Americans lose their minds over anything Tuscan. A Tuscan lust was ignited around the time of Frances Mayes’s 1996 bestseller “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and it burns unabated. Adding the word “Tuscan” (or maybe a variation such as Toscana or Florentine) to any product — Tuscan driveway pavers, Tuscan bathroom fixtures, Tuscan chicken sandwiches at Subway — remains as good as printing money.
It’s no different when it comes to wine. People love the Tuscans — and by those I mean mainly the ones made from sangiovese, the famed indigenous grape of central Italy. The most famous of those, of course, are Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, as well as many of the so-called Super Tuscans.
I love sangiovese wines as much as the next guy, but lately I’ve had too many hit-or-miss experiences with Chianti and Super Tuscans, and I’m nowhere near rich enough to enjoy Brunello more than a few times a year. I believe the Tuscan lust often causes sangiovese lovers to overpay for wines.
For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for interesting, affordable sangiovese alternatives — from lesser-known growing areas, often beyond Tuscany, as well as wines with blends of sangiovese and other grapes. A few weeks ago, I was traveling in Tuscany and Umbria and had the chance to delve into some affordable, exciting wines.
The first is Morellino di Scansano, from Maremma, the wild, southernmost region of Tuscany near the coast. Being Italian, the wine’s name must be parsed: Morellino is the local name for sangiovese, and Scansano is the name of a village in the region.
“The grape is the same as Brunello, and we’re not far from Montalcino,” says Elisabetta Geppetti, owner of Le Pupille, one of the pioneering wineries that put Morellino on the map. “But the climate is very different here because we have the influence of the sea.”
The region is hot and dry during the day — almost desert-like this year, with more than 120 straight days without rain — and then cooled by sea breezes at night. Winemakers are allowed to blend up to 15 percent local grapes with 85 percent sangiovese. The effect is a fresh, bright, food-friendly red with floral aromas that include violet, dried rose and rosemary, plus wild fruit notes of cherry and berry structured with soft tannins.
Morellino di Scansano was granted DOCG status — Italy’s highest quality assurance — in 2007, and it’s still developing a style. Investment has been pouring into Maremma since the mid-2000s, including from large wineries like Marchese de’ Frescobaldi, which opened its Ammiraglia estate in 2006 with a mod, space-age winery and tasting room that feels young and hip. “Morellino used to be the wine of farmers,” says Enrico Nesi, Ammiraglia’s 26-year-old winemaker. “But it’s risen in quality in the past few years, and people in Italy are seeking out easy-to-drink wines like this.”
“People that try Morellino love Morellino,” says Luca Costa, owner of Terre di Fiore. Costa is another newcomer to Maremma and also owns wineries in Alto Adige and Piedmont.
The reasons for Morellino’s popularity in Italy are simple: It’s ready to drink young, with aging in stainless steel or a short time in oak; it’s a wine that seemingly pairs with everything, including tomato-based pastas and pizza; it’s inexpensive, with a sweet spot around $13 to $18.
“It’s not an intellectual wine that you have to study for hours,” says Giacomo Pondini, director of the Consortium of Morellino di Scansano. The problem, as usual, is availability in the United States. I tasted wines from about 20 producers at the consortium’s offices in Scansano. So far, I’ve found only a few of those bottles in Washington area stores. I implore people who like sangiovese wines to request Morellino di Scansano at their local wine shop.
I’ll be asking for Montefalco Rosso, another great sangiovese-based wine. I got to know it during the portion of my trip spent in the Umbrian town of Montefalco.
However, I was taken with the Montefalco wineries’ secondary wines, most of which were around 70 percent sangiovese, about 15 percent Sagrantino and 15 percent local grapes. Montefalco Rosso is a bigger wine than Morellino, tannic and rich. It is slightly more expensive, $20 to $25, and still a better value than Chianti Classico and more affordable than Brunello.
Umbria, of course, is not Tuscany. You’ll probably never see an Under the Umbrian Sun sort of lust that would beget an Umbrian Chicken Sub.
And that, I hope I don’t need to tell you, is a good thing.