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Uncorked

From scourge to Scansano

Sangiovese is Tuscany's premier red grape, it's nicknamed 'Morellino' after the dark

By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers

October 9, 2013

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It's not often that we have mosquitoes to thank for good wine, but in Morellino di Scansano, we do.

This red, which is by law at least 85 percent sangiovese, comes from an area along the western coast of Italy called the Tuscan Maremma. The chief city of the Maremma is Grosseto, a hilltop town close to the coast.

Grosseto used to be surrounded by marshland that was drained beginning in the late 1800s by the new national government. Up until that time, from June to October every year, in a process called the estatatura ("the summering"), most everyone in Grosseto moved inland and upland into the Maremma to wait out the midyear plague of mosquitoes and the malaria that they spread.

There's no living much anywhere in Italy without wine, so these Tuscans planted vines in and around the town of Scansano in the inner Maremma. They found the area, with its gentle hills and cooling nighttime marine influence, to be congenial for growing crops.

They planted sangiovese, of course, Tuscany's premier red grape, nicknaming it "Morellino" after the dark, shiny coats of the Morelli breed of horse of the region. (Nowadays, with the swamps drained throughout the Maremma, Morellino di Scansano is grown and made even on the hillsides of Grosseto.)

The Maremma enjoys a temperate but warm climate; its own nickname is "the California of Italy." Grapes ripen well here, into flavors and aromas of black cherry, with softer tannins (a blessing with sangiovese), in an approachable, smooth style. I find Morellino to be one of the more aromatic of Tuscan sangiovese, with its come-hither scents of ripe, dark cherry and sometimes lavender, tobacco leaf or wet stone.

In witness to its accessibility, some Morellino is let loose from the winery a mere six months after the harvest, an uncommonly short period of time compared to other upper-crust Tuscan sangiovese such as Vino Nobile or certainly Brunello.

One key to getting at the quality of a region's wine is to see how much of it is kept inside its borders and consumed near home base. The assumption being, of course, that one keeps the better stuff "in the family." The Tuscans export only 25 percent of Morellino di Scansano; very little gets to the U.S. Also noteworthy: Morellino is quite the wine these days at trattorie in Rome and Milan.

Archaeological digs date winemaking in the Scansano region back to Etruscan times; modern research notes that Scansano wines were in their ascendance as early as the 1500s. Standards in both the vineyard and winery appear higher than elsewhere in early Tuscany, perhaps because Scansano during the growing season was an enclave of well-off farmers on holiday from their finer homes nearer the coast.

For example, grape growers commonly pruned back their vines in order to lower yields and increase flavor, something widely practiced worldwide only in modern times. A well-circulated maxim by the agronomist brothers Luigi and Vannuccio Vannuccini, dating to the 1880s, states that "wine could also be made with scissors."

Morellino di Scansano has achieved the two top rungs of Italian wine classification, the DOC in 1978 and the DOCG, the highest possible, in 2007. Despite breathing these lofty airs, Morellino di Scansano remains one of the better buys in Italian DOCG red, selling infrequently for more than $25 a bottle.

This being Tuscany, pairing wine with food practically precedes all else in either the vineyard or the winery. In its area of birth, Morellino is favored with the common red meat or game dishes of the region, also with Tuscany's sheep's milk cheese, pecorino.

It is delicious with many pasta or dough preparations, such as two of Scansano's indigenous dishes called "acquacotta" and "lunchini." The first is a peasant dish of leftover bread, onion, olive oil and water; the second, long thick "noodles" formed of rolled leftover bread made to resemble the pasta of the upper classes.

If it's a profitable week, add some mushrooms or pork with the lunchini; if a rough one, mere oil and garlic. But in any case, pair with some Morellino di Scansano.

Wines to try

2010 Poliziano Morellino di Scansano "Lohsa" Tuscany: Round, aromatic, super-juicy and even refreshing for a deeply pigmented red; a best buy. $16

2011 Fattoria dei Barbi Cinelli Colombini Morellino di Scansano Tuscany: Merlot to 15 percent; aromas of sweet tobacco leaf over dark cherry; some tannic grip. $18

2009 Cecchi Morellino di Scansano Riserva "Val delle Rose" Tuscany: For the money, amazing depth in all arenas — aroma, flavor, persistence, furry tannin — with delicious perfumes of bing cherry and lavender. $21

2009 Fattoria Le Pupille Elisabetta Geppetti Morellino di Scansano Riserva Tuscany: A tenth cabernet sauvignon for a bit of an edge, but overall dark red fruits accented by full-on earth and leather tones. $25

2008 Fattoria Le Pupille Elisabetta Geppetti Morellino di Scansano Riserva "Poggio Valente" Tuscany: Dear for a Morellino, but definitely worth it, for its abundance of flavor and scent, fat rich texture and long, long finish. $35

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.