Food & Drinks

Don’t Sleep on Ciliegiolo | PUNCH

I’d finished a couple glasses of water and eaten my way through half a bowl of nuts when it became obvious that I’d been stood up for a business drink. I sat on my barstool at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and debated whether I should just head home. Knowing nothing about it, I ordered a glass of Leonardo Bussoletti’s 05035 ciliegiolo, which instantly endeared itself to me. It was buoyant, energetic and everything red, somewhere between off-the-stem tart Montmorency cherries and the inimitable cherry pie I eat every summer in northern Michigan.

Ever since that sip six years ago, I’ve been on Team Ciliegiolo. After riding the tidal wave of completely enjoyable, light and juicy glou-glou wines, it feels like a win—especially at this time of year—to find a medium-bodied red wine that can still take a chill, but that is a little more commanding at the dinner table.

Ciliegiolo (which translates to “little cherry,” a name befitting not just the flavor of the wines, but the size of the grapes themselves) is grown throughout Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria and Liguria. But it is perhaps most associated with Chianti, where it’s been a blending grape alongside sangiovese (a genetic relative of ciliegiolo) for centuries. Even though the grape is typically only included in single-digit proportions, many Chianti producers agree that it’s necessary to the identity of the wine. “Ciliegiolo is counter to the broodiness, the earthiness and the sageyness of sangiovese,” says Ceri Smith, importer and owner of the Bay Area wine shop Biondivino.

Allowing the grape to stand on its own, however, is something that more winemakers have only really started to explore. “There has been what I would consider a steadily growing, renewed interest in ciliegiolo over the past eight to 10 years, especially in Umbria and Lazio,” says importer Matt Mollo, of SelectioNaturel. “It has a lot to do with the movement toward reviving native grape varieties, something that’s happening throughout Italy.”

These efforts have paved the way for winemakers and drinkers to understand the true potential of secondary and even tertiary grapes across Italy for the first time. Grown in Piedmont, for instance, once-obscure grapes like grignolino, pelaverga, ruché and freisa have found their own audiences both at home and abroad. “It’s like when grignolino or freisa are taken seriously,” says Smith, likening the surprise those grapes can offer to ciliegiolo’s same propensity to elicit delight in the right hands.

Because ciliegiolo has rarely been given its own platform, it’s suffered from a reputation for producing one-note wines: light in color, low in alcohol and acidity, with sweet, juicy fruit. Its champions are proving that none of that has to be true. Ciliegiolo grown on Tuscany’s warm Maremma coast is entirely different from what comes from the cooler shores of Umbria’s Lago Trasimeno or the volcanic soils surrounding Lazio’s Lago di Bolsena. And these are not entirely terroir-driven distinctions. As Leonardo Bussoletti discovered through a research project with the University of Milan, there are dozens of different biotypes of ciliegiolo planted throughout Italy.

Bussoletti has a following for his single-variety, organically farmed ciliegiolo, grown in the southern Umbrian town of Narni (the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia), an area better known for brawny, impenetrable wines made from the local sagrantino grape, but a home to ciliegiolo for hundreds of years. He currently makes three different ciliegioli (and one rosato), ranging from the stainless steel–raised 05035, which single-handedly refutes any assertion that the grape is low in acid, to Brecciaro, sourced from a higher-altitude vineyard and aged partly in neutral oak, which shows notes of herbs and black licorice. To help support the growing interest in farming the grape, Bussoletti recently formed an association of Umbrian ciliegiolo producers; there are now 14 members, including Collecapretta in Spoleto and Conestabile della Staffa and Montemelino in Monte Melino.

To the west, in Lazio, the grape has begun to flourish in “the area around Lago di Bolsena, where the volcanic soils offer a unique complexity to the terroir,” says Mollo, of SelectioNaturel. He works with Leonardo Sassi, of Podere Sassi, who has been laboring to reinvigorate his family’s old vines and is exploring what ciliegiolo can look like in new formats, as evidenced by a pét-nat called Evviva, which channels cherry-flavored Starburst.

Meanwhile, Giampiero Bea, winemaker at Umbria’s famed Paolo Bea and consulting winemaker for Monastero Suore Cistercensi in Lazio, leans on ciliegiolo in a wine called Benedic, which he makes with the nuns at the Monastero. A 50/50 sangiovese and ciliegiolo blend, the wine shows all the hallmarks of the latter grape—mushroom, spice, crunchy dark fruit—but with them comes a roundness and shine. When I ask Bea what the ciliegiolo does for the sangiovese in this blend, he answers, bluntly, “It makes it more drinkable.”

Whereas it’s rare to see a Chianti winemaker work with the grape on its own, there is some history of varietal wines in Tuscany’s Maremma. Emilio Falcione of La Busattina has endeavored to bring more attention to the grape’s history here. (Other producers include Antonio Camillo and San Ferdinando.) His biodynamically farmed vineyards sit at a higher elevation than much of Maremma, around 2,000 feet above sea level, amidst the forest. He likes to give his ciliegiolo extra time on the lees and a year in botti, making for a wine that’s juicy and round, but with acidity and tannic structure—a wine that’s meant to age.

Farther north along the coast, in southern Liguria, Pierluigi Lugano of Bisson is one of a small handful of producers that work with ciliegiolo. Choosing to play more to the lighthearted side of the grape, Lugano produces a rosato that Smith describes as “salty cherries,” its seaside verve contrasting the long lifeline of La Busattina. It’s a wine that takes me back to that first sip six years ago, with an added dose of summertime buoyancy that’s impossible not to love.

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