On the heels of a bad boy Tuscan red


On the heels of a bad boy Tuscan red

28 April 2017

Coming from the southern Tuscan territory the Maremma, Morellino di Scansano isn't a wine for lightweights.

Think Tuscan red. Think Chianti, right? Well, when it comes to wine (and most things in life), southern Tuscany doesn’t play by the rules. While our northern neighbors wax lyrical about the virtues of the cinnamon spice and floral bouquet of Chianti Classico, our emblematic red punches you in the face: Morellino di Scansano. And despite its lackluster international fame, it has held the coveted DOCG status since 2002.

To the ends of the earth (or the border of Tuscany and Lazio)

Morellino’s berries hail from the tiny town of Scansano on the border of Lazio and Tuscany. This is no man’s land, or more accurately, a land no man wanted thanks to the rampant malaria, brigands, and all-around unsavory nature of its residents. Colloquially, the province is called the Maremma, a name you might have heard in connection to the much-hyped Saturnia hot springs, which just so happens to be the world’s best free hot spring. The Lonely Planet’s words, not mine, who also described it as a “truly idyllic Tuscan escape.” Saturnia Hot Springs - © Elisa Scarton Detti Saturnia Hot Springs - © Elisa Scarton Detti

A 40-minute drive from Saturnia, Scansano’s vineyards wind their way up the hill to brush the town’s walls with their tendrils. For the locals cloistered inside the medieval stone fortress, wine is a serious business. They sacrifice their livers to it every September at the annual Festa dell’Uva. They built a tiny viticulture museum in homage to it. And they’ve spent more than one pay check at the excellent cantinas that seem to have replaced every storefront in town. There are three schools of thought when it comes to Morellino di Scansano’s name. Depending on whom you ask, it’s the local dialect for the Sangiovese grape variety, a play on the world morello (brown), the color of the region’s horses, or a nod to the morello red cherry, a dark berry that looks very much like the Sangiovese. Pick whichever story takes your fancy and let’s move on. Horses of the Maremma - © Elisa Scarton Detti Horses of the Maremma - © Elisa Scarton Detti

Not for lightweights

The first time I tasted Morellino di Scansano, I almost spat it back out. The Telegraph’s resident wine expert, Harry Eyres, described it as “the sensualist’s wine.” Not one for the intellectuals, but “enticing and voluptuous, soft dark cherry verging on plum, ripe and succulent.” All I can remember is not being able to feel my throat. Morellino di Scansano isn’t for lightweights. It’s a powerful red that announces its presence before settling in the back of your palette and staying there. And for good reason: Morellino’s roots aren’t exactly refined. The locals will tell you this Sangiovese variety is a descendant of the varieties used by the Etruscans to make their tipple of choice. The jury’s still out on that one, but Morellino is closely tied to the cultura contadina (or peasant’s culture) of the Maremma. In the pre- and post-war years of the 19th century, most families had their own little vineyard with just enough grapes to produce wine for the household. The hardy red was poured into carafes to take to the fields and placed on tables laden with vegetable soups and chunks of cheese. Morellino di Scansano was designed as the perfect complement to Maremman cooking. Pieces of wild boar stewed for hours in rich tomato sauces, bowls of acquacotta (a vegetable soup served with an egg) and what sounds like an overly simple (and very unsatisfactory) dessert fashioned from ricotta and old bread. The Maremman regional fare was humble, and so their wine was humble, too. You didn’t take the time to consider the perfect decanting temperature or mess about with sulphites and additives. You crushed the grapes with your feet, poured whatever came out into a barrel, and waited until it didn’t taste like fruit juice anymore.

Over the hills and into the wineries

Today, very few locals need to scratch a living off the land. It’s so much easier for producers and farmers to transform their estates into popular agriturismi for the city-slicking tourists who want to see a more authentic side of Tuscany. But culinary tastes haven’t changed: many still crave the flavors of their forefathers and will happily tell you that Morellino di Scansano is their favorite wine. Many locals still grow their own grapes and make their own wine, and production has become much more sophisticated in the past several decades. At its best, Morellino is fruit-forward, well-structured, and has a great balance between acidity and soft texture. Drunk young, it can still reach surprising depth. Producers of Morellino di Scansano - © Fattorie Le Pupille © Fattorie Le Pupille

The brute force of Morellino is something to be celebrated, as is its uncomplicated and honest flavor profile. Award-winning wineries dot the hills from one end of the Maremma to the other, and while some of their compatriots have had incredible success with imported grape varietals and pinot grigios, they are making waves with what grows naturally in their backyards. So if you’re planning a visit to Tuscany, give Florence a miss and embrace a wine-fueled road trip to the region’s wild south, where the drink has come a long way since its uncouth beginnings, and everyone always offers you a free top-up.