Exploring Maremma’s 2003 and 2004 Vintages

With its many seaside resorts and state of the art wineries, it is hard to believe that up until the 1930s Maremma was a disease-infested swampland. The noble families preferred to live in the hills, which were set back from the coastline, while their servants lived closer to the sea. In fact, the emergence of Maremma as one of the world's leading wine production zones is somewhat of an accident. The region owes its prominence to Mario Incisa della Rocchetta. Inspired by the wines of Bordeaux, Incisa wanted to make a similar wine on his own property. In 1944 he planted his first Cabernet vines and subsequently began producing the wine known today as Sassicaia. Incredibly, Incisa originally conceived of his wine for domestic consumption so the early vintages were drunk exclusively at the estate. The first commercial release, the 1968, was greeted with loud critical acclaim. Despite the early success of Sassicaia it would take another 20 years and the arrival of other producers such as Grattamacco and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia for the region to establish itself as a source for world class wines. The rest, as they say, is history and today the region's top wines are among the most coveted and expensive wines being made in Italy.

Even with all the recent developments and construction that have taken place, Maremma retains some of its Wild West aura. Compared to hillier landscapes of Chianti Classico and Montalcino a first-time visitor is likely to be struck by the vast expanses of land that meet the eye. The climate in Maremma is also unique. Weather conditions are especially hot and dry, yet the heat is tempered by the breezes that come in from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Within that context, there are noticeable differences among the many microclimates that are found in the various sub-zones. Although some disagreement exists as to where the boundaries lie for the ?real' Maremma, for the sake of simplicity and ease of discussion I have divided the various districts into upper and lower Maremma.

In the upper Maremma production is concentrated around the coastal areas of Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci, which are in the province of Livorno. To the south of Bolgheri lies Suvereto and the valley known as the Val di Cornia, a warmer microclimate often described as yielding wines of greater power with perhaps slightly less elegance. One of the features of the coastal regions is the dominance of international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah, all of which have proven to thrive, while the climatic conditions are generally considered to be less favorable for Sangiovese.

The lower Maremma is set slightly more inland. It is also hotter and dryer than the coastal areas. Sangiovese plays a more central role in the wines of these inland districts than it does on the coast, although Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Alicante (Grenache) are also found, most often in blends with Sangiovese. The most exciting appellation is Morellino di Scansano, which lies in the province of Grosseto. Morellino encompasses a variety of Sangiovese-based wines that range from simpler, fresh versions, to full-bodied supple wines packed with flavor as well as character. It is one of the best value-priced wines in Italy today. In recent years Montecucco, which lies just across the valley from the southernmost boundary of the Brunello di Montalcino zone, has also emerged as a source for excellent Sangiovese-based wines.

As was the case in the rest of continental Europe, weather conditions during the 2003 growing season were scorching hot and dry, which posed a significant challenges in Maremma where conditions are normally on the warm side. The harvest took place earlier than normal, in some cases by several weeks. The question of phenolic ripeness (the ripeness of the skins, seeds and stems as distinct from the maturation of sugars) was at the top of most producers' minds when I visited the region. At high quality estates the sorting process was especially rigorous as burnt grapes had to be removed. The grapes that were in good condition yielded very concentrated juice, so production on the whole is lower than normal. In general the 2003s are decidedly ripe in style, but as is often the case, producers who were very selective made outstanding wines. Most of the 2003s are characterized by varying degrees of unripe, hard tannins but the best wines have enough fruit to provide some level of balance. Although it is clearly an anomalous vintage the vast majority of wines I tasted have improved dramatically over the last few months and many may very well continue to show a positive evolution. I also found that as I left bottles open for 12 to 24 hours most wines softened considerably.

Vintage 2004 presented a distinctly different set of conditions. The weather was much more balanced and produced the fluctuation of temperatures between day and night that is critical to achieve phenolic ripeness in the grapes. Rainfall returned to more normal patterns. Stable weather during the harvest gave producers the luxury of being able to pick parcels at the optimum moment rather than being forced to harvest as happened in 2003 and again in 2005. The favorable conditions also allowed producers who make wines in a super-ripe style to harvest fairly late. Because the vines had shut down in 2003 the ideal weather conditions in 2004 released much of the stored energy in the plants, and they were especially productive. Vintage 2004 combines quantity with quality, something many producers described as a hallmark of a great vintage because it means full maturation was achieved across all levels of vineyards. Indeed, it would be a gross understatement to say that producers are universally ecstatic over the quality of their 2004s.

What makes 2004 a remarkable vintage is the overall consistency of the wines. As is to be expected the region's top bottlings are outstanding but readers should not ignore the entry level wines, or for those estates who favor a Bordeaux-like model, the “second” wines, the best of which capture the essence of the vintage. While prices for the most famous labels have appreciated significantly in recent years there are still plenty of wines available at more accessible prices. Many of the wines from up and coming regions like Scansano, which often score between 87 and 89 points, will provide much pleasure at the dinner table without breaking the bank.

 --Antonio Galloni