An insider's guide to wine when in Rome

Author: Max Allen
Photography: Susan Wright

So, you have a few days in Rome and you like good wine. Where to drink? The city's piazze are chockers with options - bars and wine shops abound, there's an enoteca on every corner. You know they can't all be good. Some inside knowledge would be handy.

Before I left home for a week's Roman holiday recently, I asked the professionals for advice: wine merchants, importers, journalists and restaurateurs who visit regularly and love to sniff out the city's latest wine bars, as well as revisiting old favourites.

I was bombarded with suggestions and arrived in Rome with a long list. For a local perspective, I caught up for a drink with US-born Rome expert and GT contributor Katie Parla. She moved here from New Jersey in 2003 and has written extensively on the city's dining and drinking scenes. Her app, Katie Parla's Rome, and new book, Tasting Rome, are indispensable.

"Roman families don't traditionally spend much on wine," Parla told me. "So the older, established bars and enotecas can be reasonably priced, but a little parochial.

The younger generation sees the wine their parents drink as old-fashioned. For them, craft beer is more interesting, so you'll find lots of great beer in Rome now.

And natural wine is taking hold among the next gen; you didn't used to see much French wine in Rome, but the natural-wine folk love to drink French, so you're seeing more bottles from outside Italy on offer." Parla suggested I talk to Hande Leimer, a sommelier who runs the Vino Roma wine studio near the Colosseum. "When I first came to Rome in 2008," said Leimer, "the wine scene was pretty conservative, especially for someone like me, born in Turkey, with a German name - and a woman! But the last two or three years have seen more new places opening up - like Litro and La Barrique - that are more openminded and serving more interesting, adventurous wines. Now I can even find German wines here."

Thanks to my boozy brains trust, I drank - and ate - exceedingly well in Rome. I found the city has essentially three kinds of wine-drinking destinations: well-known, hugely popular (and usually crowded) old-school institutions with lots of classic bottles; more relaxed, low-key hangouts, mostly patronised by locals, offering well-priced traditional Roman cooking; and new-wave wine bars that tap into lively, global trends - modern and inventive food, lots of natural wines and craft beers - attracting a younger crowd.

These are my picks of the insiders' tips.

OLD-SCHOOL CLASSICS

Roscioli

Roscioli barman Davide Di Fede.

You can't visit Rome and not try the legendary, luxurious carbonara at this gorgeous old institution, a combination of restaurant, wine bar, deli and salumeria. Trouble is, every other tourist has been told to try Roscioli's carbonara, too, so the place is always packed and bookings are essential. Romans love Roscioli as much as the tourists do; as I ordered my second glass of superb, glowing purple Medici Ermete Lambrusco to help wash down the prodigious amounts of guanciale and Parmigiano-Reggiano coating my pasta, it seemed every person squeezing into the chairs and tables around me was talking and gesticulating like a true Roman. A great experience. Via dei Giubbonari, 21, +39 06 687 5287, salumeriaroscioli.com

Cul de Sac


Just off Piazza Navona, this long, narrow bar is always full; we were shunted down the back to a tiny wooden booth, with train-style luggage racks above our heads. As in so many of the bars I visited in Rome, the choice and value here were remarkable: more than 1,500 wines on the encyclopedic list, many at exceptional prices. With the hare and truffle pâté, and artichoke pie ($10 each) the waiter recommended a lovely, textural white called Pozzodorico, made from the bellone grape, grown in the region of Lazio - and just $24 a bottle. A crazy bargain and a great match. Piazza Pasquino, 73, +39 06 6880 1094, enotecaculdesacroma.it

Enoteca Bulzoni

A confession: for reasons I won't bore you with, I wasn't able to get to this benchmark enoteca. But almost every wine insider I spoke to recommended it, and that's good enough for me. This is the old-school meets new-school Roman wine experience. Bulzoni has been selling booze in the upmarket Parioli district for more than 80 years, but it has also recently become known for its huge selection of cutting-edge natural wines, best enjoyed (according to my informants) on the patio. Viale Parioli, 36, +39 06 807 0494, enotecabulzoni.it

LOCAL AND TRADITIONAL

Enoteca Il Goccetto


Even though it has the words "vino" and "olio" over the door, Il Goccetto is easy to miss. Look for people sitting on the steps outside, smoking, drinking wine and reading the paper. It's a small cosy place, and it makes few concessions to tourists: there's no menu turistico, no bookings, just a list of 60 wines by the glass on the blackboard behind the bar, and hundreds more bottles crowded on the shelves lining the walls. Choose from the antipasto cabinet - fennel and blood-orange salad, say, or smoked salmon - order a $10 glass of Friulano and settle in. I love this place. Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 14, +39 06686 4268, ilgoccetto.com

Enoteca Corsi


With a wine shop on one side and a homely restaurant on the other, this unassuming 77-year-old family-run enoteca near the Pantheon is the real deal, serving classic Roman dishes such as deep-fried whole artichokes and slow-roast lamb and potatoes. Choose what you're going to eat, then select a bottle of well-priced wine from the shelf or fridge (I discovered a delicious locally grown tempranillo, of all things, for just $27) and pay a couple of extra euro corkage. Corsi is mostly lunch only, but does occasionally open for dinner; check in advance. Via del Gesu, 87/88, +39 06 679 0821, enotecacorsi.com

Cavour 313

On busy Via Cavour, which runs from Termini train station to the Forum, there's a recessed marooncoloured door bearing the address - Cavour 313 - and the words "Vini E Liquori" above. Seek refuge inside at the well-stocked bar - including rare rums and whiskies from renowned Italian specialist spirits merchant Samaroli - and in the wood-panelled, strangely Austrian ski lodge-style booths of a small restaurant. It serves some of the freshest, simplest and best food I had in Rome, such as a textbook dish of salt cod and potatoes with a deliciously rich Lazio white called Capolemole. Via Cavour, 313, +39 06 678 5496, cavour313.it

NEW WAVE

La Barrique

Slip down a side street off the main fashion strip in the Monti district and duck into this pioneering bar: very casual and with a strong hint of Parisian caves à vin naturel. It has one of the city's best selections of artisan and natural bottles. From the many wines available by the bicchiere, and 250ml and 500ml carafe, we chose a fabulously lively organic grillo from Di Giovanna in Sicily and a pale but intensely savoury nebbiolo from Arpepe, one of the leading lights of the Valtellina district in Piedmont. One of La Barrique's owners is also a partner in Remigio, a small bar in Tuscolana specialising in Champagne and sparkling wine. Via del Boschetto, 41, +39 06 4782 5953

Litro


The chalked words on the blackboard between the kitchen and the bar say it all: "Vini naturali e biodinamici". The shelves are lined with quirkily labelled bottles from Italy and further afield: countless small-scale, artisan, natural and biodynamic wines I've never seen before. As Leimer says, "If you want to see how things are changing in the Roman wine scene, Litro is unmissable." Importantly, Litro is primarily a good café and bar for the locals of Monteverde, with great modern bistro food, no menu turistico. Oh, and a wicked selection of mezcal. Via Fratelli Bonnet, 5, +39 06 4544 7693, vinerialitro.it

Al Vino Al Vino

A couple of blocks away from La Barrique, this lively bar straddles traditional and new-wave styles of enoteche. It feels a little old-fashioned when you walk in - crowded bar, lots of wooden shelves lined with bottles - but then you realise the clientele is mostly young and local, the constantly changing list of wines by the glass includes bottles from Puglia and Burgundy, as well as the classic regions of northern Italy, and the menu includes decidedly un-Roman dishes such as superb Sicilian caponata. Via dei Serpenti, 19, +39 06 485 803

Sorpasso

After a long morning at the Vatican galleries, have lunch at this "wine café and kitchen" nearby. Sorpasso is a great place for locally inspired food and wine - trippa alla Romana is a speciality; the earthy red wine of star regional producer Damiano Ciolli is poured by the glass. But there are other elements that would be at home in similar modern wine bars around the world: the trippa is listed on the menu as a Spanish-style ración serving; the wine list is sprinkled with Mosel riesling and Beaujolais; and the young staff wear T-shirts bearing the slogan "Life is too short to drink bad wine" on the back. Great fun. Via Properzio, 31/33, +39 06 8902 4554, sorpasso.inf







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