Photo: vineyards near Castelnuovo don Bosco and Albugnano where still many vineyards are planted with Freisa.
Among the sheer unlimited variety of wine grapes it seems only a limited number is produced in certain volumes. Often it is said this is because those other varieties are not interesting. But is this really the case? It would be disappointing to drink always wine of the same grape variety: variation is one of wine’s most interesting aspects. Its possession of many unique varieties is also typical for Piemonte´s viticulture. Local DOC/Gs allow for some 50 indigenous varieties but university researchers claim to have discovered ca 400 different varieties (they still have to be researched however).
One grape was for a long period the most planted in Piemonte and now almost forgotten: Freisa. After Phylloxera other varieties replaced it because they were easier to work with like Barbera and Nebbiolo. Estimations say there are some 2000 hectares of Freisa left in Piemonte. So: is Freisa difficult? Maybe, but it can produce delicious wines. Time for a closer look.
Photo: ca 100 years ago Freisa was Piemonte´s most planted variety
Interesting aspect is that it is considered a parent of Nebbiolo. Its first quote was found in 1517 AD as Fresearum in the customs documents of Pancalieri (with a higher price than Nebbiolo) and documents from 1692 and 1760 prove cultivation of Freisa in various parts of Monferrato. The word Freisa or Fresia might origin from the French word fraise (strawberry). All this is reason for my hypothesis: as it is generally believed that Nebbiolo has its origins in North Piemonte or Valtellina, it is probable that Freisa too has its origin there. So when during Middle Age Nebbiolo was brought south it was together with Freisa. I presume that they were both first taken to North Monferrato and then to Collina Torinese, Pinerolese, Colli Tortonesi and finally also to the Langhe. Just like Nebbiolo it is still planted and present in DOCs like Collina Torinese, Freisa Di Chieri DOC, Pinerolese DOC, Colline Novaresi DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC, Colli Tortonesi DOC, Monferrato DOC and also in Langhe DOC. So: both are among Piemonte’s most widely distributed grapes even if Freisa is only present in tiny quantities.
Photo: Langhe vineyards where Freisa once was introduced together with Nebbiolo
Most planted is the subvariety Freisa piccolo, the Freisa Grossa (alias Neretta Cuneese) is less interesting for wine production. Its form is cylindrical and it is highly vigorous. It thrives well on the marly-chalk soils in the hills of Piemonte. Acidity level is medium, a reason why Freisa possesses a good aging potential, and Freisa has abundant tannin potential.
Freisa was popular because it is easy to produce a light frizzy and sweet wine of it and because of its resistance against some diseases and against rot. 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, Canavese rosato DOC. As a result tradition has arisen to consider Freisa as only suited for sparkling or frizzante wines. To me however, the real interesting wine of Freisa is its still version: it can be a great wine if the producer has worked well.
So why are there are so few dry Freisa wines? Answer: the phenolic content of the grape is high and creates problems for the producer. Many Freisa wines are not easy to drink because of dominating green tannins. These tannins are the real problem for each producer who wants to get it right: if they are too intense or too ´dry´ the wine will become undrinkable but when the wine lacks tannins it can become thin and uninteresting and such wines will not improve with aging. So producers have to search for the right balance and avoid those ´green´ tannins. But when it contains this balance between mature tannins and mature fruit, Freisa can be a wonderful wine with structure, and those typical, intense notes of blackberry, raspberry and freshness. Barrel aging can contribute to such balance. It will never be a concurrent for Nebbiolo in elegance and depth but is a very valid and important Piemontese wine; it should be mentioned together with grapes like Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto and is another reason why Piemonte is such a miraculously rich wine region.
What I like in such well made Freisa wines are these rich, earthy tones, intense black fruit, raspberry, some mint, great freshness and 14% alcohol. It can be full of character and will go well with winter dishes and game. This I consider the real authentic style of dry Freisa. There are some lighter wines indeed, maybe easy drinkable, but as they lack much of the tannin structure they are not long-lived and will never reach this strong character with those typical black-fruit nose.
Alas in the past this tannic content was reason for some famous wine critics to write very negative comments about Freisa. All this is related to the old style of Freisa with too dry and bitter tannins, all unbalanced. By now many producers are working with more attention and produce a wine with more moderate and balanced tannins which results in drinkable styles and aging potential.
Another aspect of Freisa: maybe it is at its best in blends. But this is another article: follow this blog.
There are some producers who strongly continue to believe in Freisa like Gianni Vergnano, Aldo Vajra and Domenico Capello. Here some recommended wines:
Beccaria, Monferrato Freisa DOC 2013
Well made Freisa. Tannins are present but well integrated and the wine presents the typical blackberry and raspberry fruit, freshness and long finish. A fine example of a mature and enjoyable Freisa.
Cascina Gilli, Freisa d´Asti DOC 2012
Beautiful wine, nice fruit, blackberries and freshness. Can age wonderful, good acidity, some vintages are worth keeping for at least ten years! A discovery.
La Montagnetta, Freisa d´Asti DOC 2012
This version is produced with partly dried grapes, which gives the wine richness. Very acceptable and quite strong, even if the dried grapes dominate maybe a little over the freshness which makes Freisa actually so interesting.
Vajra, Langhe Freisa DOC 2012
Star producer of Barolo, Aldo Vajra proves the potential of Freisa with his impressive wine. One of my favourite Freisa wines is Vajra´s Kyè, a great wine, beautiful intense fruit, length, freshness, blackberries. Needs some years of ageing but a wonderful wine.
Massa, Colli Tortonesi Freisa DOC l´avvelenata 2011
Who knows Freisa will recognize the typical blackberry-fruit also in this wine. Rather more easy drinking but a very serious wine, by star-winemaker Walter Massa. Interesting wine from the Colli Tortonesi. The wine is less structured, but with notes of raspberry, some mint and freshness.
Photo: Barolo producer Aldo Vajra continues to believe in the potential of Freisa. His Langhe Freisa DOC is impressive and among the best Freisas I tasted and a wonderful, structured wine with good aging potential. www.gdvajra.it
Gianni Vergnano proves with his interesting Freisa wines how the grape can be of interest to foreign winelovers. Produced at the wonderful estate Cascina Gilli in the North of Monferrato near Castelnuovo don Bosco (AT). www.cascinagilli.it
Domenico Capello, maybe Piemonte’s most dedicated producer of Freisa. Situated in an unkown corner between Asti and Chieri, he produces a range of different Freisa wines. For his Freisa he also collaborates with Torino university. www.lamontagnetta.com
OTHER INTERESTING PRODUCERS OF DRY FREISA: Rossotto, Scarpa, az.agr.499, Accornero, Borgogno, Mauro Mascarello, Cavallotto, Tenuta Santa Caterina, Il Crotin 1897, Mosparone, Ca Barun, Giacomo Boveri, Mariotto and Cantine Valpane.