Ciliegiolo, Jewel of the Maremma
For all my talk – and writing – about little-known or forgotten native grapes, there is another category that is no less worthy of closer examination. Not forgotten, perhaps, but overlooked. An ensemble player – often in the scene playing a supporting role, but seldom in the spotlight: the blending partner.
Naturally, there are many, many grapes that could fall into this category. And, to be completely honest, many blending grapes are also legitimate, valued monovarietal wines in their own right. Where would we be without the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Carmenère, for example? All four of these grapes used to be “just” part of the blend of grapes found in Bordeaux. Granted, Malbec had a special corner of France all to its own where it was appreciated as the lead grape, if not always as a monovarietal: Cahors. But it took emigration to Argentina to bring it to real fame. Even more marked is the story of Carmenère – all but unappreciated at home, it took discovery (and correct identification) in Chile to bring it the renown that it deserved.
Or did it? Many grapes have a “home territory”: an area where they really show what they can do. Some vines have multiple personalities, showing very high quality (and different characteristics) in very different conditions and soils. I’m looking at you, Syrah/Shiraz. So maybe some of these “overlooked” blending grapes simply haven’t been tried out in the right place yet. It is worth considering.
Today, I will look at just one of these bit players. If you read the title of this article, you won’t be surprised by the name of the grape: Ciliegiolo.
Ciliegiolo has been around for a long time and can be found all over central Italy and as far afield as Liguria and Puglia. But it just wouldn’t be Italy if it weren’t known by many names in many places – a problem made worse by the fact that it has also often been confused with other grape varieties, such as Sangiovese and Aglianico, among dozens of others.
Far from being forgotten, Ciliegiolo has been a common blending partner, together with grapes like Canaiolo and Mammolo, for Sangiovese for a very, very long time. And why not? Ciliegiolo has a lot to offer Sangiovese in this capacity: more colour, less acidity, vivid fruit. Plus, the vines are a little less sensitive, the grapes ripen a little sooner and, as it turns out, tolerate heat far better than its famous counterpart.
Ciliegiolo has far more to offer than being just a supporting player in a blend. And there has been more than an inkling of its real quality for a long time.
Under one of its synonyms, Brunellone, it has been mistakenly identified as a particularly high-quality biotype of Sangiovese. Where did this happen? The synonym is a bit of a giveaway: in Montalcino, of all places, home of one of Italy’s most expensive and famous wines: Brunello di Montalcino. In fact, according to Ian d’Agata’s seminal work Native Wine Grapes of Italy, some of the best Brunello wines may have been made with mostly Ciliegiolo, so highly was this “biotype” held in esteem. Bear in mind that the production rules for Brunello stipulate that the wine must be made 100% from Sangiovese. Ahem.
So let’s have a look at what this grape is about:
The Nuts and Bolts
Ciliegiolo has a lovely name, which means “small cherry” in Italian. And cherry it is – its berries produce vividly-coloured must, with a perfume redolent of ripe cherries. And there is also plenty of the sour cherry aroma for which Sangiovese is famous, too, but Ciliegiolo is even more perfumed than it is – a characteristic that actually increases when the finished wine has a little bottle age.
I mentioned that Ciliegiolo has often been confused with Sangiovese. The confusion is somewhat understandable, as the DNA evidence indicates that Ciliegiolo is most likely a parent of Sangiovese. Or perhaps it is Sangiovese that is a parent of Ciliegiolo. Okay, the jury is out with regards to which sired what, but most experts agree that there is a parent-offspring relationship between the two grapes.
The variety is both heat and drought-resistant, which makes it less surprising that it does so well in the warmest parts of Tuscany. The vine is very vigorous, and it has larger berries and a large bunch that is prone to grey rot, so conscientious producers try to encourage vines where the bunch is looser, allowing the wind to keep the berries dry. The berries are also susceptible to bursting. For this reason, too, the grape needs well-drained soils, and so should not be planted on the flatlands.
Blend or Monovarietal
As I mentioned, Ciliegiolo is often found in blends with Sangiovese; it softens the edges, brings in more fruit, more colour – and a fine texture, with a bit less acidity than its renowned counterpart. It is a lovely grape that makes a positive contribution in a blend. Ah! But what of the monovarietal wines?
They can be such beautiful, lively, fun and fulfilling things – and not at all insipid. Darker in colour than Sangiovese and with smooth tannins, the wines are generally superbly fruity with an elegant mouthfeel. They can also be fuller-bodied, with the right winemaking and raw material, which helps to explain why the grape was considered a particularly high-quality biotype of thinner, less-perfumed Sangiovese. Yes, Ciliegiolo can make beautiful, expressive, ageworthy wines that rate highly with many wine drinkers. That is, if you can find them.
The Maremma, Garden of Ciliegiolo
Though monovarietal bottlings of Ciliegiolo are becoming less scarce, to have even a moderate selection of them, you will need to come to the Maremma. The Maremma is the spiritual, geographical and geological home of the variety, which has adapted to the climate here over the centuries. It is warmer here than elsewhere in Tuscany, and some parts of the Maremma – specifically the southeast around Pitigliano and Sovana – allow the grape to reach greater heights of quality. In fact, I would say it finds its apogee in this volcanic landscape. The stone here is tuff, which can barely retain water, and the temperature is a few degrees cooler than the Maremman coastal zone, allowing Ciliegiolo to retain a bit more of its acidity – a lack of which is another minor drawback of the grape variety. The wines are a bit brighter, fresher, more expressive and show a mineral backbone. Exquisite stuff. Not surprising, then, that Ciliegiolo’s greatest proponent, the estate of Sassotondo, is located here – halfway between these two stunning villages perched on, and made from, tuff.
Fortunately, there are many producers making monovarietal bottlings of the grape in the Maremma, and they are both seductive and beguiling. The wines are universally intensely fruity, perfumed, with lovely, strong red colour. The best examples offer plenty of structure as well as ageing potential. At the recent MarammaCheVini event held in Grosseto, I was able to try bottlings made by eight different estates. The results were not only encouraging, but inspiring! I am greatly looking forward to seeing this variety gain recognition and appreciation for what it has to offer. To read more about the event and the Maremma (as well as the Maremma Toscana DOC), see my article here.
The Maremma. It was at Vinitaly at the stand for the Consorzio Tutela Vini della Maremma Toscana where I was first able to try a monovarietal Ciliegiolo. I was sitting talking with the director, Luca Pollini, and the president Edoardo Donato, and I had very, very little time. I gave them the tough assignment of picking two (only two!) “representative” bottlings that showed what the grape could do. Although Edoardo did sweat a little, they were only too happy to oblige. It was my first encounter with both Sassotondo and Antonio Camillo, two producers making some of the finest Ciliegiolo in Italy. I was immediately looking forward to being able to try far more of this grape in Grosseto at MaremmaCheVini.
For a partial list of producers working with this wonderful grape, see my post about Maremma.