Maremma masterclass report: In the zone

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Key facts: Maremma

Maremma runs north to south from Livorno down to Grosseto, along the Tuscan coast. Although ancient Etruscans and Romans drained the area to practise agriculture and viticulture 2,000 years ago, the fall of the Roman empire led to the refilling of the swamps in the area as the drains broke. The area was drained again under the rein of Mussolini in Italy, and mining and agriculture were the primary industries of the Maremma until the end of the 20th century. The topography of Maremma ranges from white sandy coastline and flat low-lying marshes to steep hills and forests. Soils vary from volcanic, to clay and black rock. Grapes range from Italian varieties including Sangiovese, Vermentino and Grechetto to international varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot.

The region was also famous for mining, and in particular, a horrific accident in 1954, which took the lives of 43 coal miners on the present-day site of the Rocca di Montemassi. “There was mining and swamps; nothing high-end or fancy,” said Francesco of the region, before explaining why Zonin 1821 saw the viticultural potential in the area.

Indeed, he said the climate, the topography and the soil make Maremma like no other place in Italy. Describing the region as hilly, and subject to “constant wind” coming from the Tuscan coast, he said that while it was a warm area, it was moderated by sea breezes. As for the soils, he said a key feature of Maremma was the iron-rich clay, before commenting, “Maremma is unique because of the hills, the influence of the sea, the constant wind, and the soil, which is very rich in minerals.”

Consequently, the family purchased a 430-hectare property in Montemassi, and planted 160ha of vines, which are primarily comprised of Sangiovese and Vermentino, but also Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Viognier.

Acknowledging that Bolgheri is already “very well known”, he said that the bigger Maremma area enjoys a similar climate, but different soils. He also stressed the large scale of the region. Stretching for most of the Tuscan coast, it covers an area from Liguria to Lazio, which, Francesco explained, makes “it hard to define”, and “hard to choose a leading variety”. By way of example, he said that the soils at his Rocca di Montemassi were much more similar to those found within Brunello di Montalcino than they were around the famous Maremma village of Bolgheri. Recalling his first sight of the Montemassi farm 18 years ago, he said that “there were sheep everywhere”, adding, “Maremma was not on the map in the wine industry”. He also said that he was “moved to manage the estate sustainably”, because “it didn’t need anything” – referring to the application of chemical fertilizers and fungicides. This was both because the soils were rich, and the climate was almost entirely free from moisture. “It is one of the driest places in Italy, and we have more sunlight per year than anywhere else.”

Continuing, he highlighted the specific characteristics of Rocca di Montemassi: “The climate is always mild, much milder than Chianti Classico, because we have the influence of altitude and the sea, and the wind is constant, so even if in summer it is 40°C, you don’t feel it.”

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