Tyrrhenian Sea 12 miles (20km) to the west, the finer Castelli Romani vineyards can theoretically produce wines of high quality. In practice, however, quantity has long been favored over quality here, the result of the near-insatiable market provided by Rome. This tradition is manifested in the high-yielding tendone vine-training system used, and the relaxed yield limits given by the DOC laws. Fortunately, about three-quarters of the vineyard area here is planted in fertile, volcanic soils which allow for such high yields. These are the remnants of the extinct volcano that once dominated the landscape here.
The Castelli Romani white wines are predominantly still and dry, although a few sparkling (spumante) styles are produced, and even the occasional sweet wine in the style of Cannellino di Frascati. They are made mostly from Malvasia and Trebbiano, the classic central Italian white-wine blend.
The red wines here are dominated by a blend equally typical of central Italy: Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Although not originally Italian, Merlot maintains its foothold in Italy, and is very popular here, particularly as a blending partner for Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Less common, but arguably more interesting, is the local Cesanese, a variety which performs particularly well just inland from the Castelli Romani, in Affile and Piglio.