For centuries Freisa was the most planted grape in Piemonte. After being almost forgotten, some winemakers are seeking to revive it. For publication in week starting 22 August 2016.
Freisa thrives on the marly-chalk soils in the hills of Piemonte in northern Italy. The grape has medium levels of acidity and abundant tannin, giving Freisa good ageing potential. Other varieties such as Barbera and Nebbiolo replaced Freisa after the Phylloxera crisis in the late nineteenth century because they were easier to work with. Barbera and Nebbiolo have since become famous for producing some of Italy’s finest reds.
Freisa was first mentioned in official documents in 1517. Now only about 2,000 hectares remain. Piemonte wine expert Paul Balke believes it was a parent of Nebbiolo, Piemonte’s most famous red grape. “The word Freisa or Fresia might originate from the French word ‘fraise’ for strawberry,” he said. “It is generally believed that Nebbiolo has its origins in North Piemonte or Valtellina; it is probable that Freisa has its origin there, too.”
The grape was popular because it offered an easy way to produce a light, fizzy and sweet wine, and because it had resistance against disease and rot. Noted Balke: “The long tradition of frizzante wines is continued by Freisa di Chieri DOC or Freisa d´Asti frizzante DOC and there is a rare rosé in the area around Ivrea [known as] Canavese rosato DOC.”
Because of tradition, many have considered Freisa only suitable for sparkling or frizzante wines. But Balke believes still wines made from Freisa can become great wine “if the producer has worked well”.
Some Freisa are not easy to drink because of green tannins that dominate the palate. Winemakers have to work hard to deal with those tannins. If they are too intense or dry the wine becomes undrinkable, but if the wine lacks tannin it can feel thin and uninteresting. These latter bottles will not improve with age.
But when wines obtain a balance between mature tannins and mature fruit, Balke said, Freisa becomes a fresh wine with intense notes of blackberry and raspberry. “Barrel ageing can contribute to balance. It will never be a competitor with Nebbiolo in terms of elegance and depth but is a very valid and important Piemontese wine.” Balke believes Freisa is another reason why Piemonte is such a rich wine region.
An excellent example of a modern style of Freisa is made by Azienda Agricula 499. The number in the name refers to the elevation of the village of Camo in the Langhe region. Winemaker Mario Andrion says the elevation helps the grapes achieve perfect ripening and “refreshing natural acidity”. He makes what he calls “artisanal” wines and links quality with being artisanal. “The artisan makes each part of the wine with the same passion and precision.” His 2013 Freisa Coste dei Fre would pair well with aged cheese or BBQ beef.
The 2012 and 2010 vintages of the Tenuta Santa Caterina Freisa were a pleasure to taste. The wine is named Sori di Giul. Sori refers to the vineyards with the best sun exposure for ripening. Both wines are elegant, with pronounced aromas of mint and an attractive dusty character. The tannins have been controlled and are beautifully soft. The 2010 was winemaker Mario Ronco’s first vintage and is drinking well now.
A 2004 Freisa from Cascina Gilli shows the ageing potential of this grape. Time has subdued the tannins and the wine speaks of rose petals and tobacco leaf mingled with a range of red and black fruits. The wine is called Arvele, meaning “revelations” in the Piemontese dialect, and this wine was indeed a revelation: an example of what the Penfolds company in Australia means by the phrase the “rewards of patience”.
Other rare indigenous grapes encountered in Piemonte included Pelaverga and Nascetta.
Nascetta is a white variety from the Langhe region that was replanted just over a decade ago. About 40 people grow it, though the region only has about 20 hectares. DOC rules stipulate the wine must contain a minimum 85 per cent of Nascetta. The balance can come from any white grape in the region; these include Vermentino, Arneis, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.
Because the wine is so relatively new, locals do not have much museum stock. It is therefore difficult to ascertain if it will age; and besides, locals tend to drink it young. A recent tasting of a dozen showed the wine has a range of flavours depending on how it is made. These vary from perfumed wines with Muscat-like floral qualities through to wines with riper, tropical fruit aromas. Some Nascetta offer aromas of crisp apples with citrus and honey notes.
Interestingly, Nascetta was well known in the nineteenth century. A book published in 1879 describes it as “an exquisite grape, tending toward art”. But the grape was uprooted or grafted to other varieties in the 20th century before its recent revival. Some of the better makers include Cascina Ballarin, Poderi Cellario, Sergio Germano and Rivetto.
Only about 17 hectares are planted with the Pelaverga grape, a fruity red with aromas of strawberries, flowers and some intense spice and pepper notes. DNA testing in 2011 revealed it is not related to any other grape. About 150,000 bottles are made each year.
A small group of Piemontese growers with a strong sense of tradition are aiming to develop the variety’s potential. Pelaverga is only grown in the commune of Verduno, which has a population of only about 400, within the Barolo region; hence the name of the Verduno Pelaverga DOC.
A tasting of 11 Pelaverga from the 2015 and 2014 vintages revealed a graceful and delicate wine with zingy acidity plus tight tannins. Wines that stood out came from Massara, Poderi Roset and Cadia.
Piemonte continues to fascinate because of the number of rare grape varieties.