While living on either end of Tuscany — first to its immediate north in Bologna, and then just south in Rome — I found myself becoming increasingly anti-Tuscan.
I joked about the difficulty of finding a Florentine in Florence, and I rolled my eyes at friends’ stories about visiting “the cutest Tuscan hill town!”
My internal justifications went something like this: Chianti? The local, cheaper Sangiovese suited me just fine. Art? Why travel to see the David when I could walk to the Pieta? Food? Don’t get me started on Tuscan bread.
Now that I’ve disclosed my irrational prejudice against all things Tuscan, let’s talk Tuscan wine.
Italy has some iconic wines — think Barolo, Amarone, Pinot Grigio — but perhaps the most iconic of all is Chianti. Just mentioning the word conjures images of candlelit spaghetti dinners, checkered tablecloths, and mustachioed waiters singing “’O Sole Mio.”
Chianti likely became so famous because of its accessibility — it’s known for being affordable and easy-drinking, and it’s relatively easy to find. Its reputation has alternately peaked and plunged over the years. Today, Chianti’s wines can largely be divided into two categories: expensive, high-end bottlings that are often over-extracted and oaky, and cheap, insipid, mass-produced wine.
Admittedly, a few producers are still making terrific Chianti at a good price (e.g. Fontodi, Felsina, Monte Rotondo, and Querciabella), but they are relatively hard to find. I have had so many “blah” experiences with random Chianti bottles that I’ve mostly given it up.
As much as I’d love to use this as an excuse to write off Tuscan wines altogether, I’ll grudgingly admit that Tuscany’s terroir seems to be well-suited to making good wine. So I decided to search for a Chianti alternative.
The best-known Tuscan DOCG wines (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita, the top tier of Italian wine certifications) — Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Chianti Classico — are all made primarily with the Sangiovese grape, and showcase Sangiovese’s elegance and versatility. These wines are often good, even great, but the best are very expensive.
If Sangiovese is the key to great Tuscan wine, why not look beyond the famous appellations to find it at a better price point? Morellino di Scansano — also a Sangiovese-based Tuscan DOCG — fits the bill. It comes from the Maremma, an area south of Siena near the Tyrrhenian coast, about halfway between Rome and Florence. The region makes fresh, accessible wines that are usually priced between $15-$25.
Not much Morellino makes it to the US, but on the occasions I’ve tried it, I have been impressed. With my interest piqued, I jumped at the opportunity to attend a recent Morellino tasting in DC, co-hosted by the Consorzio Tutela Morellino di Scansano and Vigneto Communications.
Across the board, the Morellinos were simple but well-made, with tons of the bright red fruit that is typical of Maremma Sangiovese. A few winemakers used too much oak (to my taste), but even the oakier wines were preferable to many Chiantis I’ve had in their price range. These Sangioveses are meant to be drunk young; a wine to enjoy while ageing your Brunello.
My favorite wine of the night was made by Elke and Nikolaus Buchheim at Poggio Nibbiale. Their son was pouring, and he gave me a brief rundown of the estate: his German parents bought the land in 1998, and now have 11 hectares of vines, mostly Sangiovese. They practice organic viticulture (but are not certified) and rely on spontaneous fermentation by ambient yeasts. Only one of their wines was available to taste, the 2008 “Tommaso” Morellino di Scansano Riserva DOCG, which was surprisingly fresh and juicy considering its eighteen months of barrel age. Red berries, cedar, tobacco and cherries dominated the palate. I’m a convert.
Another highlight was Poggio Argentiera. They are one of a handful of wineries who use the grape Ciliegiolo in their Morellino blends, which adds a burst of cherry to the Sangiovese. Of their two Morellinos on offer, I preferred the 2012 “Bellamarsilia” DOCG, which is 85% Sangiovese and 15% Ciliegiolo. It showed pure red fruit and had a backbone of dusty tannins, and would be perfect with some Tuscan salami and pecorino cheese. The second wine was their 2010 “Capatosta” DOCG, which has 5% Alicante in the blend. The addition of the Alicante, along with a longer oak regimen, made for a much darker and stiffer wine than the “Bellamarsilia.” This wine shows potential, but needs time for its tannins to soften and integrate.
Rounding out my favorite producers was was Tenuta Pietramora di Collefagiano. The estate was bought and replanted by its current owners in 1999, and is certified organic. The wine on offer was their 2010 “Petramora” Morellino di Scansano DOCG, which is 85% Sangiovese and 15% Merlot. The Merlot (I was skeptical) distinguished this wine by contributing a pleasant meatiness not found in the other Morellinos. It was a big wine at 14.5% alcohol, but the weight was nicely balanced by Sangiovese’s characteristic acidity.
While my anti-Tuscan feelings haven’t completely disappeared, they’ve softened considerably — I really enjoyed these wines. They were exactly what I was looking for in a Chianti alternative. These Morellinos were bright, fresh expressions of Sangiovese, from grower-producers whose winesemphasize both their terroir and their own personal style.
Morellino di Scansano was granted DOCG status only six years ago. And a recent flood of investment — including purchases by Tuscan heavyweights Banfi and Frescobaldi — means that the region is developing rapidly. As a result, I suspect we will soon see more Morellino in the United States. This is great news for me, since I’m too much of a curmudgeon to enjoy it at the source.