Nicolas Belfrage MW extolls the virtues of Ciliegiolo and admires the skill of those who work with the still-underused Italian red grape variety.
First published in issue 25 of the print edition of The World of Fine Wine in 2009, we are publishing this piece for the first time on worldoffinewine.com as part of our tribute to the hugely respected wine writer Nicolas Belfrage MW, who died last month.
I am not quite sure how I talked myself into writing this article. From one point of view, the Ciliegiolo grape is just one of hundreds of obscure Italian varieties—a representative, among many, of Italy’s strength-in-depth in that “biodiversity” department that makes the study of Italian wines so fascinating. Or seen from another perspective, one of the many local varieties that, until quite recently, were in danger of becoming extinct.
The use of Ciliegiolo (pronounced chee-lye-JO-lo) as a blender is fairly widespread in its central Italian stamping ground, usually in an also-ran if not anonymous role, under the auspices of a bunch of DOCs whose disciplinari (production regulations) authorize it without usually mentioning it; but it is rarely, if increasingly, deployed as a single varietal. Certainly until 2004 it would not have been considered a suitable candidate for the journalistic spotlight. But then, something happened.
Before we get to that, perhaps it is better to get a few details out of the way—things that need to be mentioned in any grape-variety profile but that might be considered somewhat tedious were the reader’s attention not now so keenly focused on the promised exciting denouement.
Ciliegia (chee-LYE-ja) in Italian means cherry, and there seems to be a consensus that the grape is named for its physical resemblance to cherries, in terms of both color and shape. It tends to form large, quite compact hunches, the berries, too, being large (for wine grapes), with few pips.
Being juicy and fleshy, it is often used in a Tuscan dessert called schiacciata (skya-CHA-ta) all’uva, a kind of grape-focaccia tart much favored at vintage time. It is also a precocious ripener (7–10 days earlier than Sangiovese), having lowish acidity and tannin levels, and so has been employed for the production of novello wines.
Until quite recently it was used mostly as a blender, adding easy fruit and softening the aggression of Sangiovese’s tannins and acids. As such it features in a supporting role in the central Italian zones of Liguria, Fazio, and Marche, as well as Umbria and, of course, Tuscany.
One grower in the Tuscan province of Grosseto, in the southern Maremma, where it is mostly found today, reckons that much of what was called Morellino di Scansano in the 1970s and ’80s was in fact Ciliegiolo (because the nurseries, for reasons mysterious, when asked for Sangiovese sent Ciliegiolo instead, which may be why Morellino got the reputation of being easy to drink).
Nowadays, when Ciliegiolo is giving way to Sangiovese in Morellino (which is a synonym of Sangiovese) di Scansano, the wine of that name is becoming more acidic, more tannic, generally more serious. But this is not to say that Ciliegiolo, used varietally, is not capable of making serious wine. As we shall see.
Ciliegiolo: At home in galestro and clay
Ciliegiolo likes warm, dry sites, which explains its predilection for coastal areas, especially hilly ones with soil of low fertility: A mix of galestro and clay is ideal. It can be quite productive so needs a firm hand in the pruning—winter and summer—though that hand needs to be connected to a brain that understands that Ciliegiolo is relatively unproductive in the basal nodes so wants a bit of space.
Being precocious and fairly thin-skinned, it is vulnerable to vintage-time rains, but it withstands drought well and is quite resistant to oidium and that scourge of Italian vineyards today, esca.
Among the synonyms of Ciliegiolo are Ciliegino and Ciliegiolo di Spagna, and until 2004 tbe consensus among ampelographers was that the grape had probably been brought to Italy around 1870 from Spain—more precisely, from Santiago de Compostela by returning pilgrims.
That theory was weakened somewhat by the failure of anyone to find a variety of similar characteristics back in Spain; nor was it helped by the fact that an important researcher of 16th-century Florence, Soderini, had made mention of a Ciregiuolo Dolce, describing it as “a grape variety of long bunches, having a sweet and odoriferous taste and thriving in hot climates and lands.”
Child father of the man
What happened in 2004 was an international symposium devoted to Sangiovese organized by the Regione Toscana in Florence, at which a team of researchers from the Agrarian Institute at San Michele all’Adige, headed by José Vouillamoz, revealed that Sangiovese, which has certainly existed in Tuscany far longer than 140 years, was the offspring of Ciliegiolo and a Campanian variety called Calabrese Montenuovo.
Great excitement was generated by this announcement, made on the basis of exhaustive DNA examinations and guaranteed by the researchers as genuine to a very high degree of probability. The interest, of course, centered on Sangiovese, which is infinitely more important in the ampelographical annals of Italy than Ciliegiolo. Nonetheless, some attention was now focused on Ciliegiolo, amid scratchings of many learned heads as to how they could previously have got its origins so wrong.
I mentioned earlier that Ciliegiolo has until quite recently been used primarily as a blending grape—one whose function was, as one Chianti Classico grower put it, to ingentelire, or “civilize,” the aggressively structured Sangiovese.
In his property, he said, Ciliegiolo had always in past times been included in the uvaggio di vigneto for Chianti at around 3 percent of the total, and even in more recently planted vineyards it had been included at around the same proportion, albeit not dotted here and there but planted as a parcel.
Ciliegiolo in purezza
The use of Ciliegiolo as a 100 percent varietal, or at least as the lead variety in a blend, may not be traditional, but in this age when producers are casting around for something to differentiate their wine from everybody else’s, it has begun to catch on.
One of the first of the 100 percenters was Poggio Ciliegio, a Maremma Rosso IGT from Rascioni e Ceeconello at Orbetello. Jacopo Banti of Campiglia Marittima, near Suvereto in northern Maremma, takes advantage of the DOC Val di Cornia’s provision for varietal Ciliegiolo with a pair called Ceragiolo and Trafui.
They comment: “We believe in Ciliegiolo in purezza; through the years it has confirmed its ability to express intense color and concentration together with elegance—that is, a great ‘varietal’ personality.”
Poggio Argentiera, one of the leading quality producers of the Maremma, uses Ciliegiolo both in a blend and varietally, believing, with the right selection and treatment, it is possible to make a wine of elegance and refinement capable of aging ten years or more. Fe Tre Stelle of San Gimignano makes a varietal Rosso Toscano IGT of considerable concentration called, appropriately, Ciliegiolo.
And II Duchesco of Alberese in Maremma produces no fewer than four varietal Ciliegiolos, including a rosato called Alcione, a light red Buchero, a full dry red that macerates for two and a half weeks and gets 12 months barrique aging called Tarconte, and a passito wine made from grapes strung up to dry for at least two months and fermented in small barrels, being bottled in the March following the vintage.
The Ciliegiolo producers I know best are Sassotondo of Sorano in the Maremma Grossetano, which makes a basic Ciliegiolo under its house name and another more complex and elegant, oak-aged version called San Lorenzo, from the vineyard of that name outside the extremely picturesque town of Pitigliano in the hinterlands of the Grossetano.
I will admit to a certain prejudice, since I deal on a commercial basis with Carla Benini and Edoardo Ventimiglia, the couple from Rome who upped sticks in the 1990s and threw their all into producing fine wine in the Maremma.
That confession notwithstanding, I consider the unoaked wine to be one of the best-value reds in Italy, while the San Lorenzo is undoubtedly a wine of great distinction capable of considerable aging; I first had an inkling of this fact some years ago, when their wine stood out in a tasting of all the big names of the Tuscan coast (including Sassicaia, Ornellaia, you name it…).
I began this article by saying that I didn’t know why I was writing it, but just thinking of the quality of some of the producers and wines I have mentioned, I realize its purpose is to stand as a tribute to that amazing biodiversity that Ciliegiolo represents, and to those adventurous people who have had the vision to try something different and the courage to stick with it when times got hard.
ARSIA/Regione Toscana: press releases November 18 & 19, 2004.
N Belfrage, Brunello to Zibibbo (Faber & Faber, London; 2001).
N Belfrage, The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy (Aurum Press, London / University of California Press, San Francisco and Los Angeles; 2009).
N Breviglieri and E Casini, Principali Vitigni da Vino Coltivati in Italia (Ministero dell’Agricoltura e delle Foreste, Treviso; 1964).
G Brozzoni and D Thomases, I Vini di Veronelli2009 (Veronelli Editore, Bergamo; 2009).
A Calo, A Scienza, and A Costacurta, Vitigni d’ltalia (Calderini Edagricole, Bologna; 2001).
Matura Marketing srl, www.matura.net
Nick Belfrage MW
The World of Fine Wine was saddened by the passing of Nicolas Belfrage MW in September. Easily the most significant anglophone writer on Italian wine of his generation, Belfrage was one of WFW’s longest serving and most respected contributors.
Over the next few days, as a tribute to his immense contribution to wine-writing and Italian wine, we are posting some of the best of Belfrage’s pieces from the print issue of WFW on worldoffinewine.com for the first time.