Wild About Maremma, Italy’s Wild West

Cowboys and sandy coastlines were not the part of Tuscany I usually visit, which is more castles and cypress trees dotting the hills around Florence and Siena. But an autumn wine tasting excursion into the region’s southwest corner known as Maremma introduced me to a stunning natural preserve, pristine beaches, seaside villages, thermal baths and a remote peninsula of cliffs and cul de sacs. And, yes, there are cowboys, known as butteri, recognized for their skills herding Maremmana longhorn cattle and horses.

Maremma (meaning “of the sea”) is one Italy’s biggest territories and least populated or industrialized. Bordered by Lazio, Chianti and Montalcino, Maremma is mainly covered by wilderness, including the Parco della Maremma, popular with hikers and cyclists. Much of this region was once a mosquito infested marshlandwhich was re-drained to reduce risk for malaria and create usable and inhabitable land. Now, Maremma is a destination for wine and food lovers looking for the culinary road less traveled.

Wines with Diversity

The availability of cultivatable and still affordable land and a favorable Mediterranean climate are reasons why many wine producers from other areas of Italy have invested in Maremma, which was designated a PDO (protected designation of origin) in 2010. Eight Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines are now produced throughout the main province of Grossetto which stretches from Mount Amiata through undulating hills to the sea, including the Argentario peninsula and island of Giglio. There are two Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines, Morellino di Scansano and Montecucco Sangiovese.

A unique characteristic of Maremma wines is the diversity of grapes cultivated, both indigenous and international. After all, DOC Bolgheri in the Maremma zone of Livorno was the birthplace of the Super-Tuscan wines, whose producers bucked tradition to make Bordeaux blends. While much of Tuscany is focused on Sangiovese, in Maremma one can find many more grape varieties from international—Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah—to local Ciliegiolo (Italian for “cherry”), Pugnitello (“little fist”), Canaiolo Nero, Aleatico, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Alicante (a Grenache clone). The variety of red grapes and a range of terroirs result in a multiplicity of styles. Here one can enjoy a red wine with riper fruit and softer tannins near the coast and an earthier wine with more evolved tannins inland closer to Montalcino.

I came expecting an immersion in red wines, but the big surprise were the whites. I’m usually not enamored by Tuscany’s white wines, and the red Sangiovese grape always seduces me at first sip. Maremma opened my mind and palate starting with the predominant Vermentino and Ansonica (Inzolia in Sicily) as well as Malvasia, Grechetto, Trebbiano, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Consistently these wines delivered refreshing flavors, balanced acidity and a whiff of sea.

Hearty Fare and Myriad Uses for Stale Bread

Tuscan food tends to be simple and hearty fare of meats, cheese dishes and thick soups. Resourceful Tuscans have concocted numerous dishes using stale bread. During my trip I tasted Acquacotta, a soup made with vegetables, eggs and stale bread; Pappa al Pomodoro, a tomato and bread soup; Ribollita, a vegetable and bread soup, a spinach, ricotta and bread baked casserole, and several versions of Panzanella, a tomato and bread salad. Maremma beef is the local Tuscan steak, and while vintners do what they can to protect their vines from predatory wild boars (cinghiale), the beast when cooked is a delicacy. Local pastas dishes include Maremman Tortelli stuffed with sheep’s milk ricotta and chard, and Pici, a chewier and slightly thicker spaghetti, usually served with a ragù sauce.

Since Maremma is near the sea, there is also an abundance of fish. Osteria del Mare in Castiglione della Pescaia, served some inventive seafood dishes. An example was a twist on the Florentine street food called Lampredotto, a sandwich stuffed with juicy pieces of tripe. Here, the chef made sliders filled with tender, warm slices of octopus in salsa verde. Da Caino in Montemerano served a dish of thinly sliced beets and smoked sea bream with arugula and anchovies and another with roasted local eel, tangerine and celery

Maremma is also famous for its DOP Pecorino sheep’s milk cheese. Caseificio Il Fiorino, located on the slopes of Monte Amiata in the village of Roccalbegna, has won awards for its hand-crafted cheeses which are imported in the U.S. Another award-winning producer in the Monte Amiata area is Frantoio Franci, whose grand cru olive oils are so esteemed they were once traded for a cache of First Growth Bordeaux wines.

We left Maremma with a light heart and a heavy suitcase filled with a treasure trove of wine, cheese and olive oil. This is a region still waiting to be discovered but hopefully never over exposed.

Wineries of Note

Established in 2014. the Consorzio Tutela Vini del Maremma has over 300 members, including 220 grape growers and 90 estate vintners. Here are five wineries I visited with U.S. distribution:

Cantina Vignaioli del Morellino di Scansano is a cooperative of quality producers with a focus on DOCG Morellino di Scansano (“Morellino” is local dialect for “Sangiovese”). I also tasted excellent white and sparkling wines made from Vermentino with a hint of Chardonnay.

Rocca di Frassinello Designed by renowned architect, Renzo Piano, the dramatic glass façade is built over a massive barrel ageing room in the shape of a square amphitheater. Rocca di Frassinello is a joint venture between Eric de Rothschild, Domains Barons de Rothschild, (Lafite) and businessman, Paolo Panerai, owner of Chianti Classico’s Castellare di Castellina. The focus is elegant Bordeaux-style reds.  

Rocca di Montemassi Owned by Italy’s Zonin family, this vast estate is a popular stop with cycling groups. The focus is both native Sangiovese and Vermentino grapes and international varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Tenuto Montauto This artisan producer, located not far from the Tyrrhenian Sea, makes standout white wines from Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc and a lovely sparkling Sangiovese, as well as a special organic brown wheat pasta available for purchase.

Val delle Rose Surrounded by cork trees, rolling hills in Morellino di Scansano, this elegant estate is owned by the Cecchi family, who also has wineries in Chianti Classico and Nobile di Montepulciano. Visitors can relax on the terrace with a glass of crisp Vermentino or a spicy Ciliegiolo red enjoying panoramic views.

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Basile: Neapolitan-born brothers Domenico and Giovan Battista Basile bought 85 acres of land in the Cinigiano area of the Maremma in 1999, not far from the Tuscan coast. The vineyards, which all enjoy southwestern exposures at altitudes between 1,100 and 1,250 feet, are situated on limestone galestro soils and are organically farmed, in adherence with the CCPB Global Program. Their wines include Ad Agio Montecucco Riserva DOCG, Cartacanta Montecucco DOCG, and Comandante Maremma IGT.

Melanie Young co-hosts the national weekly radio show, The Connected Table LIVE! Wednesdays 2 pm EST on W4CY Radio and podcast permanently to iHeart.com and the free iHeart App.