Marvelous Morellino

Here’s the report I promised, in an earlier post, of the second half of my recent trip to Italy, visiting wine producers. This was to Scansano in Tuscany.

If you like the flavor of Sangiovese – if you’re a fan of Chianti Classico or Brunello, you fit the bill – you owe it to yourself to try Morellino di Scansano. It’s a long name, but easy to pronounce: maw-ruh-LEE-no dee scan-SAH-no. Even the least polyglot of my trip companions had no trouble with that. (Right, Michael?)

Morellino grapesMorellino is the local name for Sangiovese in the Scansano zone, a chunk of the Tuscan Maremma about 60 miles east of Siena. (More about the Maremma later.) Whether it is or isn’t a distinct clone is a matter of debate among the experts, but that doesn’t really matter much to us simple winebibbers. (I’ve always liked that word. When the Apostle Paul went to Corinth, he found it filled with drunkards and winebibbers. My kind of people.)  The Morellino regulations prescribe that the wine be vinified of minimally 85 percent Morellino and 15 percent other approved red varieties – the latter numerous and not all native. The most commonly used are the Tuscan indigenes Ciliegiolo and Colorino, and occasionally Canaiolo, but Merlot and Cabernet are also permissible.

The wine can be made from up to 100 percent Morellino, and many producers are doing so, because, whether or not it is a separate clone, Morellino’s long adaptation to the soils and climate of the Maremma have given it a different character from the Sangiovese of Chianti or Brunello. It yields a softer wine, with fresher, more forward fruit, so it’s more immediately balanced and drinkable than either of its more famous relatives. “More accessible” is the winespeak way to say all that: Juicier would do in plain English.  Any way you say it, it’s the first reason to seek out Morellino.

The Maremma is a sprawling zone of mixed hills and lowlands, lying just behind the dunes of the Tuscan coast. Originally Etruscan territory (there are still vestiges of the silver and tin mines the Etruscans worked more than 2500 years ago), the Maremma stagnated for centuries as the land sank, became marshy and ultimately malarial, and the population thinned and prosperity evaporated. The Fascists finally drained the marshes in the 1930s and made the land usable again, but the Maremma has only gradually caught up with history.

Morellino vineyards, with Scansano on the horizon

Morellino vineyards, with Scansano on the horizon

While its beach resorts achieved great international popularity soon after World War II – there are stretches of the Tuscan coast where you’re now more likely to hear Guten Morgen than Buon giorno – the inland portion only started reawakening in the 1990s, when serious winemakers from Chianti Classico and Montalcino noticed the quality of the wine being made by Maremma pioneers like Erik Banti, Le Pupille, Mantellassi, and Moris Farms. These potential emigrants also noticed that, in contrast to the Chianti Classico zone or the Brunello zone, good vineyard land was both available and inexpensive. The rush was definitely on, and they came in droves: most notably Biondi Santi, but also Barbi and Antinori, Cecchi and Fonterutoli, Frescobaldi and Poliziano – and that’s only some of the speculators on Morellino’s future.

Those different producers have been settling into the Maremma in their own divergent ways. The differences show mostly in their IGT wines, made with varying combinations of usually French grapes, and in their Morellino Riserva wines. These they all want to make important – usually, for my palate, by trying to alter the wonderfully friendly nature of Morellino into something more austere and concentrated. Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware – these are still evolving experiments, and I haven’t been excited by very many of them.

Happily for all of us, producers disagree very little about the character of the basic Morellino di Scansano DOCG. (The wine was raised from DOC to DOCG just two years ago, and that is a good measure of its perceived accomplishment within Italy.) Most producers make Morellino fresh and welcoming, with immediately enjoyable, soft, cherry/berry Sangiovese fruit. It drinks well with a ham sandwich, with a hamburger, with a steak, with mushrooms, with the savory Maremmana specialty of pasta with a dark, long-cooked sauce of tomato and cinghiale. (See Diane’s recipe in her comment, below.) Those are the wild boar who only reluctantly share the Maremma with human interlopers. The boar love to feed on the ripe grapes, so it’s only fair that the grape growers should in turn eat the boar as an accompaniment to the lovely wine those grapes yield. The food chain in action can be a delight for an omnivore, especially one with a bottle of Morellino on the table.

Here are some recommended producers: 

Belguardo:  Fonterutoli’s outpost in the Maremma. The house’s Morellino, Bronzone, is crafted to be big but retains plenty of fruit and acid to sustain its heft. Like all Morellino, it partners well with food, but it wants more substantial dishes than most.

Castello di Montepò:  Jacopo Biondi-Santi’s gorgeous estate very stylishly turns out the whole range of Maremma wines – IGT Braccale (80/20 Sangiovese and Merlot), IGT Sassoalloro (all Sangiovese), DOCG Castello di Montepo Morellino and Morellino Riserva (both roughly 95/5 Sangiovese/Cabernet), IGT Montepaone (100 percent Cabernet sauvignon), and Jacopo’s pride, IGT Schidione (40/40/20 Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot). All the Sangiovese vines are the famed Biondi-Santi clone from Montalcino.

Sellari Franceschini:  An old house, now making lovely Morellino and very sound Morellino Riserva. Two basic wines, Morello Gaggioli and Morello, both with lovely soft fruit and fine aging capacity.

Le Pupille:  long-time Morellino pace-setter, a little off-stride right now (family problems). But the basic Morellino remains a solid wine, rich with soft Sangiovese fruit.

Mandorlaia:  Count Ferdinando Guicciardini, of Castello di Poppiano in the Colli Fiorentini Chianti zone, here works with the Maremmana clones of Sangiovese to good effect, especially in his Morellino Carbonile. The Riserva is more international in style, with a touch too much wood for my palate, but it will please a lot of people less traditional than I.

Mantellassi:  A Maremma old-timer who has makes a fine basic Morellino called Mentore and a stylish cru called San Giuseppe (both 85 percent Sangiovese, the rest Cabernet and Canaiolo).

Moris Farms:  A top-notch performer. The basic Morellino combines excellent fruit and great elegance, while the house’s pride, the IGT Avvoltore, blends Sangiovese, Cabernet sauvignon, and a little Syrah with great success – stylish, mouth-filling, and still tasting of Tuscany.

One Response to “Marvelous Morellino”

  1. Diane Darrow Says:

    Maremmana Wild Boar Ragù

    This is a lovely rich sauce for pasta, time-consuming but totally easy to make. Boar is a deeply flavorful but pretty tough muscle meat, so it requires long cooking. Do it on a cold winter’s day, perhaps, when playing in the kitchen is the most attractive activity you can think of. If you have no murderous impulses toward any wild boars that may be nibbling on your grapevines, you can buy boar meat online from dartagnan.com. Quantities given here will dress six portions of pasta.

    1/3 cup olive oil
    ½ cup carrot, chopped
    ½ cup onion, chopped
    1 stalk celery, chopped
    2-3 basil leaves
    1 pound boar meat, cut in 1½ inch chunks
    Salt
    Freshly ground black pepper
    ½ cup dry red wine
    ½ cup drained, canned Italian-style tomatoes, chopped
    1 tablespoon tomato paste, dissolved in 1 cup warm water
    ¼ to ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms

    In a broad casserole, warm the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the carrot, onion, celery, basil, and boar. Season with salt and a generous amount of pepper. Saute, stirring occasionally and turning the chunks of meat, until it has lost its raw red color.

    Raise heat to high, pour on the wine, and stir all together well. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes, uncovered, by which time the liquid should be nearly evaporated. Add the chopped tomatoes and diluted tomato paste. Cook over gentle heat, uncovered to start, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, about 1½ hours. If the sauce is thickening too much after the first half hour, add hot water, ¼ cup at a time, and cover the pan.

    Meanwhile, soak the porcini in 1 cup hot water for 20 minutes, then drain, saving the liquid. Carefully rinse the pieces, chop them fine, and rinse again. (Porcini can harbor a lot of grit!) Strain the soaking liquid through a paper towel and set it aside.

    When the boar is nearly tender, remove the meat to a cutting board and chop it finely. Pass the sauce through a food mill or food processor. Return it to the casserole along with the chopped meat, porcini, and soaking liquid. Stir all together well and simmer for another 30 minutes.

    Serve over pasta, passing freshly ground black pepper and grated parmigiano. Leftovers freeze well.

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