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Pioneering Tuscany's Maremma

Massive investment and dozens of new wines mark the emergence of this promising wine region

Jo Cooke, James Suckling
Posted: November 11, 2003

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In the past five years, millions of dollars have been poured into the vineyards and wineries of Maremma, the area around Grosseto along the Mediterranean coast in southwest Tuscany. Investors have been attracted by affordable land, inexpensive production costs and a warm maritime climate that can ensure good grape quality. Now these pioneers hope it's time for the payoff.

"The 2003 harvest is the year in Maremma," says respected consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini, driving down a desolate road near Magliano on the way to a new vineyard. "New vines are ready to go and there may be up to 150 new wines coming out of the region in the next year."

Few know the lay of this land better than Ferrini, who consults for nine estates in the area. He has played a major role in what he calls "the revolution" that started in 1998, the year he took on his first job at Tenuta Belguardo, the Maremma estate owned by the Mazzei family of Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico. Other properties he works for are owned by notable Tuscan producers such as Brancaia, Poliziano and Sette Ponti.

Just five years ago, according to Ferrini, there were around 1,200 acres of vineyards in the region. Most were planted to the local clone of Sangiovese for the production of Morellino di Scansano DOC (Morellino is the local variety of Sangiovese, like Brunello is in Montalcino). But newcomers have planted an additional 6,000 acres, with a marked preference for international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot.

The region's current wines are indicative of the rising quality. Le Pupille's Saffredi, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Alicante, has been a classic super Tuscan for close to two decades, and the current release, 2001, is one of the best ever. The Mazzei's Belguardo is in its second year of production, and the 2001 is outstanding. In addition, there are many good wines priced less than $20 a bottle, including very good quality Morellinos di Scansano from Le Pupille, Poggio Argentiera and Cecchi.

"Producers here are hungry," says Francesco Mazzei of Fonterutoli. "It's different than the rest of Tuscany. Producers in other areas are already fat and happy. Here, they want to prove something."

Nonetheless, some Tuscan vintners see danger ahead. "Everybody seems to have bought land in Maremma," said Cesare Turini, a key distributor of wine in Tuscany with his company Heres Spa. "Many people thought it was fashionable to buy land and make wine in Maremma, but there is not market for everyone. There is no sense in it. Only serious producers will do well."

In truth, many of the "new" producers are from established wine estates in other parts of Tuscany. In many cases, they came to Maremma to grow grapes to boost the production of their existing super Tuscan wines. For example, when Federico Carletti, owner of the Montepulciano estate Poliziano, bought 50 acres of vineyards near Magliano in 1998, he originally planned to transport the grapes to his winery in Montepulciano and use them for blending. But the results of the first harvest, in 2001, changed his mind.

"The Cabernet was just fantastic," he says, "so we decided to create a new wine around it with a local flavor." That new wine is Poliziano Maremma Toscana Lohsa Mandrione dell'Osa 2001 (92 points, $45), a Cabernet with Petit Verdot and a dose of Alicante, one of the varieties traditionally planted in the region. This juxtaposition of Cabernet with the spicy character of Alicante may become one of the hallmarks of the new Maremma reds.

Though Carletti does not rule out the possibility of using some of his Maremma Cabernet back in Montepulciano, his enthusiasm for the area has prompted him to plan a small winery on his new estate and he is on the lookout for new vineyard sites to purchase.

Other pioneers in Maremma include the Widmer family of Chianti Classico's La Brancaia; Antonio Moretti of Sette Ponti in the Valdarno; Francesco Bolla, ex-director of the Bolla Winery in Veneto; Frescobaldi; Robert Mondavi; Stefano Colombini of Fattoria dei Barbi; Jacopo Biondi Santi of Brunello di Montalcino; Elisabetta di Foradori of Trentino; Zonin of Veneto; industrialist Vittorio Moretti of Bellavista sparkling wine; and Cecchi of Chianti Classico. Dozens of other investors have bought real estate, hoping to cash in on this land rush.

One of the biggest estates in Maremma today is the 770-acre La Capitana, near the town of Magliano in Toscana. It was purchased in 1997 by Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, one of Tuscany's historic names, and Robert Mondavi Corp. The partnership, which also owns Tenuta dell'Ornellaia in Bolgheri, farther north, plans to plant up to 320 acres of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot on the property. So far, 170 acres are up and running, but part of La Capitana still looks like a lunar landscape, as new vineyards are being carved out of hillside terrain dotted with massive boulders.

Directing operations at La Capitana is Lamberto Frescobaldi, who oversees the vineyard management and winemaking process for all the Frescobaldi estates in Tuscany and beyond. Frescobaldi sees many benefits to growing grapes in Maremma, including reliably ripe fruit at harvest time.

"It's so much easier to cultivate new vines here than in the Chianti region, where the summers are shorter and the climate altogether less benign," he says. "At our Chianti Rufina estate, Nipozzano, we have to wait four years before our new vines are ready for their first harvest. Here you wait only two."

The Frescobaldi family also owns the 185-acre Santa Maria estate, located a few miles from La Capitana. It is already producing a Morellino di Scansano made in outdoor stainless steel tanks on the property. Frescobaldi says plans are being finalized for a new winery at La Capitana, which will vinify the grapes from both estates.

Geographically, Maremma can be divided into three parts: Maremma Laziale in the far south, bordering the region of Lazio; Maremma Grossetana, land within the province of Grosseto; and Maremma Alta, from the area around Follonica north to Bolgheri and beyond. But on the wine map, "Maremma" can be taken to mean the central part, in the province of Grosseto.

Historically Maremma has a checkered reputation, and just 60 years ago was regarded as a zone almost unfit to live in. An old ditty says, "Chi va a Maremma lascia l'acqua fresca e non sa quello che trova": "He who goes to Maremma leaves fresh water behind and has no idea what he'll find there."

In those days, Maremma was awash with swampy terrain and clouded with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. In fact, during an outbreak of malaria in the 1940s, all the public offices on the coastal plain closed and moved their records to higher ground in Scansano. Today, the mosquitoes, sans malaria, are still buzzing and biting but no longer discourage the many Italian and European tourists who flock the coastal towns during the summer months.

For at least the last decade, the reigning monarch of Maremma has been Fattoria Le Pupille, owned and run by Elizabetta Geppetti and later her husband, Stefano Rizzi. Le Pupille produces some of the best Morellino di Scansano, the traditional, Sangiovese-based, ripe and fruity red from what is currently the region's best-known DOC. But it is Saffredi, the estate's super Tuscan, that has become the benchmark against which the newcomers will be measured.

"Twenty years ago, people were saying that it was impossible to produce good wine in the Maremma," says Geppetti. "We proved them wrong. Now the newcomers will have to prove themselves as we did."

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