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The more I learn about Italian wine, the more I am staggered by the sheer number of grapes that are indigenous to the country. Beyond the more familiar varieties like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, there are almost 400 distinct varieties registered with the Italian government and as many as 400 other traditional varieties that are still unregistered. It's well beyond the scope of possibility to cover every single one of these grapes, but periodically I'd like to highlight some more obscure but noteworthy Italian grape varieties.
I can think of no grape I'd rather start with than Ciliegiolo, an underappreciated grape that is native to Tuscany and grown all across central Italy. The grape thrives in warm hillside vineyards, especially in areas like Maremma and Chianti, and is not traditionally bottled as a varietal wine. Ciliegiolo has always been closely linked to Sangiovese. Not only do they share a genetic relationship, they are also often blended with one another, Ciliegiolo smoothing out the sharper edges of Sangiovese. Vinified on its own, Ciliegiolo produces a wine with a lush red color, distinct cherry fruit (Ciliegiolo means "little cherry"), soft tannic structure, and restrained acidity. The wines are unabashedly juicy in their appeal and are some of the only Italian red wines that are as enjoyable without food as they are with a meal. Ciliegiolo is currently undergoing a revival after years of losing acreage to make way for French grapes now used in Chianti and other Tuscan wines. Not only are more Ciliegiolo vines being planted than uprooted, many producers are now also choosing to make varietal Ciliegiolo wines.
Simone Zuccheti of the San Ferdinando estate in Chianti Colli Aretini planted Ciliegiolo vines in 2007 as part of a renewed focus on the native grapes of his area. The vines are planted on a sandy soil overlying clay with a southern exposure and are vinified with a small percentage of whole cluster bunches. The resulting wine is a more savory expression of the grape with a delicate herbal tone that is still juicy and easygoing. Farther south in Umbria, Leonardo Bussoletti has also embraced Ciliegiolo and is producing multiple varietal wines as well as partnering with the University of Milan to help research old clones of the variety. His vineyards range from 10 to 30 years old and are planted on calcareous clay facing north to help retain acidity and create wines with more finesse. On offer today are his fresh and cheerful Ciliegiolo di Narni "0535" vinified in steel and bottled the spring following the harvest, as well as the more sultry "Breccario" partially aged in barrel and rested on the lees for a year. These three wines show Ciliegiolo as I see it: a joyous red wine that is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Andy Paynter
Bussoletti’s Ciliegiolo di Narni “0535” is a fresh, easygoing red wine from central Umbria and shows exactly why I have fallen in love with the grape. Produced from a four hectare plot of younger vines planted facing north to encourage elegance over ripeness, the wine is fermented with ambient yeast in steel tank and bottled after resting for six months. The nose is rich with fresh red cherries and rose floral notes with delicate tones of black pepper. Juicy on the palate with restrained acidity and very little tannin, it shows more strawberry and raspberry fruit. This is a wine that can lift through richer foods: try it as a foil to creamy or cheesy pasta dishes, as a pairing for charcuterie, or enjoy it on its own. The lion on the label is a reference to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia which were inspired by images of the medieval castle in Narni (also pictured). Andy Paynter
The Brecciaro cuvée from Bussoletti plays on a different characteristic of Ciliegiolo than many other wines made with the grape, emphasizing the grape’s particular soft texture. Ciliegiolo never yields a tannic wine but it also is never faint or airy on the palate. Brecciaro is fermented in steel and then aged for a year, about 70% in stainless steel on the fine lees and 30% in old French oak botti. The wine is then blended and held in bottle for another six months. The nose is redolent of roses, cherries, and ripe strawberries but it is the texture of the wine, silky with delicate acidity and whispery tannins, that is really appealing. It is certainly a more sultry expression of the grape. I paired the wine with braised pork shoulder but it would be excellent with risotto, creamy polenta dishes, duck breast, or sweet potatoes. Andy Paynter
San Fernando’s Ciliegiolo is a perfect example of how delightful the grape Ciliegiolo can be when made as a varietal wine. The wine comes from a 1.7 hectare parcel of young vines planted at 320 meters on a deep sandy soil over clay. The grapes are fermented with native yeasts over 12 days, rested on the lees for five months, and bottled unfined with only a light filtration. The wine smells of sour cherries, raspberries, woody green herbs, and just a whiff of lavender. The palate is playful, with refreshing acidity and very soft tannins giving the wine a juicy feel. This is an honest, quaffable wine that will pair effortlessly with all sorts of food: try it with caprese salad, cured salmon, soft cheese, salami, braised pork or enjoy it on its own. Andy Paynter