Standing among the sun-drenched vineyards of the beautiful coastal Maremma region of southwest Tuscany (derived from mare, Italian for “sea”), you have to wonder how Dante could have written so negatively about the area. He professed that even the wildest beasts would find La Maremma uninviting. It is only recently, though, that this largely uninhabitable mosquito- and malaria-infested swamp was transformed — through extensive dredging and soil reclamation — into the lushly forested, villa-dotted destination for the Roman and Florentine cognoscenti.
Mention Tuscany to a wine lover and Chianti, Brunello and Vino Nobile immediately come to mind. But the fruit-forward, elegant, arguably modern-styled wines of the Maremma have opened up an entirely new market for Italian wines.
The region covers the Tuscan coastline from the hills of Pisa in the north to the plains of Grosseto in the south. Most people are familiar with the wines from the Alta (upper) Maremma, which, in the 1980s and 1990s, elevated Italian wine to an international level. Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Guado al Tasso and Tua Rita, are just some of the names from around the towns of Bolgheri, Livorno and Suvereto that have captured the imagination, attention and taste buds of the wine world. But while these increasingly pricey collectables, largely based on the “international” varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, are well established as the original Super-Tuscans, it is the wines of the Bassa (lower) Maremma that are making waves now as the hip new kids on the block.
Beginning in the 1990s, this former backwater has attracted top producers from throughout Italy due to its hot, dry climate, its proximity to the sea and the relatively low (now rapidly rising) cost of land. Moris Farms, Le Pupille and Erik Banti first gained recognition for Sangiovese-based Morellino di Scansano; significant investment in the area followed from heavy hitters like Frescobaldi, Biondi Santi, Barbi, Triacca, Fonterutoli’s Mazzei family and the Widmer family of Brancaia.
Unlike in the Alta Maremma, international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are less dominant in the southern region. As with most of Tuscany, Sangiovese, known locally as Morellino, is the primary grape, but other local varieties such as the cherry-flavoured Ciliegiolo, the savoury and spicy Alicante (Grenache) and the sometimes inconsistent white Ansonica are also utilized. The “international” varietals found in the Alta Maremma also do quite well here, giving producers the ability and freedom to be creative with their blends.
The area’s greatest appeal has been the maritime influence and its resulting effect on the fruit produced. The sea’s cooling tendency translates to a lush, ripe, fruit-forward style of wine with sweet tannins and a wonderful diversity of flavours. Morellino first brought the attention of North Americans to the area — they tend to be attracted to the plush, deeply coloured, round and juicy style Sangiovese rather than the higher acidity found in wines from the Tuscan interior. In addition, the relatively less expensive cost of land meant that consumers received ripe, rich, ready-to-drink wines for a fraction of what a Brunello or Chianti Classico Riserva would cost. These affordable, fruit-driven yet powerful wines opened the door for Italian wines to the New World palate. Maremma wines are increasingly finding their way onto international wine lists and even New York restaurateur Joseph Bastianich and his Iron Chef partner Mario Batali have set up shop in the region.
The increased interest in the wines of the Bassa Maremma has also resulted in greater development. Restaurants, renovated farmhouses, villas and five-star hotels are popping up alongside the ever-escalating vineyard plantings. Wineries such as the ultra-modern Azienda Meleta are a testament to the massive amounts of dollars being invested in the area. On a scorching June afternoon, I had the opportunity to taste over sixty of the area’s wines at Meleta. Two reds from the Serratola winery immediately stood out: the Campo Montecristo IGT (Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah) and the Monteregio Rosso “Lentisco” DOC; both have great structure, sweet tannins, a wonderful intensity of lush, ripe cherries and plums, and a silky lingering finish. Also impressive is the Morellino di Scansano DOC 2003 from Le Pupille, one of the first producers to recognize Maremma’s potential. Predominantly Sangiovese with a smattering of Alicante and Malvasia Nera, the wine is fragrant with juicy wild-cherry flavours and hints of earthiness and vanilla.
Mazzei’s Tenuta di Belguardo presented three excellent wines. The Serrata di Belgurado 2002 shows pretty aromas and a soft, velvety palate with a savoury finish. Its Poggio Bronzone Morellino di Scansano DOC 2002 is fresh and floral with luscious blackberry and dark cherries, fine tannins and mineral notes. One step up is the winery’s Maremma Toscana IGT 2002, a stunning blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Merlot that is both potent and persistent.
White wines from the area are less impressive, with the exception of the Fattoria la Parrina Ansonica Costa dell’Argentario. Until a few years ago, Ansonica was a high-alcohol, sweet, inferior mass-produced jug wine. But producers have sought to reduce yields and harvest earlier in the season to create better-quality wine. While many of the Ansonicas are flat and flabby, lacking acidity, balance and character, the Parrina offering is fresh, crisp and minerally with great balance and a pleasing acidity. The producers of Ansonica emphasize that they are not showcasing the current quality of the wines, but instead the grape’s potential.
Potential is something that the wines of the Maremma are realizing. With new wines being created alongside established wines, this storied region is still evolving. Producers are passionate and enthusiastic but must be cautious of trying to create instant gratification wines that can stylistically transform the end product from elegant, fruit-forward and approachable to over-extracted, over-oaked Aussie knock-offs. The challenge is to continue to strive for approachability, modernity and market acceptance while still maintaining tradition and reflecting the unique typicity of the surroundings in the wines. With increasing competition from Australia, California, Chile, southern France, and South Africa, the wines of the Maremma have positioned themselves as Italy’s gateway to the New World palate.