The hill top town of Marino is just a forty-minute train journey from the centre of Rome. It is one of the towns which make up the Castelli Romani, the castle towns surrounding the city, famous for white wines made for Roman Emperors.
The most familiar of these wines is from Marino’s neighbouring hill, Frascati. The wine is rich in flavour, made primarily from Malvasia or Trebbiano grapes, giving a fruity, acidic wine, with honey undertones. It is the colour of straw. The best way to drink Castelli Romani wine is at source in the cantinas in Marino or Frascati, where it is fresh, yet full-flavoured and, even better, extremely cheap. A litre of wine can cost as little as one pound, so making the short journey out of town well worth it.
On the first Sunday of October, Marino celebrates the “Sagra dell’uva”, the grape festival. The current festival dates back to 1925, although blessings and festivals in Marino have been recorded as far back as 1573. The main fountains in the town are adorned with kilos of grapes. White male statues stand in defiance in the fountains, only to have a bunch of grapes dangling off their bits. It does make them look much prettier. The whole town is decorated, balconies adorned with flowers, coloured street lights and market stands all brighten up the usually quiet cobbled streets.
Throughout the day, families come to enjoy dancing, listen to music, buy local produce from the many stands, and maybe eat some “porchetta”, a few chunks of spit roasted pig served between a couple of slices of crusty bread. Being Italy, there is the usual afternoon siesta, where everyone disappears for a few hours. This is a good opportunity for tourists to walk through the town before it fills up again around four-o clock with families taking their “passeggiata”, their after lunch walk, and the festivities start again. At five-o clock, there is the blessing to the Virgin Mary, to give thanks for the year’s crop. Grapes are given out freely to the crowd, and the water fountains in the street flow with wine.
To be honest the stuff that comes out of the fountain does not do the “Castelli Romani” wine any credit, but if it is free, a girl will drink almost anything. A tip to make one Mrs extremely popular is to have some plastic cups in your handbag. Then look for anyone handsome who is hoping for a free gob full of wine, but is without a chalice in which to put it, and then smile sweetly! Once the wine is flowing and there seems to be grapes everywhere, there is a procession through the streets, up the hill, around the fountains and through both main squares at the top and bottom of the hill. Various businesses have floats in the procession, with people dressed up in costumes from times past, all giving out more freebies, and more grapes.
As the sun goes down, the lights in the town switch on, with a light show as elaborate as Christmas. A huge wooden barrel hangs from some scaffolding at the top of the town. Along the main street, all the cantinas are busy offering a simple meal served on plastic plates, and more Castelli wine. It is quite acceptable to take your own food into the cantina. They don’t mind, providing you are drinking. The old women can be seen boiling up huge pots of pasta in the kitchens, and mixing it with tomato or meat sauce in huge plastic bowls to be dished out to the hungry crowds for a very small fee.
For the more defined palate, or for those who have lost the plot and for some reason want to eat salad while getting drunk, they make a dressing from the pressed grapes, and pour this over Valerian lettuce, small soft light green leaves, which bathe sweetly in the slightly yeasty juice from the grapes. But after a few too many glasses of wine, perhaps something more substantial will help with the hangover.
There is more to the Castelli wine apart from the white Frascati wine, known so well throughout the world. There are a few reds. Merlot del Lazio, “Montiano” Falesco 1995 was a particularly good gobfull, expensive for the region, but it is always a pleasure to dismiss snobbery and present an exceptionally good bottle of Castelli Romani wine.
At the other end of the price spectrum, from one of the other Castelli towns, Velletri, they produce a red of consistently good quality, ruby red, tannic, full bodied, and ridiculously cheap. Worthy of a mention, however, is a little gem found in the hill town Cantinas, bottles of “Romanello”. This is a parkling wine, usually sold in unlabelled dark bottles. It goes off with a huge bang, it is full bodied, and far too easy to drink, resulting in the most evil of hangovers. However, it really is nice to have a sparkling wine with balls, and yet so very cheap. My favourite producer, Cantina Taglienti in Frascati, sells it for just two pounds a bottle.
Back to the party, and in Marino, there are bands playing on street corners, and a huge firework display sparkles over the town. The last train back to Rome is around ten in the evening. At least it is down hill walk to the station, with bellies full this is always a suitable end to a party. There, you will find people still in costume, having suitably celebrated, hanging out of the windows of the old train, singing a classic Roman song, “Nanni”. “This is Marino and we are at the grape festival. The fountain gives us wineLook! There is so much of it! “
Angie is an artist, writer, wine connoisseur and, a sound engineer who lived in Italy; adores its culture, history, festivals and wines.