Last summer, we took a look at Italian white grape varietals (here’s the last installment of the white grape series with links to each part), so it feels right to take a wander through red grapes this winter. This winter, we’re detailing the red wine grapes of Italy. From the well-known to the obscure, this alphabetical list offers insight into the grapes that make your favorite Italian red wines. Here is the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto, in case you missed it!
Cultivated primarily in Friuli, Cabernet Franc has been growing in Italy for almost two hundred years. Recently, its use has fallen off somewhat in favor of its offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon (the other parent grape to Cabernet Sauvignon is Sauvignon Blanc). Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is a varietal that provides wines with great structure and balance. Lower in tannins and acidity than its more famous child, Cabernet Franc tends to be more aromatic and herbal. While winemakers in Toscana differentiate between the two types of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, winemakers in the north of Italy often forgo the full name and simply call it–and Cabernet Sauvignon–by the name “Cabernet.”
Cabernet Sauvignon (cab-er-NAY soh-VEE -n’yon)
Cabernet Sauvignon may very well be the world’s most cultivated grape. This varietal’s easy balance between tannins and acidity makes for wine that has great structure and longevity, and its palate that ranges from berries to herbs to tobacco lends itself to a wide variety of terroir and viticultural interpretations. Like its parents, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is originally a French grape that has grown in Italy for nearly two hundred years. While Cabernet Sauvignon used to be limited to northeastern Italy, it is now cultivated throughout Italy. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon has a strong presence in Toscana, where it forms the basis for many Super Tuscans, most notably Sassicaia in the Maremma zone. Except for those in Toscana, Italian winemakers often label both Cabernet Sauvignon and its parent Cabernet Franc as simply “Cabernet.”
Canaiolo (kah-nah-YOH-low, kah-nay-YOH-loh, kah-nah-YAW-low)
If a wine is a play, then Canaiolo is a supporting player. Though Canaiolo once was widely grown, it has yet to regain the ground it lost during the phylloxera epidemic of the early twentieth century. Today Canaiolo generally serves as a component in wine. This grape is primarily cultivated in Toscana where it adds dark crimson color, black cherry fruit and a slight woodiness to Chianti. Canaiolo also grows in Le Marche, Lazio, Liguria and Umbria, where it appears in its white incarnation, Canaiolo Bianco, to add some heft to the area’s whites, specifically Orvieto.
Cannonau, also Cannanou (cahn-nah-NOW)
Originally planted in Sardegna when the island was occupied by the Spanish in the fifteenth century, Cannonau has fully assimilated into Italy’s viticulture. The dry, sunny, windy climate of Sardinia is perfect for this thick-skinned, flexible varietal. Known elsewhere as Granaxa, Garnacha, or Grenache, Cannonau also grows in grey and white versions, though its black grape is most common in Italy, where it is primarily cultivated in the south. Most often used to make a full-throttle wine of bright, dark red, with a spice-laden palate of blackberry and chocolate, Cannonau also appears in light rosés, fortified wines, and desert wines.
Poor Carignano. So often maligned, Carignano is busy rehabilitating its image. While some people claim that beyond the grape’s brutal tannins, punishing acidity, and extreme bitterness, it has nothing going for it, others suggest that with careful cultivation this high-yield though extremely finicky vine can provide high-quality berries with a copasetic balance of tannins, acidity and flavor. Cultivated widely in Spain and France and called Cariñena, Mazeulo and Carignan elsewhere, in Italy Carignano grows almost exclusively in Sardegna. Like its fellow Spanish transplant Cannonau, Carignano came to Sardegna with the Spanish invasion in the early fifteenth century. Requiring a hot, dry climate with long, sunny days in order to ripen, this grape seems tailor-made for the south of Italy and for Sardegna in particular. Carignano appears in red wines characterized by a palate of mulberry, plums and currants; it also makes a soft rosé wine with a heady floral nose; and it even shows up in a semi-sparkling incarnation.
This grape appears in two main types, the larger berried Cesanese Commune and its clone Cesanese d’Affile. Grown predominantly in and around Lazio, these grapes are the components of three of Lazio’s DOC productions. Cesanese grapes can be made to produce dry, sweet, semi-sweet and frizzante wines; when made into dry wines, Cesanese’s herbaceous, plum-skin acidity can make a beautifully ageing, spicy wine. Traditionally, Cesanese wines are drunk in the fall to celebrate hog slaughtering.
This grape is a clone of Nebbiolo, the varietal that forms the basis for Peimonte’s Barolo. Chiavennasca grows predominantly in Lombardia, where it often is used to make lean, taut white wines when macerated without skins. In the Valtellina DOC, the grape goes through a process called “sforzato,” wherein the grapes are partially dried before maceration in order to create a glycerin rich, intensely aromatic wine.
This ancient varietal gets its name from its cherry-like aroma and color. Low in acidity, Ciliegiolo is often found blended with Sangiovese in Toscana to make Chianti and other wines; its soft, round character makes it an ideal candidate for balancing grapes that have an assertive profile. While some ampelographers have argued that the varietal came from Spain, others suggest that it very well could be indigenous to Italy, and in fact the grape might be one of the parents of Sangiovese.
Given its name, Colorino’s primary use of adding its deep beet-like hue to lighter hued wines probably would not surprise you. Appearing most prevalently in Toscana to provide balance in headstrong Sangiovese wines, Colorino is also cultivated in Umbria, Le Marche, Lazio and Liguria. However, it appears that Colorino might no longer be merely a supporting grape; Colorino’s high tannins, earthy notes and palate of soft apples and berries have induced winemakers in recent years to begin experimenting more freely with this varietal.
This thick-skinned black grape is found almost exclusively in the Veneto, where it almost always appears as the star of a blended wine. Although there are single-expression Corvina wines, it features most prominently in Bardolino, Valpolicella and Amarone. The first two are light drinking wines, but the last is a serious full-bodied wine made by drying the Corvina for around 100 days before vinification. Characterized by its sour cherry finish, Corvina’s high acidity helps the ageability of its wines, even its Riocoto, or rosé, expressions. Corvina sometimes also goes by the name Cruina.
Croatina (kraw-ah-TEE-nah, kroh-ah-TEE-nah)
Croatina is a fine grape by any other name–and that other name is Bonarda, which shouldn’t be confused with Bonarda Piemonte or the Argentinean Bonarda that is really the French Corbeau. Croatina is grown almost exclusively in Lombardia. Its deep-purple fruit provides a soft, round palate enlivened by light, vibrant fruit and finished with a compelling acidic bite. Often, it appears in blends such as Barbera or Gutturino.