This ancient town, set 40 kilometers in land from the sea, has neolithic, Etruscan and Roman periods. From the sixteenth century on its claim to fame was its hospitality to Jews, including the building of a temple in 1598. The town, perched on a spectacular outcrop of rock, also acts as an identifier for wines made from grapes grown on the tufa, the highly porous volcanic rock which is to be seen everywhere. The area has two DOCs – Sovana (for the reds of the Pitigliano and Sorano communes, based on Sangiovese) and Bianco di Pitigliano (Trebbiano based whites). Some producers would have preferred a red DOC based on Ciliegiolo, but that didn’t happen. There are not large numbers of wineries here. The new publication Maremma Wine Shire (2010) only lists six, though the cooperative Cantina di Pitigliano does have 550 members. But what they lack in numbers, they make up in highly individual wines with the mark of their very special place.
Links to featured wineries:
Just outside Pitigliano, Carla Benini and Edoardo Ventimiglia started their winery in 1990 drawing on Carla’s professional background as an agronomist and his success as a documentary film maker. They describe it as a flight from contemporary urban life and its preoccupations and visiting the estate on a bright spring day in 2007, it was not difficult to see why. They are surrounded by pasture and woodlands which – as they say – makes the site feel more remote than it is, half way between Pitigliano and Sovana. The house is a pleasantly ramshackle but the vineyards buzz with new life. They have farmed organically from the first and spring flowers and plants were bursting into life between the organised rows of vines. Carla was happy to show us around, stopping briefly to fulminate about her neighbour’s immaculately sprayed vineyard! The tufa is visible everywhere: at ground level, in the cellars cut in the natural caves, at the road side where you can see roots descending to metres below the surface. Notice also the ‘green manure’ crop growing between the organically tended vines.
In addition to the magical setting, what makes Sassotondo stand out is finding the right grape varieties and wine styles for its setting. Although the reds hold sway here, the white are not to be overlooked. They benefit from the tufa (volcanic compressed sandstone) with Trebbiano, supported by Sauvignon and Greco, achieving a good profile: nice clean nose, reasonable fruit and citrusy edge, then good minerality, refreshingly acidic finish.
The star attraction here, after the place, is Ciliegiolo [pron.: chi-li-edg-JO-lo], a red grape variety usually in the supporting cast to Sangiovese in Chianti and elsewhere in Tuscany. If anything it tends to come a poor third or fouth after Colorino and Cannaiolo. But here it stars in its own right: a quality red called Ciliegiolo (90%, with 10% Alicante) and a top wine, San Lorenzo, 100%, in purezza, as Italians like to say. The former is aged briefly in stainless steel and has great primary fruit flavours. In the glass it has a good deep ruby red with purple tinges, a great nose of cherries and plums – and smell of bacon according to my culinary son – rich sweet fruit on the palate, balanced tannins and acidity, quite a long finish. In short a red wine of great character. The good news is that it is currently stocked by the Wine Society, a brilliant bottle at just under £9.
Before we come to San Lorenzo, we note that Ciliegiolo has currently been given a leading role in wine science. According to the research centre in Alto Adige, it is not only definitely related to Sangiovese, it is almost certainly one of its parents (N Belfrage, Finest Wines of Tuscany, p. 27). If Sassotondo’s version is anything to go by, the other parent – a really obscure Campanian variety called Calabrese di Montenuovo – must have been particularly characterless.
San Lorenzo is treated as the top wine that it is. The best grapes are selected from nearly forty year old vines in the single vineyard opposite Pitigliano. After a maceration of 15-20 days, the wines are matured in new barriques for 18-24 months and then rested in their bottles for a year. In 2007 we tasted the 2001, which had a big nose combining fruit and the spice of wood (perhaps pepper and cloves). It still seemed quite closed and needed time to develop in the glass. Its makers praised its freshness and drinkability; other find it to be powerful and elegant. You can’t really praise it more than Nick Belfrage does: ‘It was at a tasting featuring the top wines of the Tuscan coast, a few years back, that San Lorenzo … stood out for me, among the Sassicaias and Ornellaias, as being the wine on display with most character.’ (Belfrage, Finest Wines, p 197) At around €30 it costs less than a third of its Super Tuscan colleagues!
Other wines are produced – a 100% Sangiovese and a oxidative white, Numero Sei, which I look forward to tasting in due course. What is clear is that the retreat to the country has been anything but a backward step. In fact it has brought something very special about this hidden part of the Southern Maremma to a wider world. Thank you to Edoardo Ventimiglia for these first three photos.
Update 2010: we met Carla again at Sassotondo in July during a period of brief storms followed by clear moments. While we were there we enjoyed a fantastic 180° rainbow and the most beautiful evening sunlight.
The new wines were also performing:
Another highly individual, biodynamic winery is to be found a few kilometres north west of Sovana at San Martino sul Fiora. (Technically its in the Manciano area but is close to the border.) Emilio Falcione runs a small holding at 500 metres above sea level, keeps wild breeds and makes super low intervention wines at La Bussatina. Unlike the surrounding tufa and clay, his soil has much more sand and his 30 year old vines give softness to the fruit. The wines are sold in local restaurants but not much beyond.
As we tasted in his house, he explained that every bottle is marginally different and that he prefers authenticity to uniformity. His white, San Martino 210 is 75% Trebbiano, 20% Malvasia and 5% Ansonica, a very traditional blend. As the wine opens up in the glass it shows powerful mineral notes, a certain waxiness on the palate, very rounded and full. We then try two vintages of Terre Eteree 2005 (85% Sangiovese, 15% Ciliegiolo, matured for 6 months in barriques and 6 months in the bottle) had a wonderful bouquet and was full of fruit; 2004, for most a better year, was more acidic but had good fruit and persistence. His Ciliegiolo 2003 stood up well to the extreme heat of that year but lost its freshness. The nose was rounded, not obvious or racy, good fruit again. None of these bottles were super clean in the modern style but they are textured, substantial wines in an over-homogenized world.
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