Ancient World, Modern Wine

Archaeology is a fascinating field that makes for a wonderful career.  We uncover the material worlds of people to whom no modern links may exist.   We ponder questions of their existence, interactions, and cultures.  My archaeological work has taken me to live in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, and Oman – places I may never have visited, let alone have been immersed in – if not for archaeology.  Wine, too, is both fascinating and rewarding.  It exists as a world populated by people, and so many of the same aspects of individuality, relationships, and cultural understanding are fundamental to understanding and enjoying that field.  And, let’s face it, much pleasure abounds in wine as a lot of it tastes really darn good.  I often mix my dual passions of archaeology and wine;  Syria was a great place to try local wine and also to drink Lebanese wine, and eating mussels with local, Turkish wine in Taksim Square in Istanbul is a true pleasure.  Yet, it is one of my latest archaeological adventures – and one that is arguably less exotic – that has provided its most complete integration for me.  I have been working at the site of Cosa for a few years now.  The site is directed by my great friend and wine-drinking partner, Andrea de Giorgi.

View of the port of Cosa

Maremma, Tuscany

Cosa is found in Ansedonia, a town in Tuscany’s lesser-known sub-region of Maremma. This is a gorgeous part of Tuscany that spans the Tyhrennean Coast in the province of Grosseto, from Capalbio in the South past Massa Marittima in the North, and inland through Medieval hill towns including Pitigliano and Scansano.  This area was extensively inhabited by the Etruscans and, later, Romans.  Cosa, itself, was a Roman colony founded early in the 3rd century BC.  In addition to the main settlement, the ager Cosanus (its territory) included the Argentario coastline with a port, lagoons with a commercial fishery and saltery, and an extended countryside.  That countryside included the fertile Valle d’Or.  Stretching ca 5 km east from Cosa, this area was the most densely settled land in Cosa’s territory (Dyson 1978: 256).  Settlements included large villa that used slave labor for industrial-scale wine production.  One of the most famous of these villa – due, in part, to its exceptional excavation by Andrea Carandini – was Settefinestre.  It is estimated that Settefinestre produced over 1.2 million liters of wine, per year (Potter 1987: 108).  What did they do with all that wine?  While Cosa’s agora must have seen its fair share, large amounts of wine and fish products were shipped out of Cosa’s port.  It is a one day’s sail from Rome, but boats filled with goods from the ager Cosanus reached as far away as Gaul and Spain.  The port was controlled by the Sestius family, who dominated western-Mediterranean trade in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.  The Sestii also produced amphora bearing their stamp (SES), large numbers of which have been found at the Cosa port and around the French coast (Manacorda 1981).  So, wine from the Valle d’Or fed the international wine market in the last centuries of the 1st millennium.

View from Magliano in Toscana

In this corner of the world, the ancient and modern landscapes mesh seamlessly with each other.   The Via Aurelia that connected Cosa to Rome for most of its history is still the main road to Rome, though now officially called the Strada Statale 1.  On its way from Cosa to Rome, the Via Aurelia runs across the Valle d’Or, past Settefinestre, and past a new crop of wineries well within the ager Cosanus.  This is the road I use to visit the modern wineries.  Location aside, these are a far sight from the mass-produced, slave-run agri-businesses of the late Republic.  The modern wine landscape is largely dotted with small-scale and, mostly, family-run wineries.

La Corsa is the closest winery to ancient Cosa – and to Settefinestre.  La Corsa is a relatively young estate; the first vines were only planted in 2005.  But, arriving at the property, one is immediately confronted with the antiquity of the landscape and of the local, wine-making enterprise; several large, stone, grape-press basins line the drive.  Andrea Annessi Mecci, commercial manager and my host for the day, walks me past the stones, obviously quite proud of this connection to the past.  We take a look at the 18 ha of vines – over which the sea is visible.  The estate grows four different grapes. For white, there is Vermentino.  For red, there is certainly Sangiovese, a grape Mecci likens to “a crazy person”,  which is still king among red grapes here.  Sangiovese is temperamental, but very traditional – especially in Tuscany.  To this most Italian of grapes, the La Corsa team has added two reds less expected in Tuscany: Petit Verdot and Teroldego.  Petit Verdot has its classic home in France’s Bordeaux.  But, while not common, it is found in Tuscany and Lazio.  And why not?  The late-ripening grape may well prefer Maremma’s intense sunshine and hot, summer temperatures.  It is the Teroldego planting in Maremma that was initially met with the most skepticism, but which has brought some of the greatest reward.  Teroldego has its home in northeast Italy, in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol.  More specifically, it is the basis for the DOC wine of Trentino, Teroldego Rotaliano.  Elisabetta Foradori makes wine in the Campo Rotaliano, the traditional plain in which Teroldego is thought to reach its greatest potential, and from which DOC wines get their grapes.  The association of Teroldego with the Campo Rotaliano has a long history, with earliest mention of the grape from there dating to the 16th century.  Within this setting, Foradori makes wines under her own name.  She is widely considered to be the “Queen of Teroldego”, not least for the high quality of her wines.  But, she was also instrumental in resuscitating both the grape and the wine-making traditions in Campo Rotaliano; more can be found about her doings here.  Mecci relates the story of being at a wine festival pouring La Corsa’s 100% Teroldego wine when he spied Elisabetta Foradori.  He insisted she try the wine, something she was seemingly not anxious to do.  As the story goes, she tasted the wine and gave it her approval, which, I am told, became the headline in the next day’s paper.

Back in the tasting room, I got to try the wines – including the Teroldego.  The tasting room was set with a plate of salumi and seven wines for us to taste, a task in which we were joined by Francesca D’Amico, who seems to wear many hats at the estate and is always happy to sit and taste the wines.  We started with the Dueluglio, made with 100% Vermentino, and the Macchiatonda, a rosé made with Sangiovese and Teroldego.  Mecci had promised that the vineyard site was special, with soils promoting elegant and mineral-driven wines, and these two wines validated that promise.  The Vermentino is crisper than expected, with soft and subtle hints of herbs and fruit. The rosé has sharper, red-berry notes all bound with crisp mineral. Both showed the influence of the sea.  We next tried the single-varietal reds:  100% Sangiovese in the Settefinestre (yes, in homage to the Roman villa of the same name), a 100% Petit Verdot bottling, and the 100% Teroldego that won over “the Queen”.  Then we tried the Aghiloro, an equal-parts blend of all 3 grapes. In all cases, I was struck by what clear expressions these were of the given varietal. Flavors were bright and complex, and decidedly clean, always with a touch of salt.  The Teroldego – the uncommon grape for Tuscany – was far and away my favorite.  This aromatic grape picked up the herbal and olive countryside and found deep cherry, to boot. We finished with the barrel-aged, 100% Sangiovese Mandrione.  While certainly a good wine, the oak made the sangiovese more similar to the oaked reds from Montalcino and Scansano; it masked the fresh notes, wild herbs, and sea air that are part of ager Cosanus.  

Just east from La Corsa, and still in the ager Cosanus, is Il Cerchio.  The two wineries could not feel more different; where La Corsa is grand, Il Cerchio is rustic and cozy.  Il Cerchio is run by the Vincenzi family, who emigrated from Milan to tend this organic farm.  The 9 ha farm comprises an olive grove, nursery, and crop garden, in addition to the vines – the earliest of which were planted in 2000.  Though only a few kilometers away from La Corsa, the grape selection is very different.  In addition to Vermentino and Sangiovese, Il Cerchio grows traditional Ansonica and Alicante (the same grape as Sardegna’s Cannonau).  Ansonica is a nutty, white grape grown in Siciliy (as Inzolia), but also found in Tuscany – mostly in Maremma.  It comprises (at a minimum of 85%) one of Maremma’s 8 DOC, the Ansonica Costa dell’Argentario.  The geographic boundaries of this appellation are as exotic as the name sounds: the Argentario coast including the Island of Giglio, plus the areas of Orbetello, Manciano, and Capalbio.  In other words, the DOC fits inside of ager Cosanus.

Tasting at Il Cerchio

Il Cerchio’s Ansonica was, in fact, the reason for this visit.  I loved the wine in the States where I used it in a tasting of Tuscan wines that I conducted.  My companions for this visit were all from Cosa: Andrea – the site’s director, Landon -who spent much of his childhood in Ansedonia, and Leslie – Landon’s wife and novice Italo-phile.  We were met by Corinna Vincenzi, who took us to the tasting room.  The Ansonica was as wonderful as I had remembered.  It is a fuller-bodied white with some under-ripe nuttiness, honeysuckle, citrus, and brine.  We were unable to sample the Vermentino, as it was still being bottled.  But, we did try the Sangiovese and the Alicante.  The Valmarina Sangiovese is made with a minimum of 90% sangiovese, and the rest is Alicante.  The Tinto Alicante is a minimum of 85% Alicante, finished with sangiovese.  Both reds are bold, flavorful, and tannic.  These are muscular to La Corsa’s sinuousness, robust to their elegance; in short, the two estates produce incredibly different wines.  Both estates produce fantastic wines.

As we paid for a bottle of Alicante for aperitivo (delicious with some local, aged Pecorino), Corinna mentioned the upcoming, Capalbio è Vino.  Basically, this was a festival of wine and foods from the Maremma region near Capalbio.  Capalbio is a stunning town whose Medieval walls are fairly complete, and with expansive views to the sea from every doorway, terrace, and turret.  The festival brought together 10 or so wineries from the region, most of whose wines I had not tried before.  Among these were 3 vineyards with wines that really stood out in my mind: the aforementioned Il Cerchio and La Corsa, and Celler del Gat.  The latter produces reds that are intense and wild, and different than any wine I’d had from Maremma.  In addition to Sangiovese, they use Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and a bit of Alicante – all in barriques. It turns out that Celler del Gat is a “project” headquartered at Il Cerchio, with wine made by Jaume Tarazona from grapes sourced from around Maremma.


The ancient world is palpable in this modern landscape, through the physical remnants of that past and also in the perseverance of traditional endeavors like wine making.  Nonetheless, the modern reality is one of adaptation, evolution, and individuality that makes for a vibrant present.  With the help of my friend, Andrea, I’m working my way through the modern landscape via Maremma’s 8 DOC:

  • Ansonica Costa dell’Argentario
  • Bianco di Pitigliano
  • Capalbio
  • Maremma Toscana
  • Montecucco
  • Monteregio di Massa Marittima
  • Parrina
  • Sovana

These names read like a “best of” recommended itinerary through Maremma.  The Argentario coast is studded with sandy beaches and beautiful views of the islands of the archipelago.   Pitigliano and Sovana are both “Citta del tufo”, from where one can access paths through the steep-sided cliffs, even walking between medieval, walled cities.  Capalbio, as mentioned, is simply stunning. And the list goes on.  We’ve now visited Costa dell’Argentario and Maremma Toscana DOCs, and daily drive past Parrina – along the Strada Provinciale Parrina – to reach the excavations at Cosa. We’ve visited many wineries outside of ager Cosanus, mostly in the DOCG of Morellino di Scansano.  So, we have our work cut out for us.  Cheers!

Dyson, S.L. 1978 “Settlement Patterns in the Ager Cosanus: The Wesleyan University Survey, 1974-1976”. Journal of Field Archaeology, 5(3):251-68

Potter, T.W. 1987 Roman Italy (London : British Museum)

Manacorda, D. 1981 “Produzione agricola, produzione ceramica e proprietari nell’ager Cosanus nel I sec. a. C.” In Società romana e produzione schiavistica Bari, pp. 3-54.