Tuscany’s Maremma: Italy’s Wild West, in More Ways Than One

Despite being home to Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Grattamacco, and Masseto, some of Italy’s most expensive and sought-after wines, the Maremma remains obscure to most wine lovers. Though none of the above-mentioned wines carry the word Maremma on their labels, geographically their home is in that region.  Maremma is also home to Vermentino, which is a leading candidate to become Tuscany’s signature white wine.  In addition, with excellent wines being made from Alicante, Syrah, and Ciliegiolo, the Maremma is not likely to stay under the radar for long.

Where, you might ask, is the Maremma?  This stunning, off-the-beaten-track region is Tuscany’s southwestern corner on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, just an hour and a half north of Rome. Since most people identify Tuscan wine with the Sangiovese-based Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, you could be excused for not recognizing this vinously diverse Denominazione di Origine (Maremma Toscana DOC) as a wine growing area.  Judging from its history though, the area clearly has potential. Just look at Bolgheri, the DOC that is home to now famous Bordeaux blends, including those mentioned above.  Vermentino thrives in Bolgheri as well, at least in Grattamacco’s hands.

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Bolgheri was, and still is, in the Maremma geographically.  It split off vinously, gaining its own DOC in 1983, and was further subdivided in 2013 when the Italian wine authorities awarded Bolgheri Sassicaia its own DOC in 2013.  Maremma claims other DOCs, such as Bianco di Pitigliano or Sovana, to name just two and two DOCGs (Denominazione di Origine e Garantita), Morellino di Scansano and Montecucco Sangiovese.  Expect to see more parcelization of the Maremma Toscana DOC in the future as growers figure out what grapes do best in each of the area’s diverse locales.

The classic imagery of the Maremma is as different from the rest of Tuscany as its wines are.  You won’t see tourist posters sporting the tall Tuscan cypress trees, though those certainly do dot the landscape.  Rather, it’s cowboys riding atop horses outfitted with specially designed saddles and carrying frassinello (whips made from a local bush).  These cowboys, butteri as they are known in Italian, still herd long-horn cattle in the Maremma.

As recently as a hundred years ago, part of the Maremma was still malaria-infested marsh.  In the 18th century Leonardo Ximenes, an Italian of Spanish descent and a hydraulic engineer, figured out how to drain the vast marshland.  The work was continued in the 19th century under Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany, and finally finished in the 20th century under Mussolini.  Vestiges of the area’s history is still apparent with its perched villages, which were built, not for usual medieval defensive advantage of resisting attacks from neighboring regions, but rather to keep the residents safe from a different enemy—malaria lurking below.

Sangiovese, not surprisingly since Maremma is part of Tuscany, accounts for just under half of the plantings in the vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon and Vermentino following and accounting for 10 and 9 percent, respectively, according to the Maremma Toscana Consorzio Tutela Vini.  But growers are experimenting with lots of different grapes.  The Consorzio reports 26 “main” varieties, including, for example, Alicante (known as Grenache or Garnacha elsewhere), Ciliegiolo and Pugnitello.  This being Italy, who knows how many other varieties are planted in the region, reflecting the enormous diversity of the area.  Sassotondo, one of the region’s best producers, for example, is experimenting with Nocchianello Nero, a variety that’s not yet registered with the authorities.

More telling is what’s happened in the last decade.  The plantings of Vermentino have increased more than 500 percent (from 350 to 1,900 acres) from 2006 until 2018, compared to plantings of Sangiovese, which increased only 10 percent over the same time period, according to data supplied by the Consorzio.  More striking, in 2018, the amount of Vermentino harvested nearly equaled that of Sangiovese for DOC Maremma Toscana.  Over a similar period, the plantings of all of the so-called “international varieties” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and Viognier) has also increased anywhere from 50 percent (Cabernet Sauvignon) to 300 percent (Chardonnay) to over 1,000 percent (Viognier, which, to be fair, started with only 25 acres and increased to still only 300 acres).  These statistics confirm that, over the last decade, growers have been investigating what works.

Luca Pollini, the manager of the Maremma Toscana Consorzio Tutela Vini, explains, “there is a vast range of properties with lots of small producers working hard to improve their wines.”  In addition, there has been enormous “outside” (of Maremma) investment in the region.  Leading Italian producers who have estates in other parts of Tuscany, such as Antinori, Castello di Volpaia, Cecchi, Frescobaldi, Mazzei, and Zonin, to name just a few, have purchased vineyards and established wineries in the area.  The Bordelais have seen the area’s potential, with Eric de Rothschild of Lafite-Rothschild collaborating with Paolo Panerai of Castellare di Castellina, another leading Chianti Classico estate, to form Rocca di Frassinello, an architectural gem of a winery whose wines are as impressive as the building.  They’re already try to challenge Masseto with their Merlot-based wine, Baffonero.  I, for one, can’t wait to see how that competition turns out.

Francesco Mazzei, President of the Consorzio, thinks the area’s potential is limitless.  He believes the white wines will be driven by Vermentino plus a few others, but the reds have no leading grape at this point.  Though there is focus on the international varieties, he believes that the lesser known indigenous varieties will not disappear because the area is vast, much larger than Montalcino or even Chianti, with many different microclimates.  Alison Jane Hodder, a transplanted Australian winemaker who married an Italian mining engineer and now runs De Vinosalvo, notes succinctly, “Maremma Toscana stands for openness.”  She compares the experimentation that is going on there to what happens in New World wine areas.  She and others say that with fewer rules they can see what works.  She envisions more DOCs to emerge, perhaps a coastal strip for Bordeaux varieties, mimicking Bolgheri.  Mazzei thinks it’s possible that there will be a future DOC focusing on Vermentino.

Small growers echo these sentiments.  Iacopo Becherini of La Chimera d’Albegna plans to pull out Sangiovese and replace it with Merlot or other varieties.  He explains, “there is already too much Sangiovese.  Why do I want to compete with Brunello or other Sangiovese-based wines?”

Pepi Lignana, owner of Fattoria Casalone, whose talents are apparent in his excellent Cabernet from the different 2014 vintage and an even better one from 2016, plans on expanding his 40-acre estate with another 7 acres of Vermentino and Cabernet Franc, two varieties he believes are well suited to his area.

Will Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or other international ones, either by themselves, or in a blend, be the way to go in the Maremma?  Maybe single varietal Ciliegiolo or Alicante.  How about Vermentino by itself or with a touch of Viognier in the blend?  The possibilities are nearly endless.  Likely, when the dust settles in another decade or two, it will turn out that one size does not fit all.

I’ll report on the individual producers, who are as varied as the grape varieties, in a future column.

So, the next time you drink a Vermentino, a Ciliegiolo or a Bordeaux-blend from the Maremma Toscana DOC, raise a glass and toast an Italian/Spanish engineer who is responsible for some of Italy’s most exciting wines.

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November 6, 2019

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