Breathing New Life into the Ancient Wines of Lago di Bolsena

View of Lake Bolsena from the
Photography by Joy Kull

On his journey through the afterlife described in the “Divine Comedy,” the medieval poet Dante Alighieri stumbles across a pope repenting in purgatory for his gluttony. The church leader isn’t in heaven yet, it turns out, as a result of his uncontrolled indulgence in eels cooked in white wine. More specifically, as Dante takes pains to emphasize, eels and wine from Lago di Bolsena—the ancient crater lake about 100 kilometers north of Rome celebrated for the delicacies produced in and around it. In the 700 years that have passed since Dante’s writing, relatively little has changed around Lake Bolsena, including the wines, even if its fame has unfairly declined.

To be sure, wine made here remains extremely distinctive, and that’s thanks to the lake’s “powerful, positive influence,” as Pier Francesco Galassi, owner and winemaker at Vini La Carcaia, describes it. That influence is characterized by high altitudes, unusual wind patterns and black volcanic soil. This rare terroir so thoroughly influences the indigenous Aleatico, Grechetto and Procanico grapes that Galassi works with that he insists, “There’s no need to perform magic or witchcraft—the lake and the territory just jump out of the glass.”

“The wines of Lake Bolsena can’t be like other wines, and that’s what makes them worth drinking.”

There is something magical about the place itself though, and it was a love-atfirst-sight experience with the lake that drew American-born Joy Kull to make wine here. The owner and winemaker at La Villana, Kull notes that the vines of Lago di Bolsena were still highly prized until quite recently: “Tuscan winemakers used to buy the grapes, and even fight over them before the price of fruit dropped.” Though Dante’s contemporaries were willing to risk their souls for the delicacies of Lake Bolsena, by the 20th century the wines began to fall out of vogue, between thinning margins on grapes and a global shift in tastes favoring bigger, bolder expressions. Kull underlines the radical difference in wines produced from grapes grown around Bolsena when compared with the lush mouthfeel, density and intense tannins that come out in wines produced even just a tiny bit north at the border with Tuscany, or 30 kilometers east near the city of Orvieto. Bolsena’s wines are fresh, lean, stony—the very definition of minerality—which is good news again given current trends that see drinkers moving away from fleshier, high alcohol “fruit bombs” and back toward more restrained, linear wines that deliver more subtlety.

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Trish Nelson, owner and winemaker at La Gazzetta winery, similarly came from afar (in her case, Australia) to make wine here, and while she describes her arrival and decision to stay as more of a series of coincidences than a love story with the lake, she settled in once she began to see how intensely and unapologetically the place and its fruit expressed themselves: “I started out by wanting my wines to taste a certain way and being disappointed when they didn’t.” Soon Nelson realized no amount of coaxing was going to work: The wines of Lake Bolsena can’t be like other wines, and that’s what makes them worth drinking.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on February 15, 2023