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Roman Wine Bars

Liza B. Zimmerman, D.W.S.
Insights into Trends and Innovations in an Ancient City

 Aerial Photo of Rome, Italy.  

For an insular and largely domestically focused wine market such as Italy, Rome has long offered wine lovers a great and diverse wine market. One of the key reasons it has long been so dynamic is that its home region of Latium isn't a major national wine producing area-much like New York City and its environs. It is also home to a great number of visitors, foreign and domestic, which it strives-and continues-to impress. 

Having lived in Rome for many years almost two decades ago, I get back a couple of times a year. The wine bar market has evolved enormously in that time frame. House and jug wines, mostly made in the restaurant owner's grandfather's backyard and served in carafes, were often the only wine of choice. Actual bottles were reserved for high-end, fine-dining destinations and Romans themselves weren't used to seeing or asking for wine lists. Most consumers outside the wine business mostly drank simple, local wines or big-ticket brands from Tuscany or Piedmonte for special occasions. Now even local trattorias and small wine bars usually offer a dozen or so wines, which may even include a handful of French classics on the more innovative lists.

Half bottles are also often available as are wines from great small producers, particularly of well-priced bottles such as Sicilian reds and Campanian whites. Many places are also featuring a handful of mid-range, good-food wines that are placed on the table by the bottle and paid for on consumption: You drink a half a bottle and you pay for it. Whatever is leftover goes back into the bottle and is served to the next round of guests.

It is an inventive way of dealing with wine-by-the-glass consumption that has yet to hit the American market. I saw it once at Salumi in Seattle, Mario Batali's dad's perpetually over-booked simple Italian place and knew it would be well accepted in this country.

Trends and Dynamics

New World wines hardly play a role in the Roman, and the overall Italian, wine market. A few high-end dining destinations may offer a small selection of iconic American wines-such as benchmark names like Opus-but few take them seriously. There are far too many appealing new brands emerging in Italy as well as all those stunning, old standbys. Also eclectic wine bars are trying, for the first time in decades, to feature a handful of top international wine choices: think great Burgundy, Champagne and solid German and Alsatian Rieslings.

La Zanzara Grand Opening.                                               Photo courtesy of La Zanzara  

The Roman wine scene has also become more modern and cutting edge as crisp, newly designed spaces like Roschioli and La Zanzara crop up. Old school wine bars, such as Cul de Sac and Il Goccetto still stand  their ground, but probably attract as many tourists as locals, being located in Rome's historic center.

La Zanzara—which means mosquito in Italian—opened in February of this year in the upscale Prati neighborhood, just behind the Vatican. Light and airy, it has more in common with restaurants such as Keith McNally's Pastis in New York' Meatpacking District than a classic Roman wine bar.
   Sorpasso wine bar.                       Photo courtesy of Sorpasso
A sunlight-flooded bar and groovy modern floor tiles welcome local worker bees as they file in for lunch to enjoy prompt-and sometimes curt-service.  The nearby Sorpasso features more innovative dishes, such fried bread pockets stuffed with typical Roman fare like oxtail stew. The wine list includes quite a few gems, including noted wines such as Domenico Clerico 2005 Barolo which, when it is open, guests can get the glass for 10 Euros at lunch.

Classics and Innovators

The historical center of Rome, long a destination for tourists and those besotted with beautiful old streets of this City's Center, still holds a few gems. Il Goccetto, on a narrow street just steps away from Campo di Fiori, still serves up a great selection of classic Italian wines. The bar's focus is on the traditional: think Piemonte and Tuscany. The owner giggled at me when I tried to order a wine produced in Latium. It is a charming, warm and history-filled wine bar.

Roscioli, which is also located just steps from the gorgeous piazza Campo di Fiori, is often seen as a newcomer, although it opened almost a decade ago. The owners were trying to raise the bar on eating and
 Roscioli.                                      Photo Courtesy of Roscioli  
drinking the center of Rome and indeed they have. While the space is far too shiny and modern for me, wine list is broad-reaching and exciting. Older vintages from classic Italian wine regions: check; Burgundy: check; and unique wine treasures such as light and approachable Nero d'Avolas from Sicily: check. Wine buyer Alessandro Pepe says both his and many wine bars are "trying to focus on Italian traditions. He adds that his clients are keen to explore local wines. A bar that is both so modern yet seeks to offer its clients the flavor of the past in many ways truly embodies how the Roman, and Italian, bar scene may be evolving.

Liza B. Zimmerman, D.W.S., can be reached at www.lizathewinechick.com.

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