One of the stranger things about learning Italian wines is how MANY grapes there are.
In the United States, we are used to the “big name” varietals: perhaps we begin with the Cabernet Sauvignons and Rieslings and Chardonnays of the world, move on to learn about “foreign” grapes like Grenache, and occasionally stumble on an odd, less-common varietal, like Torrontes.
But I think we are all guilty of overlooking most of the grapes that go into Italian wines. Although many of us are aware of Chianti and Super-Tuscans, I find that few know which grapes actually compose these blends. Exactly why is this? I believe that the classification system might be to “blame”: wines of countries like Italy and France are named not for the grape varietals, but for the regions: in the United States, or Australia, or Argentina, a wine is labeled, for example, “Cabernet Sauvignon”. Easy enough! We know what we are drinking, no questions asked, and we get to know new varietals as we purchase and sample new wines. But in places like Spain, and Italy, and France, the wine is labeled by region, so instead of seeing “Merlot” on the label, we see the name of a wine growing region. Confusing? Extremely? And does it inhibit our ability to know and understand the grapes that are in the wines we are drinking? Totally.
But I am on a mission to break down each of these areas in Italy while I am here, and in turn, I’m tasting all kinds of grapes that I’d never heard of before! Enter Canaiolo.
A brief overview of Canaiolo
There could not be a more unsung hero. Canaiolo is a grape that grows throughout Central Italy/Umbria, and is one of just a few grapes allowed in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and in Chianti. We’re talking a major player, here! Ok, not so major anymore: the grape’s plantings have decreased over the last few decades (they didn’t take too well to grafting, so plantings haven’t been widespread since the phylloxera outbreak), but lately, Italian winemakers are calling for a resurgence of the varietal, and thanks to this demand and the use of stronger, more disease-resistant clones, plantings have increased.
The history of Canaiolo/How Canaiolo saved the day
I want to focus on this varietal because it is such a vital part of some very famous Italian wines, yet few are aware of the grape at all, and the role it has played in Italian wine history. There is evidence that in the 18th century, Canaiolo may have been THE key wine in Chianti, before the standards were set and it was decided that the wine should be predominantly Sangiovese. And as it turns out, in the past, Canaiolo just might be the reason Italians had Chianti at all: for quite some time, winemakers had a problem getting Chianti to fully ferment. Partly through the fermentation process, outside temperatures would drastically drop, the yeasts would die, and the fermentation would just STOP, leaving a partially-fermented, undrinkable wine. (This was, obviously, before we had the beauty of electricity and temperature-controlled tanks.)
Winemakers discovered a rather interesting way around this problem. By introducing partially-dried, raisin-like grapes to this partially-fermented juice, a “shot” of sugar was added to the mix, thus stimulating the yeasts and continuing fermentation. Luckily for Canaiolo, it was one of a few grapes that dried incredibly well (without rotting), and the grape was relied upon heavily to make these raisin grapes that saved Chianti wines.
Today, Sangiovese is the star grape of Chianti, and Canaiolo works in the background to add fruitiness to the wine and soften the tannins imposed by Sangiovese. (Much like how Merlot is used to add soft fruit and tone down the tannins of a Cabernet Sauvignon in a Bordeaux style wine.) When did this switch from Canaiolo to Sangiovese occur? Probably in the 19th century, when Baron Bettino Ricasoli created the more modern-day Chianti wine recipe, which used more Sangiovese than Canaiolo.
Characteristics of Canaiolo
I was lucky to find a bottle of 100% Canaiolo in order to taste this wine in its pure form and better understand its flavors and aromas, and what it imparts to a blend. The wine is very mellow, medium-bodied, has a soft nose of lighter fruits with a tiny floral hint, and it has some present and fairly strong tannins, although they are nothing compared to the tannins in a wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon, Sagrantino, or Sangiovese. Overall, it is an incredibly easy wine to drink, and its medium body and high acidity make it fairly easy to pair with many dishes, including tomato-based sauces, fatty cured meats, fairly ripe cheeses, and game.