Pagani De Marchi is a young winery in Casale Marittimo, barely 5 miles as the crow flies from Bolgheri, that has just completed its 20th harvest and changes are in the air. Though French grapes have been an important part of their blends for several years, now they will take center stage and Sangiovese will almost disappear from their range of premium wines.
A good decision I think because there are already plenty of Tuscan Sangiovese wines in Chianti and Brunello, and in fact coastal Tuscany has never really shown this ubiquitous Italian grape at its best. Furthermore there is no long history of viticulture in the Maremma so it has always been a blank canvas leaving everyone free to determine their best grape combinations for the local terrain and the maritime climate.
Matteo Pagani recently took over the management of the winery from his mother Pia Pagani De Marchi, who first decided to plant grapes on the 12 acres of land surrounding their holiday home in 1996. She started out with three separate wines, all made 100% from single grape varieties, those being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese and then found that they took too long to develop the way she wanted and there was a missing element that she determined would only come from blending.
The recent decision by Matteo will refocus the premium wines on mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends while retaining their successful 100% Merlot Casa Nocera and the 100% Vermentino, Blumea. This streamlining of the portfolio has been done with the help of their longtime oenologist, Attilio Pagli, whose services are retained also by the well known Bolgheri winery of Michele Satta as well as many other wineries throughout Italy and Argentina, where 30 years ago he was one of the first winemakers to foresee the huge potential of Malbec.
Personally, I’ve never thought that Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends work very well along the Tuscan maritime corridor though they can produce good wines much further inland, in Carmignano for example. There are so many examples of Bordeaux grape combinations producing excellent wines in Bolgheri that I’ve never understood why Sangiovese is often included in the blend. They certainly wouldn’t dream of doing that in Bordeaux and shouldn’t that be the template for these wines, where the centuries of experience lie. Sangiovese is a relatively tannic grape so adding additional tannin to a blend that already has sufficient tannin from the Cabernet Sauvignon seems to me like an unnecessary complication that does not generally produce enjoyable wines for early drinking even with barrique aging.
So I think Matteo’s thought process here is correct and his change of direction will lead to better premium wines at his namesake winery. The only wine remaining with any significant percentage of Sangiovese is the entry level Montaleo at 70%. The next red wine in the quality spectrum, the Olmata, has only 20% and that’s it.
But even though there are changes going on in the wine portfolio, it’s business as usual at the winery where the team has been in place for many years. We met with the two key people who keep the whole place running smoothly, Stefano Moscatelli, who is the agronomist and winemaker, and Ilaria Simoni, who handles the commercial side of the business as well as the extensive wine tastings that are an important part of the public face of Pagani de Marchi.
Stefano lives among the vineyards so nothing escapes his attention and the cultivation of the 15 acres of vines here has followed organic practices since 2009. Despite being only a few miles from the sea, the vineyards are at an elevation of over 600 feet and in Stefano’s words the soil is "composed of sedimentary clays from the Pliocene epoch, it is calcareous, poor in nitrogen and organic substances, but rich in potassium, magnesium and assimilable calcium”.
In the cellar stainless steel is the container of choice for the spontaneous fermentation of all the wines and also for aging the Montaleo and Vermentino. The red wines are mostly aged in barriques which are a mixture of old oak and new oak, except for the relaunched Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, Principe Guerriero, which utilizes terracotta amphora, a vessel that we are seeing used more and more by winemakers these days.
It is perhaps a particularly appropriate choice for a wine by the name of Principe Guerriero because this is the name of the most important tomb in a 3,000 year old Etruscan necropolis discovered at the top of a hill on this property in the late 1980s. His was clearly the most important burial arrangement out of the ten tombs and as wine goblets were found by his side it is likely that these same hills were planted to grapes all those centuries ago. Certainly by the late Etruscan period all the wine containers would have been terracotta amphora so in the last 20 years the modern wine world seems to have rediscovered the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.
Total annual production at Pagani De Marchi is about 35,000 bottles and in addition to the substantial summer traffic at the winery by regular northern European visitors to the alta Maremma, Switzerland is an important export market in part because the owners are from the Swiss canton of Ticino, surrounded on three sides by Italy and where Italian is the official language. Russia has also become an important market recently and not just for this winery as there is a burgeoning appreciation there for Italian wines in general.
Blumea 2020 - Toscana IGT (13.5% alcohol)
(100% Vermentino, 3 months in stainless steel)
This is a much more mellow version of Vermentino, lacking the acidity and grip of this grape variety grown further north in Liguria, but for those that prefer a softer style it's a well made wine and can be drunk as an aperitivo or with food. As it opens up in the glass there are notes of tropical fruit and citrus with a finish of bitter almonds which keeps it fresh and compensates for the lower acidity. Fairly priced at 11 euros.
Montaleo 2019 - Montescudaio DOC (14.5% alcohol)
(70% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5-6 months in stainless steel)
This is a well-crafted balanced wine at a very affordable price. It's quite soft with low acidity and just the right amount of tannin for food, but certainly not excessive given its youth and the grape combinations. The Sangiovese dominates here which makes the blend work quite well because the other two grape varieties are not in competition with it and in fact add some interesting characteristics with fruity and vegetal notes. My suocero kept grabbing the bottle and he normally waits for me to top him up, so he clearly liked it. Excellent value for 9 euros.
Olmata 2018 - Toscana IGT (14% alcohol)
(50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 12 months in barrique)
The soft red fruits and Merlot characteristics of this blend are interrupted a little by some acidity and tannin that aren't yet fully integrated. Nevertheless, with food it is a very pleasant wine with notes of cloves and cinnamon and it improved considerably on the second evening after some aeration. At 15 euros it's not the same sort of bargain as the Montaleo above which in some respects we actually preferred.
Casa Nocera 2016 - Toscana IGT (14.5% alcohol)
(100% Merlot, 18 months in barrique)
Powerful, mature nose of dark red fruit, this is immediately recognizable as a Merlot. On the palate it's rich and deep with classic Merlot flavors of blackberries and graphite. A touch of cedar perhaps from the barrique aging but very unobtrusive. At 5 years old this is in a perfect place. On the second evening it was even better with heightened notes of fruit and spices and a long finish with soft tannins. An excellent Merlot, one of the best we've had in Italy and worth every penny of the 30 euros price. Shame that production is only 2,500 bottles.
Principe Guerriero 2019 - Costa Toscana IGT (14.5% alcohol)
(60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 months in terracotta amphora)
This is still quite black but with a whitish rim and there's a rich sweet nose of dark fruit and aromas of Mediterranean brush. On the palate it's very smooth and harmonious and quite a luscious wine with no hard edges at all. There are very subdued tannins and acidity and the fruit also is quite restrained. However there's an underlying power to this wine that's like an iron fist in a velvet glove and on the second evening it was really showing beautifully. An excellent wine which suggests that a Bordeaux type blend matured in amphora can develop into something very appealing. Only 2,000 bottles produced.