A Mysterious Italian!

Mar 4, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Today's victim! - Dave Nelson
Dave Nelson
Today's victim!

​Italy is home to a staggering variety of wine grapes. At last count, there were some 350 varieties approved to be used in regions that stretch from the chilly foothills of the Alps to the baking plains of the boot heel to the complex island climate of Sicily. So it's no surprise that only the most dedicated Italophiles are up on the intricacies, while most of us suffer from some large degree of confusion.

Still, Italian wines have an incredible affinity for food, and even unfamiliar names are often well worth a gamble.

Such is the case with today's wine, a 2006 Poggio Morino Morellino di Scansano, which you can pick up for $18 at Veritas Gateway to Food and Wine.

Scansano is a small village of about 5,000 just 10 miles from the coast in the Maremma, a region that forms the southwestern coast of Tuscany. While Scansano had a reputation for quality in the late 1800s, the region overall was a bit of a backwater (literally -- much of it was full of swamps), and it was comercially invisible compared to Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino, its much more famous Tuscan neighbors.

After the jump: the story of the Maremma's redemption -- and a virtual tasting...

In the late 1960s, the first "Super Tuscan" wine appeared, in the form of Sassicaia. Its unlikely home base?

The Maremma. This unconventional wine, made from cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and aged in new French oak barrels, proved incredibly popular with the wine press and consumers. Sassicaia's stunning success spurred interest and investment throughout the region, including the zone that produces the much more traditional Morellino di Scansano.

Let's pop the cork.

The color is quite dark. It smells of very ripe cherries, cut by bright floral scents and some leathery earthiness. The overall effect is surprisingly rich. That punch-packing aroma really is the star of this wine; the flavor doesn't live up to the fruitful promise. It does have lively acidity, though, and a tannic structure that would make it an excellent companion to rich braised-meat dishes, or even a steak. At $18, it offers good value.

The verdict: Thrill

The success of the Super Tuscan wines, many of which are made from "international varieties" like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, resulted in broader acceptance of these grapes throughout Tuscany. While their overuse jeopardizes the interesting indigenous Italian grapes, they can provide interesting alternatives and complexity.

A vineyard in the not-so-swampy part of the Maremma. - Image credit
A vineyard in the not-so-swampy part of the Maremma.

Today's wine was made primarily from sangiovese (85 percent), the most-planted red grape in Italy, and the grape that defines Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. The "morellino" in Morellino di Scansano turns out to be nothing more than the local word for...sangiovese.

On its own, sangiovese can come across as somewhat thin, and it's more susceptible than other grapes to vintage variation. As a result, there's a great tradition of blending it with other varieties to make a more complete wine. The remaining 15 percent of today's wine is syrah, the signature red grape of the northern Rhône (though it's found throughout the south of France). While it certainly adds color, it is hard to tell what else the syrah brings to the party, as the Scansano retains an undeniably Italian personality.

Which is a good thing.

Sangiovese-based wines have a tendency to take some time to show their full range of flavor and aroma. That proved to be the case with today's bottle. It really got going after only about a half-hour in the glass. Take your time and enjoy the show as it evolves in your glass.

"Thrill or Swill?" aims to expand wine drinkers' horizons -- including Gut Check's. If you have been curious about a grape or wine and want Gut Check to try it, let us know via the comments thread. If we can find it (and if we can afford it), we'll buy us a bottle, yank the cork and report back.