Maremma, Tuscany’s Underestimated Corner
Driving south from Siena, I enjoyed experiencing the landscape and climate of Tuscany undergo nuanced changes. The vegetation became more spaced, the fields wider. The hills became more rolling. It was palpably warmer. Below the vines, the grains and the cypress trees the soils, which I obviously was not able to see directly, started to become more volcanic; Mount Amiata. extinct volcano and guardian of both Brunello di Montalcino and Montecucco is nearby. I was on my way to Grosseto, to taste wines and experience a region that I had not yet visited: the Maremma.
Why the Maremma?
Okay, it is no secret that I have a thing for high-quality, smaller producers; lesser-known, indigenous grapes; and appellations that most people may not have heard of. I like to find people doing good work with local material in places that aren’t famous. It’s what keeps my wine motor running. And this trip was a fantastic opportunity to tick all of those boxes: going to southern Tuscany for the latest edition of MaremmaCheVini, an event, held annually since the founding of the Consortium for the Maremma Toscana DOC, designed to present the wines, food and culure of the region to journalists and buyers – as well as to the locals, who are known to enjoy a drop or two themselves. This year the setting was in the historic Cassero Senese in Grosseto.
But I am on my way mostly for two reasons: to try as much Pugnitello and Ciliegiolo as I can find, and to see what else I can discover.
But why Pugnitello and Ciliegiolo?
Well, I’ve been having a not-so-secret love affair with Pugnitello for about a year-and-a-half, now – but it is an elusive grape to find bottled as a monovarietal. Since it comes from the Maremma, originally, I’m optimistic that there will be a few producers there making such bottlings. Surprisingly, while Pugnitello is permitted in the Maremma Toscana DOC, it is NOT one of the main permitted varieties. Producers who want to bottle a monovarietal Pugnitello are obliged to classify it as a Toscana IGT. Which is a pity.
But Ciliegiolo? That’s different. Up until this trip, I had only ever tried two monovarietal bottlings of it – and that was just a month prior. It’s usually found in blends (most often with Sangiovese), and tracking it down on its own is, currently, not easy. But I had read and heard so much about its quality from several experts whom I highly respect, that I was both intrigued and excited to find some. And, like Pugnitello, it is at home in the Maremma. Unlike Pugnitello, it is acknowledged as one of the main grapes in the Maremma Toscana DOC.
Where is the Maremma?
The Maremma is found in the south and southwest of Tuscany, occupying the entirety of the province of Grosseto. It is a large DOC that encompasses both Morellino di Scansanco DOCG and Montecucco DOC, about which I recently wrote. Since these two other DOCs occupy some of the same territory, producers with appropriate grapes and in the right part of the region can choose which DOC – if any – they would like to bottle their wines under.
It is a region of warm temperatures, splendid natural beauty, an enviable coastline, extremely diverse geology and a history going back to the Etruscans and further. The fact that the Maremma remains “somewhat overlooked” has a bit to do with the infrastructure (closest airports are all hours away) and a lot to do with the rest of Tuscany being so, well, famous. Famous, of course, with good reason: culturally, it is difficult to compete with the density of art, museums and architecture to be found in Florence or Siena. And as far as wine is concerned, there is plenty of famous competition coming from the more well-known parts of Tuscany: you will find Chianti in all its incarnations (Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi and more), Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, stately Brunello and – barely up the coast a bit from the Maremma – the legendary “Super-Tuscans” of Bolgheri, just to name a few of the most prestigious and well-travelled of the local reds.
Fame. That’s one of the things that the Maremma is going to need time to build – at least as far as their wines are concerned.
What’s the Deal?
The Maremma Toscana DOC has only existed since being elevated from IGT status in 2011, making it one of the younger appellations in Italy. But don’t take that to mean that the vinous history here is also very young; wines have been made in this region for millennia. In fact, there is a particular old tradition of making wine in clay jars that is now undergoing a bit of a revival, in the wake of the trend towards amphorae that seems to be catching on nearly everywhere these days.
And there are several very high-quality grapes that are indigenous or traditional to the region, including Pugnitello (“discovered” here in the 1980s) and Ciliegiolo, which I already mentioned above, but also a pair of nearly-extinct treasures called Nochianello Rosso and Nochianello Bianco. More on them later.
Naturally, there are also many of the more common grapes found in Italy: Sangiovese is planted here, as it is virtually everywhere in the country, but also Ansonica: a delightful, delicate, nutty white variety more often encountered in Sicily. And Vermentino is here – and is making some of the best examples to be found outside of Sardinia. Like in Bolgheri, international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay are also found all over the place, and the climate and soils here are well-suited to allowing these grapes to express themselves. But, unlike Bolgheri, which focuses on those international varieties nearly to exclusion, the Maremma is more about diversity. There is a lot of exciting stuff going on with those native and traditional varieties. And that is where its strength lies and where, in my opinion, it needs to keep its focus.
Maremma Toscana DOC
With over 8750 hectares under vine, the Maremma is not exactly small. Particularly once you realize that there are 450,000 hectares available! This is not only on the Italian peninsula, either; the nearby island of Giglio is also part of the Maremma. But not all of these vines are part of the Maremma Toscana DOC; only 1750 hectares are part of that. The countryside looks typically Tuscan, with the kinds of polyculture that one finds there; olive trees are an important feature of the landscape, and the olive oil is significant to the local economy.
The soils are very diverse. From alluvial plains at the coast over central schist, clay and marl to tuff in the southeastern corner. There’s sand, too, and limestone. In fact, most soil types you would like to look at are found in the Maremma somewhere.
But the most characteristic, for me, have to be the outcroppings of tuff around Pitigliano and Sovana. The two villages themselves are built on and out of the compressed volcanic ash – and are two of Italy’s most beautiful villages.
Mostly Mediterranean, and warmer at the coast than farther inland.
It is possible to make red, white, and rosé, as well as sparkling, passito and Vin Santo in the DOC. Any of the main permitted grapes can be bottled as a “monovarietal” with the name of the variety appended to the DOC on the label (for example: Maremma Toscana DOC Ciliegiolo), but this then requires that there be a minimum of 85% of that grape in the wine, with the balance being made up of other permitted grapes of the same colour.
Rosés (called rosato in Italian) are a growing trend worldwide, and the Maremma is doing their part to produce good quality wines in the category – and with great success.
For white wines, the most important grape is easily Vermentino, which produces aromatic wines of very good complexity and character here – and is currently 17% of total production, making it the number one white variety by a very, very large margin. White wines in Tuscany have never been as important as the reds, but the Maremma devotes more attention to them than anywhere else.
For reds, it is far more difficult to say which variety is the most important; with the exception of Canaiolo, all of the main varieties are often bottled.
The main permitted grape varieties are:
Red: Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo, Canaiolo, Alicante Bouschet (considered a traditional grape of the Maremma), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah
White: Vermentino, Ansonica, Trebbiano Toscano, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
The Native Grapes
If you have read my article on tannic Italian native grapes, you will already know everything you need to know about Pugnitello and my affection for it.
Pugnitello was, in fact, discovered in the Maremma – at a village called Poggi del Sasso, between Grosseto and Montalcino. Its greatest proponent now is the San Felice estate of Chianti Classico fame, but it is in the Maremma that you will find the largest concentration of monovarietal bottlings. Which is not the same as saying there are many, because there aren’t – yet. But this darkly-coloured, delightfully tannic, fruity and fresh variety is a rising star, so keep your eyes peeled.
Some producers from the Maremma making monovarietal Pugnitello:
Nochianello Nero and Bianco
What is this? Two nearly-extinct grape varieties, brought back from the brink by a passionate estate? Yes, Please!
Apparently Nochianello accounted for about 50% of the vineyard in the Maremma as recently as 60 years ago – but, in a sad song familiar from all over Italy, was uprooted in favour of higher-yielding, less difficult grapes. And, to continue the refrain, it was spared an ignominious and untimely exit by the passion of a single estate: Sassotondo near Pitigliano. With their 500 vines, they are currently the only producer bottling it, and the first vintage was 2015. I was lucky enough to taste a bottling of the Nochianello Nero, and I tell you: it is a grape worth saving! Sure, maybe it won’t create some of the world’s greatest reds, but it will absolutely pull its weight in a blend, as well as giving the region another arrow in their quiver. It was beautifully peppery and spicy, fresh and with red berry fruit and fine tannin. I’d love to see it catch on.
The only producer in the Maremma currently bottling Nochianello of either colour:
What a grape! It was as recently as April, at Vinitaly, that I first was able to try a monovarietal bottling of this oft-overlooked variety. For more information, refer to my article on Ciliegiolo.
Ciliegiolo is found across central Italy and is most likely native to Tuscany. Generally it is found in blends – most often with Sangiovese. But monovarietal bottlings are increasing, and nobody is doing it as well as the Maremma. In fact, if the Maremma Toscana DOC were to have a single, representative red variety – regardless of what grape is actually bottled most in the region – then this would be it. Carla Benini of the Sassotondo estate – specialists for Ciliegiolo – laments the “missed opportunity” of the DOC, which did not make Ciliegiolo a priority in the regulations at the establishment of the DOC. Currently, a “monovarietal” Ciliegiolo need have only 85% of the grape, with the other 15% coming from other red grapes permitted in the DOC.
Made as a red or as a rosato (rosé). Fruity, light or full-bodied, with good acidity, smooth tannin and darker colour than the Sangiovese with which it has historically often been confused, this grape has plenty to offer. And it is both heat and drought-resistant, two qualities that are extremely useful and practical in such a warm region.
At the MaremmaCheVini event, I was able to try no less than 11 monovarietal (or nearly monovarietal wines, in the case of two, at 85% Ciliegiolo) from a total of eight producers. Good times.
Some producers from the Maremma making monovarietal Ciliegiolo:
What Stood Out
Even though I came down for a few of the native grapes (and found them!), they weren’t the only thing I was tasting. The region has everything it needs to make good, clean, easy-drinking and easy-to-understand wines – and it is achieving this in spades, particularly with the international varieties.
Far more interesting for me were the Italian varieties, and this was where the real quality of the zone started to show through. There was great Vermentino, Sangiovese, Ansonica and more at the tasting.
But, of course, what I was most taken with were the native grapes. This is where the Maremma can shine.
Here are some of the highlights:
Biodynamic estate specializing in Ciliegiolo – and responsible for saving Nochianello, though that wasn’t at the MaremmaCheVini event. Their Ciliegiolo bottlings are not only the benchmark, they are the calling card for the zone. I had the great pleasure of visiting the estate during my time in the Maremma, and there will be an article about it– with complete tasting notes on all of the wines – shortly. Nevertheless, at the tasting they had four of their wines, all Ciliegiolo, and all wonderful. Only downside? Nobody from the estate was there and the sommelier who was pouring for them did not have an ice bucket. When room temperature is 30°C, this is not a good way to show the wines – particularly the rosato, but also the reds.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Ciliegiolo 2016 – Ciliegiolo 100%. Loads of pepper, with cherry fruit to spare. Length, balance and relatively light on the palate. Easy drinking, clean and fresh.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Ciliegiolo 2016 “Poggio Pinzo” – Ciliegiolo 100%. From a more strict selection of grapes, there is more than enough red fruit, but far more definition and structure than the previous wine. Acidity and tannin are in excellent balance, and there is great length as well. Really beautiful stuff!
- Maremma Toscana DOC Ciliegiolo 2013 “San Lorenzo” – Ciliegiolo 100%. A single parcel from the oldest vines at the estate, aged 50% in barrique. Enormous complexity, with sous-bois, a hint of truffle and lots of spice on top of the fresh fruit aspect. Perfumed, filigree and with enormous potential, this is a wine that is going places.
La Selva Società Bioagricola
An organic farm with olive oil and other products, who also are making very good wines. Located in Magliano in Toscana.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Ciliegiolo 2014 – Ciliegiolo 100%. Cherry candy with caramel and a touch of earthiness. Light, racy, with good length.
- Toscana IGT Rosso Pugnitello 2013 – Pugnitello 100%. Spicy, deep, grippy and with plenty of red and black fruit. 20-25 months in oak, great freshness, good length. Stellar representative of the grape variety.
This estate is in Gavorrano, making sparkling and still wines – and one of the nicest (mostly) Sangiovese wines at the tasting. Also making wine in clay jars, which is becoming a trend in the zone.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Rosso 2012 “Sessanta” – Sangiovese 90%, Alicante Bouschet 10%. Great, dusty fruit so typical of Sangiovese, ll sour cherry and violets, with arch-typical grippy, fine tannin. Tiny hint of reduction, but there is great balance and typicity.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Syrah 2015 “Marujo” – Syrah 100%, made in clay jars of 5000 litres. This is an ancient tradition being applied to a non-native grape – with great success. Plenty of typicity, with juniper and black pepper, underscored by fine, chalky tannin. Great length, juicy and structured.
Tenuta Il Sassone
An organic estate in Massa Marittima, focusing on indigenous grapes, but with some Syrah as well.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Ciliegiolo 2015 “Poggio Curzio” – Ciliegiolo 100%. Indigenous yeasts and spontaneous fermentation. Aged for 12 months in barrels of French and Slavonian oak. Cherry popsicle! Light, fresh and with good length. Wonderful fruit, lively and fun.
- Toscana IGT Rosso Pugnitello 2014 “Terigi” – Pignitello 100%. Indigenous yeasts and spontaneous fermentation. Aged for 12 months in French barriques of first and second use. A bit reductive in the nose, but great intensity, minty and earthy. Fantastic plum and dark fruit, with good length and balance.
A cooperative in Magliano in Toscana, with plenty of different products. Their whites were some of the nicest I had, and their Ciliegiolo was lovely and with great fruit.
- Toscana IG Ansonica 2017 – Ansonica 85%, Vermentino 15%, and a really lovely, dense, long and structured wine, with the nuttiness of the Ansonica and the freshness and floral notes of the Vermentino. Good fruit, great length.
- Maremma Toscana DOC Vermentino 2017 “Marmato” – Vermentino 100%. All-steel fermentation, there is such great fruit here, with pepper and sweet spice. Good density, good length, good acidity – and delicious.
A region as diverse as the Maremma can quickly suffer from an identity crisis. The fact that there are so many international as well as traditional grapes permitted under the DOC may make things more flexible for the producers, but it doesn’t do a lot for establishing an identity for the zone. For me, the solution is to focus on what is there that isn’t anywhere else: the native grapes.
The zone has the substance, good producers and first-rate material in the form of Pugnitello and especially Ciliegiolo, with other, hitherto neglected varieties like the Nochianellos waiting in the wings. With worldwide wine and food trends focusing increasingly on local specialties, artisanal production and unique articles, the time is ripe for such grapes to take center stage. It would be a terrible shame if they miss the opportunity.