As I do my pilgrimage walks through various wine countries, one of my favorite ways to learn about wine is to pay attention to the lesser known varietals for that region. One way of doing

San Miniato, along the Francigena in Italy

that is to look at the grapes that are most often used as blending grapes to the varietals that are the lead varietal for wine-making. Another way I see this is when I speak with people about trends that were part of the “modern” approach to planting, often in the form of planting what are known as the “International Grapes,” in the form of Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc., and then looking at the local rebound from those varietals. As I mentioned in my previous posts, sometimes this means giving up DOC or DOCG status in order to focus on older varietals, or even as I wrote about in the Douro region of Portugal, going back to older Portuguese varietals because it turns out they might be more fit to deal with drought and climate changes. This post will focus on some of the interesting black grape varietals I’ve run into in this section of the Francigena.

Colorino
One of the first wines I tried in Lucca was a blend of several red wines, one of the minor ones

Segale Toscana 2020 IGT, with Colorino blended with lead grape of Sangiovese

of which was a grape called Colorino. Colorino is said to have grown in the wild until it was eventually domesticated, and as might be guessed by its name, often used to give color to a blend, most recently with the lighter hues of Sangiovese, to give it a deeper color to the blend. Much in the same way that Petite Verdot works its magic in Bordeaux blends to add color, Colorino adds not only that, but a bit of structure as well, given its small berries and tannins. Because so much of the focus in Tuscany is on Sangiovese, Colorino may be found bottled as a single varietal in Tuscany and Orvieto, but as in IGT wine. It’s not super aromatic, but the color (obviously) and its tannic structure make it a pretty amazing wine on its own.

Canaiolo
Another grape that you find in Sangiovese blends, and which is a bit more widespread in

From Podere Erica, a Toscana IGT with Sangiovese (50%), Canaiolo (30%), and Trebbiano (20%). Ten days of carbonic maceration and concrete tank fermented.

Tuscany, is Canaiolo. The role of Canaiolo is different from Colorino, in that it imparts flavors and aromas. While Colorino is a hardy and disease resistant grape, Canaiolo is not, and needs hot, well-draining southern exposures to make sure that it does well. It gives a softness to the Chianti wines made with Sangiovese, and has some pretty amazing cherry flavors. Canaiolo has a long history in Tuscany, having been cited in documents as far back as 1822. Some suggest that its name might come from the Latin “caniculares,” the hottest period of summer (heat wave), from the end of July to the end of August, when the grapes is starting to change color. Others suggest that it could come from its bitter similarity to a canine grass that is local to the region.

Given that it is such a widespread grape in the region, it’s not a surprise that Canaiolo was the secondary grape in at least three of the Tuscan wines that I tried in my first few days of walking.
Ciliegiolo
In the Maremma region of Tuscany, one of the most interesting grape varietals is Ciliegiolo,

A Ciliegiolo Maremma Toscana, 2022, with 95% Cilegiolo and 5% Alicante grapes.

both for its uses as a grape, as well as for its relationship to the Sangiovese grape. Unlike the previous two grapes, Ciliegiolo is a grape that often stands on its own, especially in Maremma, as well as in Umbria. Its name quite literally means “cherry,” in Italian, and given the very shape of the grapes themselves, as well as some of their flavors, this is hardly surprising. It isn’t terribly high alcohol or high acid, but it can be complex, and certainly enjoyable on its own in a bottle. The wine I had was delicious, with some amazing cherry, bright red fruit notes. Not something I would hang on to for a long time, but notable for how it stood on its own in a bottle.

Another interesting note about Ciliegiolo is its relationship to the Sangiovese grape. Quite often, with new DNA testing, it becomes obvious as to the parentage of a grape. For example, the international grape Chardonnay’s parents are Pinot Noir and the once nearly extinct Gouais Blanc. For a long time, it was thought thatA Ciliegiolo Maremma Toscana, 2022, with 95% Cilegiolo and 5% Alicante grapes. was a parent of Sangiovese, however, other studies suggest that it is the way around. Sangiovese might be one of the parents of Ciliegiolo, along with a grape called Muscat rouge de Madére. Hopefully this sordid affair involving who is whose parent will get settled soon, but in the meantime, it makes for some pretty amazing wine.
In my next post, I’ll look into some of interesting white wine varietals I’ve come across on my walk from Lucca to Rome. Until then, cheers!