Wine enthusiasts of a certain age will remember the Chianti bottle encased in a fiasco, otherwise known as a straw flask. It was as ubiquitous as the red-checked tablecloth in Italian restaurants of the 1960s. A typical wine list in a neighborhood Italian restaurant of that era would feature several Chianti in fiasco, a token Bardolino, a token Valpolicella, a token soave and a token pinot grigio.
Better Italian restaurants would class up their wine lists with a Frascati, the delicious white wine produced from various clones of malvasia, trebbiano and greco grown in the hilly vineyards outside of Rome. Frascati in its heyday was the most popular of the Italian white wines sold in the United States.
Over time that warm embrace turned into a cold shoulder, as the Frascati region became a victim of its own success.
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a boom, and we couldn't keep up with demand," said winemaker Mauro Merz of Fontana Candida on a recent visit to the U.S. "Grape growers began to focus on quantity over quality."
The result was an inferior product that was light and uninteresting and prone to premature oxidation, or browning. Frascati as a premium Italian wine became a relic of a bygone era.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, when Frascati still had its soul, the emphasis was on quality," Merz added.
Fontana Candida, which produces nearly half of the Frascati made, was as guilty as anyone, accepting mediocre grapes from its many growers, as Frascati began its descent into irrelevance. Merz, who joined Fontana Candia in 2001, has been the catalyst in the effort to rejuvenate the region and restore a modicum of Frascati's lost prestige.
"The area has great potential," Merz said. "The challenge was to bring up the value of Frescati. The mission we've been on is to raise the quality level and improve the image of Frascati."
Toward that end Merz has been both an innovator and a cheerleader, exhorting growers to lower yields and raise healthier grapes. With the city limits of Rome beginning to encroach upon the vineyard lands of Frascati, establishing the future potential of Frascati as an important and historic wine region has been vital.
"In 2005 we started a report card on the grapes," said Merz. "So those who did better work in the vineyard made more money on their grapes. Then we started having meetings with our growers to explain what our goals were. They weren't used to anyone speaking to them about the quality of the grapes. They believed that all of the magic in the wine was from the winemaker.The winemaker, they thought, could work miracles."
That same year Fontana Candida introduced Luna Mater (meaning Mother Moon) as a prestige wine in its portfolio; the goal was to create a wine that exhibited the quality potential of Frascati made from top-notch grapes and benefiting from Merz's innovative winemaking techniques.
Luna Mater was modeled after the single-vineyard Frascati Santa Teresa, that rare Frascati that is capable of improving with additional age in the cellar.
"We're not saying that you should age Frascati," said Merz. "But we are suggesting you can if the wine is well made from healthy grapes."
Merz also utilizes a few winemaking tricks, such as cooling the grapes prior to fermentation and adding in whole clusters after the grapes have been crushed and fermentation has begun. He also uses acaci instead of oak for his barrels. He has determined over years of trial batches that the unusual techniques enhance flavor and aromatics.
The results are rather stunning. Luna Mater is a spicy white that exhibits notes of honey and stone fruit, with a rich mouthfeel and exceptional length. I had the opportunity to taste five vintages — 2007 through 2011 — and was impressed with the condition of all five.
The 2007 and 2008 had begun to darken slightly, which is normal for a white wine, but both were still fresh and sound. The younger vintages were of a piece, all beautifully balanced, refreshing and delicious.
Frascati as wine enthusiasts of a certain age might remember it, I am happy to report, is back.