Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Morellino Di Scansano: Sunflowers & Sangiovese

When is the last time you ate a sunflower head? I am sure plenty of people may have eaten sunflower seeds, yet that is not the only edible portion of the sunflower plant. In fact, most of the plant is edible and Native Americans have been using sunflowers as food for thousands of years. My first experience eating a sunflower head was at Erbaluce, a creative Italian restaurant which I have long recommended, and it was paired with Sangiovese-based wines.

Chef Charles Draghi of Erbaluce recently hosted several wine makers from the Morellino Di Scansano DOCG for a small, informal wine luncheon. This wine region is located in southern Tuscany, in the Maremma, around the village of Scansano. Interestingly, the wine from this area is sometimes known as "wine without history" because their fame has only arisen recently. Morellino Di Scansano became a DOC in 1978 and a DOCG in 2006, starting with the 2007 vintage. However, wine making in this area extends back to the ancient Etruscans and Romans so it actually has a lengthy and intriguing history.

Currently, the region of Morellino Di Scansano has approximately 1500 hectares of vineyards with about 120 wineries and 2 cooperatives. Their annual production is approximately 10-11 million bottles, less than 1 million cases. The Consorzia Tutela Vino Morellino Di Scansano, an organization formed to help promote the wines of this area, was founded in 1992 and now has over 200 members, representing about two-thirds of the production of the region.

The word "Morellino" is the local name for the "Sangiovese" grape though its origin is a bit murky. Some people believe the term comes from "morello," which is the color "brown", the color of Maremmano horses. Others think it comes from the "Morello" cherry, a prominent flavor found in Sangiovese. According to their regulations, Morellino red wines must contain at least 85% Sangiovese and the other 15% may contain grapes such as Canaiolo, Ciliegiole, Malvasia, Colorino, Alicante, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

As both Morellino and Chianti are located in Tuscany, and both use Sangiovese, some comparisons between the two seems natural. We should note that red wines in Chianti must contain at least 80% Sangiovese, a slightly smaller percentage than in Morellino. Though that difference is only 5%, that can have a significant impact on the wines.What is probably a greater difference though is the climate. As Morellino is in the south, its climate tends to be warmer so that the Sangiovese grapes tend to be riper. The effect is that the wines of Morellino can be softer and enjoyed earlier than the wines of Chianti. The wines of Chianti tend to have stronger tannins which benefit from oak aging. Later in this post, I will post my own thoughts on the comparisons of Morellino and Chianti.

Morellino wines can be basically separated into three categories. The basic wine is fresh and fruity, seeing no oak, while the intermediate wine sees about 4-12 months of oak aging. The reserva category sees at least a year in oak, and a year in the bottle, and possesses more spice notes. Like most Italian wines, they are made to be paired with food, and like most Tuscan fare, the cuisine of Morellino commonly relies upon excellent ingredients, prepared simply.

The dishes for our lunch were creative and compelling, and the wine pairing was interesting, showcasing how red wines can work with a variety of dishes, including seafood and sunflowers!

Our first course was a sunflower head, stuffed with ricotta and covered with breadcrumbs. An unusual dish,  the sunflower had a slightly chewy texture, with a creaminess from the ricotta and some nutty and herbal flavors. The Morellino wines, with their slightly rustic nature, actually worked with this dish. Who would have thought that sunflowers and Sangiovese would work?

For our second coarse, we had local squid with an incredible sauce of roasted lobster with tamale and coral. The slightly charred squid was not rubbery and the savory sauce worked well with the Morellino wines. That sauce would probably be delicious with other seafood dishes too.

Next up was my favorite course of the lunch, pappardelle with wild boar, an amazing, hearty dish with perfectly cooked pasta and plenty of tender, savory meat. I could have easily eaten another dish of this pasta and it worked perfectly with the wines. In Morellino, wild boar is a common dish so it makes sense why the wines paired so well. A perfect autumn dish.

For dessert, we enjoyed a warm chocolate bread pudding with cherries and spices, topped with some buckwheat honey and opal basil. The fruits, spices and herbal notes complemented those similar flavors in the Morellino wines.

During the course of lunch, we sampled seven different wines, from five producers. In general, I enjoyed the wines, finding them mostly to be easy drinking wines with plenty of fruit, mild tannins, and good acidity. Many of the Morellino wines reminded me more of traditional style Chianti Classico wines, a little rustic and restrained, though a couple were more modern in style. I much preferred those that reflected a more traditional style.

The 2011 Azienda Bruni Marteto is in the basic category, which also seems to be known as the fresh version, and it is a blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Syrah and 5% Alicante. It sees no oak and has an alcohol content of 13.5%. It has delicious black cherry flavors, nice acidity, and is a bit rustic. A pleasant, easy drinking wine.

I tasted both the 2010 and 2011 Fattoria Le Pupille, each a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Malvasia Nera. These also see no oak and have an alcohol content of 13.5%. I loved the 2011, finding it fresh, fruity, rustic and with hints of spice. Very easy drinking, nice character and quite delicious. One of my favorite wines of the lunch. The 2010 was a bit more restrained and subtle, though also a pleasant wine.

The 2011 La Selva, which is 100% certified organic, is a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot. It is also a fresh style with an alcohol content of 14%. It was very fruity, lots of bright cherry flavors, and very easy drinking though tending a bit more toward a modern style. A simple and pleasant wine.

In comparison, the 2010 Tenuta Pietramora Di Collefagiano Brumaio is produced from 100% Sangiovese, sees no oak aging, and only has an alcohol content of 13.5%. It is an elegant and more austere wine, with strong black cherry and earthy notes. A more traditional Sangiovese, I was impressed with its character. An excellent food wine, and it brought back me to Tuscany in my mind.

Then, we drank two wines from the same winery, including the 2010 Tenute Coste, which is also produced from 100% Sangiovese, sees no oak aging, and has an alcohol content of 14%. Again, this is a more traditional style with a fine melange of black cherry, spice, and earthiness with a good acidity. The 2009 Tenute Coste Ventaio is a blend of 85% Sangiovese and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, has an alcohol content of 14% and sees a little oak aging. The Cabernet seemed prominent, and it was more of a modern style with bold red fruit flavors.

This exposure to the wines of Morellino Di Scansano was enlightening and has encouraged me to seek out more of their wines. Their entry level wines should please wine lovers, and make for very good food wines. Chef Draghi also created a tasty lunch, and I once again urge my readers to check out his restaurant Erbaluce.

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