Pre-Roman Meets Modern Italian Wine


The picturesque Lazio vineyard is owned by the Santarelli family.

Wineries often boast of their long histories, but few can claim a heritage that stretches back as far as Casale del Giglio in Italy.
An innovative, high-tech operation, the Santarelli family’s property in the Lazio region has more in common with the groundbreaking boutique wineries of the New World than traditional Italian estates. But it is also a window to Old World viticulture following the discovery beneath its fields of important remains of an ancient town that had its own thriving wine trade.

Every summer, a section of the Casale del Giglio vineyard is given over to excavations by a team of Dutch archaeologists.

“In 10 years of digging we have uncovered a street that was part of the pre-Roman town of Satricum,” said University of Amsterdam researcher Marijke Gnade. “Under the vines we have also found urns and ceramic wine goblets, which show that this place had a wine culture in ancient times.”

The researchers have dated the street to the sixth century B.C. They believe it was a “Via Sacra,” or “holy way,” leading to a famous local temple dedicated to Mater Matuta, the goddess of dawn for both Romans and pre-Romans.

As well as authorizing digging on land they could be using to produce grapes, the Santarelli family has helped to finance a project jointly organized by local authorities. The archaeological discoveries prompted the family to adopt the name “Mater Matuta” for their top wine, a blend of Shiraz and Petit Verdot.

The hilly area to the southeast of Rome has long been a center of white wine production, most notably of Frascati. Casale del Giglio is not far from there, but in an altogether different landscape – the coastal plain known as the Agro Pontino.

Ancient Rome may have sourced wine from there, but that was not an option in the early 20th Century when the area was uncultivated swampy marshland, infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Italy’s then-dictator Benito Mussolini drained the swamps in the 1930s, but they were flooded once again by retreating German forces during World War II. It was not until 1947 when U.S. forces carried out a major program of spraying with the insecticide DDT that the scourge of malaria was finally defeated.

The Santarellis, olive oil and wine merchants were originally from Amatrice in the mountains east of Rome. They relocated in 1967 and set out to demonstrate that the area could emulate the success of Bordeaux and other wine regions around the world, where cooling maritime breezes help to slow the ripening process and add complexity to the final product.

“From the mid-1980s on we started a major program of experimentation with our enologist and other experts who have planted more than 60 different varieties,” said owner Antonio Santarelli.

“Against all our expectations, the Shiraz and Petit Verdot have thrived; the conditions here seem to be virtually perfect for them.”

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