Food Tales

Drinking Wine with the Prince in Rome

by Nick Papa
Tenuta Photo by Livia Hengel.

More than 80 years ago, an eccentric Italian prince broke with tradition by doing what no other wine estate had done before. He ripped up his vineyard and replanted it with French and Portuguese grapes.

ROME, Italy — "Molto manuale, yet perfect." Prince Alessandrojacopo Boncompagni Ludovisi switches between Italian and English, so I have to pay close attention to learn about Tenuta di Fiorano, his 500-acre estate on the outskirts of Rome. Here, "nothing is automatic. Everything is done by hand."

The tenacity with which Italians stick to the old way of doing things is typical, and I'm not surprised to hear they still make wine by hand. But everything else about this place is, in the best sense, atypical.

Almost 20 years ago, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov published "An Italian Prince and His Magic Cellar." Back then, the prince in charge was Alberico, Alessandro's eccentric uncle.

Alberico, Prince of Venosa, inherited Tenuta di Fiorano in 1946 — the year the Italian Republic superseded the monarchy. It was a time of great upheaval, but the prince had history on his side. He descended from a long line of innovative nobles, including Ugo Boncompagni, who became Pope Gregory XIII. As pope in the 16th century, he commissioned the Gregorian calendar, which we still use today.

While Ugo introduced equinoxes and leap years, Alberico introduced grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sémillon grapes from France; malvasia from Madeira in Portugal.

"It was unusual," says Alessandro of his uncle's decision. Italian wine estates at the time didn't grow international grapes. By many accounts, Alberico was the first winemaker in Italy to do so.

Alberico made wine that he wanted to drink. It was that simple. Unbound by convention, he planted to please his whims and produced fantastic labels — a rare thing for the Lazio region, which isn't known for its wines.

In the 1960s, they earned the attention of famed wine critic Luigi Veronelli. "To obtain [Alberico’s] cru is practically impossible," he wrote. "If I lived in Rome, I would beg for them at the prince's door every morning."

What makes Fiorano wines so special is a secret shared by few. Rightfully so, Alessandro only reveals parts of the story.

The estate is on the 2,000-year-old Via Appia Antica, one of the most important roads in the Roman Empire. It starts at the ancient Porta San Sebastiano — the largest and best-preserved gate in Rome's Aurelian Walls — and stretches south through sprawling fields, leading straight to Tenuta di Fiorano.

When driving to Tenuta di Fiorano on the Via Appia Nuova, which runs in parallel, you can see the Alban Hills in the distance. Although they're pretty as a postcard, they're not hills, but rather the remnants of a volcanic complex that makes the ground beneath the vineyard rich with minerals.

"Molto minerale, molto fresco," says Alessandro of the soil. He pinches a chunk from beneath the vines — it sparkles in the sun. 

Mineral-rich land isn't the estate's only asset. Some might say a wine estate across the street from Ciampino airport is the most unlikely one in Italy. But its location helps the grapes thrive. From the volcanic soil below to the sea less than 20 miles away (the vineyard enjoys a breeze that dries the vines after it rains), it’s the perfect spot to grow grapes in Lazio.

Prince Alessandro Ludovisi.

Of the few staff members, some have been working on the estate for decades. They select the grapes that make the cut and bring them into a historical cellar, where the process inside hasn't changed much in 80 years. "We do things by hand," Alessandro reiterates, "much like the 1940s." 

They press the grapes and leave them to ferment for ten days. Then the wine goes into 1,000-liter barrels in an ultra-secretive volcanic tufo rock cave, where the natural setting maintains the temperature of the wine until bottles are sold. When that time comes, the final step is affixing a label on the bottle by hand (really, how else?).

"Passion is the most important thing in winemaking," Alessandro says. "If you have a passion, you can do many, many things." 

It's hard to count the things Alessandro has done since he took over Tenuta Di Fiorano in 1998. In recent years, he hosted the Italian contemporary photographer Maria Mulas’ first solo exhibition in Rome, and he plans to add a bespoke hotel offering in the future. 

For now, a wine tasting is the best way to experience this surreal setting, which feels hundreds of miles away from Rome, though, in reality, it's a 20-minute drive from the Colosseum.

Alessandro gives the tours and serves the wine himself. He makes two reds and two whites: The reds are cabernet sauvignon and merlot; the whites are grechetto and viognier. He's also proud to share cheese, olive oil, and organic honey produced on the estate.

During the tasting, Alessandro ensures the wine has a chance to open up so you can experience the full range of each glass. 

When I ask which label is his favorite, he hesitates.

"I only speak about a glass of wine after I open a bottle and I try it," he says. "Wine is living. Every bottle is different. Each glass from the same bottle is different."

Italians are superstitious. As an Italian-American, I know this much to be true: We don't want to jinx anything. To demystify these obscure wines, you'll have to pay Tenuta di Fiorano and its prince a visit.