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. 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
Canaiolo plays a vital role in some very famous Italian wines. 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
Canaiolo 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.
Canaiolo’s 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.