Wine grapes often go by aliases. What they call syrah in California, they call shiraz in Australia. What they call trebbiano in Italy, they call ugni blanc in France. What they call grenache in France they call garnacha in Spain and cannonau in Sardinia. What they call mourvedre in France is called monastrell in Spain.
Even within a single country, the names change. In Spain, what they call tempranillo in Rioja is called tinto fino in Ribera del Duero and tinta de toro in Toro. It is enough to drive even the most avid wine person bonkers.
But like understanding just a little bit of European geography, knowing the local synonyms for grapes that you already enjoy is one of the great strategies for finding good wine values.
Take Tuscany for instance. Most of us know sangiovese, Italy’s most famous grape, and the one used to produce Chianti, still perhaps Italy’s best-known export. But in central Italy, sangiovese has nearly 50 synonyms.
The most famous of these is brunello, and many Americans know the elegant and expressive Brunello di Montalcino — one of the most prized wines in the world — produced around the village of Montalcino. Of course, the price of Brunello di Montalcino, at well over $60 per bottle, reflects how coveted they are.
But drive just over the mountains toward the coast, and into the wild, southernmost region of Tuscany called Maremma, and you’ll find an alternative. Here, sangiovese is called “morellino.” Why is called morellino? Some think it comes from the word “morello” meaning brown, which supposedly refers to the color of the native horses in Maremma. (Why would anyone name a wine grape like that? Who knows? Can we all just agree at this point that there is very little logic to Italian wine nomenclature?)
Anyway, sangiovese/morellino is the basis for a relatively little-known Tuscan wine called Morellino di Scansano — Scansano being the name of the small village that is the region’s epicenter.
Morellino di Scansano is an honest, easy-drinking, soul-satisfying wine. Unlike Chianti, or Brunello, or the so-called Super Tuscans, Morellino di Scansano can be released eight months after harvest, and the result is a fresh, appealing wine that pairs so well at the table.
“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 $14 to $20.
“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 Pennsylvania and New Jersey stores. I implore people who like sangiovese wines to demand more Morellino di Scansano at their local wine shop.
Fattoria di Magliano “Heba” Morellino di Scansano 2009. Tuscany, Italy. $13.99 in Pennsylvania; on sale for $15.19 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
Juicy and rich, with lots of berry and plum, and a hint of leather and herb. Incredibly balanced and drinkable, with up to 15% syrah blended with the sangiovese. This great value is Tuscany in a bottle.
Anima Libera Morellino di Scansano 2009. Tuscany, Italy. $20.99 in Pennsylvania. Imported by Philadelphia-based Vine Street Imports.
Bold, gregarious, with big cherry pie, licorice, and tobacco aromas on the nose, but tamed by smooth tannins. A unique chance to taste unoaked sangiovese, as this matures instead for a year in cement tanks. 90% sangiovese with 10% local Tuscan varieties. (Btw, “Anima Libera” has no relation to the cheesy mid-2000’s Eurotrash dance song of the same name.)
Terre di Talamo Morellino di Scansano “Tempo” Riserva 2006. Tuscany, Italy. $21.99 in Pennsylvania; $16.99 at Total Wine in Cherry Hill
Dark, elegant, and intense, but still lots of bright fruit on the palate. It’s a wine to ponder over, a serious wine for the price. Taste this blind next to an average $60 Brunello and you’d be hard-pressed to discern the difference. As a riserva, it must age two years after harvest, and spend at least one year in oak.
Le Pupille Morellino di Scansano 2010 . Tuscany, Italy. $20.99 in Pennsylvania; on sale for $16.79 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
Fresh and juicy, but also structured with fine tannins. There’s cherry, herbs and cool minerality on the finish. Wonderfully food-friendly, especially with hard-to-pair tomato-based sauces.