What is currently the most “wine-tastic” corner of Tuscany? Not the central heartland of Chianti Classico, the famous wine region between Florence and Siena; not the bucolic hills around Montalcino or Montepulciano; but the coastal zone of the Maremma.
Maremma literally means “swamp”, and this far southern part of Tuscany bordering the Tyrrhenian coast was once a malaria-ridden backwater. People used to call it the “mezzogiorno of Tuscany” – Tuscany’s deep south.
Until Mussolini drained the marshes in the Thirties, the area was shunned by tourists and winegrowers; known only for its long-horned cattle and the cow breeders called butteri who tended them.
The northern part of the historical Maremma around Bolgheri became known in the Seventies and Eighties for a few brilliant maverick wines made from French varieties – the so-called Supertuscans Sassicaia and Ornellaia – but the southern part does not need overseas help. Here the grape is indigenous – it is sangiovese, known locally as morellino, grown on slopes around the hill town of Scansano, often beefed up with other blending varieties such as alicante.
Morellino di Scansano, the quintessential wine of the Maremma, is now the Tuscan wine of choice in the chicest enoteche (wine bars) of Rome. I’ve loved morellino since I first came across it, tasting samples with my wine merchant father, nearly 20 years ago, when it was fairly new on the wine map.
What attracted me was the unique perfume – quite different from that of any other sangiovese-based wine from central Italy: enticing and voluptuous, soft dark cherry verging on plum, ripe and succulent (the climate is warmer here than in Chianti) but not hot or heavy, the opposite of tough and stringy.
Morellino is a sensualist’s wine, not a conundrum for intellectuals; loose-limbed, not tightly structured. If you think of Romans as a hedonistic lot, as I tend to, then you’ll think of it as a louche Latin wine rather than a warlike Etruscan one.
Indeed, Scansano and Monte Argentario are about as close to Rome as they are to Florence. Romans love to go on holiday in the Maremma, the closest coast to the capital where you can find unspoilt beaches; a Roman friend of mine based in London drives out there with her family every summer, not just for a bucket and spade holiday, but to pick up half a dozen cases of her favourite wine – Morellino di Scansano, of course.
When I first discovered morellino you could buy a decent example from my local supermarket (Tesco, as it happens). Now some annoying calculation involving name recognition – ah how different if morellino were rechristened something as short as Gavi – and price points means that the supermarkets have given up on it. Morellino is not quite as inexpensive as it used to be, and I suppose it is the kind of wine that benefits from having an enthusiastic person in a shop to talk it up – a perfect opportunity for independent wine merchants.
I think of it as a simple wine, but if you look at the label of a bottle of Morellino di Scansano, you’ll see that it is not just a DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) but a DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), the highest category for Italian wines. How seriously should morellino be taken, both by makers and drinkers? There are two related issues: ageing (and in particular the riserva category for aged morellino), and the question of oak.
In Italy morellino tends to get drunk very young indeed – by which I mean at just over one year old, when the freshness and intensity of perfume are strongest, but there can still be some quite raw tannins. For the British taste that’s too young – but you still want a dash of freshness in your morellino.
“It’s really, really good glugging wine,” Patrick Sandeman of Lea and Sandeman puts it, while we taste his excellent Morellino di Scansano “Heba” 2009 from Fattoria di Magliano in the shop in Kensington Church Street. There’s the deep, black cherry nose with just a hint of violets, the open generous fruit, sweetness trouncing the hint of sourness you always get with sangiovese – helped here with 15% syrah.
Heba is mainly fermented in cement tanks – coming back into fashion all over the wine world – and not matured in oak. It weighs in at 13 degrees, which is relatively light for morellino these days, but seems about right. Some Morellino di Scansano Riservas can go as high as 14.5: does that mean they have the heft to benefit from new oak? Sandeman looks unconvinced.
There are makers who take their riservas pretty seriously, striving to get them within spitting distance of the best Chianti Classicos, brunellos and Vini Nobili di Montepulciano. The most famous is Elisabetta Geppetti, who makes morellino in a rather different style from Fattoria di Magliano or the similarly fragrant and fresh Serpaia di Endrizzi (Adnams stock the 2009). Geppetti’s Morellino di Scansano Riserva Poggio Valente is clearly designed to take its place at the top table of Tuscan wine, and it is undeniably impressive.
The 2007 (available from www.libertywines.co.uk at £35.99) is still youthful, and will develop further, with rich rounded fruit, striking elegance and considerable tannin.
For a thoroughly satisfactory halfway house I recommend Podere 414, made on a 2.5 hectare estate by Simone Castelli, son of the eminent œnologist Maurizio Castelli. There’s certainly power here, and a touch of oak, but the overall effect remains lively, fresh and enticing. There’s no point in morellino, at least for me, if it concentrates too hard on being impressive and forgets to be sheerly enjoyable.
The best of Morellino
Morellino di Scansano Heba 2009 Fattoria di Magliano Lea & Sandeman (www.leaandsandeman.co.uk), £12.95/£11.95 if you buy a case
Morellino di Scansano Podere 414 2009 Private Cellar Ltd (www.privatecellar.co.uk), £14.40
Morellino di Scansano 2009 Serpaia di Endrizzi Adnams (www.adnams.co.uk), £9.99/£8.99
Story by Harry Eyres
Courtesy of The Telegraph