Renaissance master Caravaggio, the great if gloomy painter, allegedly died of fever in its coastal marshes at the age of 38. The Fourteenth-century poet Dante penned of the region that even the wildest beasts would deem it inhospitable. Once a malaria-ridden backwater fit for lepers and the untouchables cast out of Florentine society, you’d never imagine it as the Maremma we know today. The Maremma that gave birth first to Sassicaia, then Tignanello, Ornellaia, Masseto, Biserno, and the many other great wines and estates to since follow.
Maremma extends along the Tyrrhenian coast from south of Livorno to Rome and inland to the Apennine foothills. Before its revival as a seaside resort, world-renowned wine region, protected nature reserve, and last bastion of the European cowboy called Butteri; long before earning its reputation as a Renaissance-era swamp to circumvent, Maremma had another life. It served as a successful settlement and strategic location as far back as the 8th century BC. First the Etruscans, then the Romans drained the marsh using subterranean canals extending from well-established farms. Etruscan towns topped the hills, while seaports facilitated trade. Even Etruscan wine, of which the discovery of amphora remnants offer proof, was in demand and exported across Europe. It was only during the demise of the Roman Empire when, due to the neglect of drainage and military abandonment, malaria invaded.
Mosquitoes would reign for more than a millennium before the region was swept clean, once again. In the 1930s, during the bonifica integrale campaign of land reclamation and improvement, Mussolini ordered it cleared for farming. Reclaiming marshland for agriculture is not uncommon; consider the Médoc in Bordeaux, a similar rags-to-wine riches story. Indeed, Sassicaia means “stony field,” a reference to the banks of gravel in the area akin to those of in Graves and Haut-Médoc
Yet though Maremma has risen again, this coastal swath of plains framed in gently rolling hills, edged in rosemary-scented scrub, still holds undiscovered delights. Only dedicated wine lovers on a quest to the mythical city of Bolgheri to taste from the fountain of Tenuta San Guido bother to drive west. American tourists stick to the hilltop villages and medieval castles of the Chiantishire’s interior. Of course, the Italian cognoscenti, princes and film stars and the fashionistas of Rome have caught on, building bohemian enclaves on mountain tops, and chic but quiet hotels next to barefoot-luxury seafood restaurants along the azure sea.
The winemakers have caught on, too. Evidenced by the dwindling supply of suitable land for viticulture and the increase in tenutas at which to taste. Maremma is split into three winemaking regions: Upper, Central, and Southern. At its vinous heart sits the charming two-street village of Bolgheri, which, frankly, one would imagine to be far fancier based on the export prices of the appellation’s famous wines. And especially after a chat with the locals just north in Bibbona, a pinprick of a hamlet really, where denizens pray the “traffic” of Bolgheri doesn’t swing through their one, whisper-quiet, street.
To see Maremma is to grasp its history, landscape, and terroir, all of which inform the flavors and styles of the wines. From round, salty Vermentino to the rich, silky, structured Bordeaux-like wines that represent the region’s most celebrated expressions, Maremma is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding wine regions to visit. Especially at dusk, passing beneath Bolgheri’s famous allée of Cypress trees, one of the most beautiful roads in all of Italy, only to turn down the coastal route and catch the fire of the sun just before it drops behind the horizon of the sea. Magic.
Wines to Find
Guado al Tasso, Bolgheri Vermentino, 2015, $22. Produced by Antinori, this savory yet fruity, mineral-driven white is a good value introduction to Maremma’s seaside viticulture. Offers a long, dry finish that’s perfect for an aperitif or shellfish.
Tenuta di Biserno, 2012, $100. The estate’s flagship wine blends mostly Cab Franc with Merlot, Cab Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. Notes of black fruit and anise on an elegant palate showing firm yet fine tannins. Made for longevity.
Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto, 2015, $60. This second wine to Sassicaia is a blend of 60 % Cabernet Sauvignon, and 40% Merlot. Accessible at an earlier age, ’15 is still quite young. Showing plump tannins with aromas of red and black berries and spice with a hint of tobacco on the long finish.