Some Italian regions have a huge range of local grape varieties – ‘autoctoni’ – as they like to say. Not surprisingly the regions with the most are the historic wine growing regions. It is therefore not a surprise that the Tuscan coast or Maremma does not boast many local varieties as for most of history it was more famous for its herds of cows, not to mention mosquito-infested swamps, than its fine wines. Quality wine production only started here after the second world war and only really got going in the 1990s.
None of this stopped the regional body, Maremma Wineshire (I know – Italians love a bit of cod English) putting on a master class on ‘Local varieties of the Tuscan Maremma’ at Vinitaly in April 2013. Marco Sabellico, well known wine expert on Italian TV, led it with a genial spirit and an outstanding moustache. The varieties featured were Alicante, Ciliegiolo and Pugnitello, each with its own story and potential. Three reds, as it happens. Depending on how high you set the bar for what counts as an indigenous variety, it could have considered Ansonica or even Vermentino for whites.
Alicante is a case in point. As the name indicates it is Spanish in origin but it has been grown in the southern Maremma for a couple of hundred years. In fact it is Garnacha, widely grown in Spain and as Grenache in France. You can argue that after a couple of centuries in the hot dry conditions of the Tuscan coast and islands it has some real local character … There are parts of north east Italy where Merlot virtually counts indigenous by this standard. Ciliegiolo, usually met as a minor part of Chianti and similar blends, must also have a query against it. It has recently come to fame in that it is now deemed to be one parent of Sangiovese (the other being the unknown Calabrese Montenuovo since you ask). But, again nobody really knows where Ciliegiolo originates from, but it is certainly a feature of Maremman viticulture, so why not claim it? Pugnitello is even rarer but is just beginning to be grown again by small, proud growers – several of whom have told me they are the only property to be making 100% versions. Again there is no clear view of its origins other than that it is thought to be Tuscan.
Of course, most drinkers will mainly interested in whether the wines are any good. Some local wines remain local for a very good reason! But the answer here is yes, these have real character and some distinctiveness, and we should treasure them.
Querciolaia, Mantellassi, Maremma Toscana IGT Alicante, 2007 – for me this was the real discover for quality of these six. 100% Alicante, deep ruby in colour, beautifully developed intense blackberry and plum fruit, spicy, tobacco and dried figs. High impact, long smooth tannins. A star wine now at its peak after five years. Mantellassi is one of the best established wineries in the southern Maremma and its quality shows here.
Poggi ai Lupi, DOC Toscana, Alicante, 2009 – a young vibrant example of Alicante, plums again, more red than black fruit here, sweet and ripe with that Mediterranean herby tang and a touch of saltiness. Good length.
San Lorenzo, Sassotondo, IGT Toscana Maremma, 2009 – this is the great wine made from Ciliegiolo and 2009 is another fine vintage. The named vineyard, San Lorenzo, also benefits from a very fine view of the Etruscan town of Pitigliano. For a profile of the delightful Carla Benini and her commitment to biodynamic viticulture, click here. Outstanding dense fruit, on the palate, balsam notes, cherry, herbal notes, Good use off some (25%) wood, medium plus elegant tannins and excellent length.
Pierotta, Ciliegiolo, IGT Maremma Toscana 2010 – leads with fresh sour cherry fruit (there is a reason for this variety having its name: ciliegia is Italian for cherry), real freshness, some tobacco and herb themes, medium length.
Sciresa, Poderi Firenze, 2011 – despite this name, this winery is in Arcidosso, so very much in the Maremma. Brilliant if not that deep ruby red, Light, subtle fruit (benefitting from being aged in cement and 500 litre tonneaux, so no overt oak effect), classic sour cherry and red plum fruit.
Pugnitello del Piaggione, Poggio al Gello, 2010 – this variety was recovered and identified at the San Felice research station in in the Chianti Classico area. It is notable for its small, compact, bunches of fruit with thick skins, high tannins and potential alcohol. Potentially very high quality. Dense ruby, spicy, clearly been in oak barrels, intense fruit, tannic finish, could be aged.
Più Tanto, Maremma Toscana IGT Pugnitello 2010 – according to its producer Pugnitello is easy to grow and is very productive. High pitched balsam notes, fruit on nose on palate (black cherry), high velvety tannins, ready to drink now (with food) but will age.
Even if the autoctoni in the Maremma may or not be indigenous, it is great to see these little known varieties being given a starring role.