Diary 16 – Freisa, Nebbiolo’s rustic relative

This post completes my earlier survey of five local Monferrato grape varieties, Monferrato’s famous five.

Freisa is one of Piemonte’s historic varieties, now not much grown but with one claim to fame. In 2004, Anna Schneider and her team at the University of Turin established that it has a parent-offspring relationship with the undisputed top dog of Piemonte, Nebbiolo. In addition, in the patchy history of grape varieties in north-west Italy, it is relatively well attested. It is possibly mentioned in a document of 1517 where it said that a variety called fresearum attracted twice the price of other varieties. Freisa is certainly mentioned again in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries being called ‘a first quality grape’ and being feted by Ernest Hemingway and Princess Ludovica of the royal house of Savoy, the then rulers of Turin. In modern times it has been less loved. There were more than 1,400 hectares in Piemonte in 2000 but this has dropped to less than 800 hectares in 2018. What is this grape variety, with its literary and aristocratic approval, like? And why is not more loved in our century?

Much modern comment says that Freisa is not very deep in colour and that is the beginning of its lack of popularity. But I do wonder if this supposed paleness is due to association with its noble relative, which of course rapidly becomes pale garnet in colour. Actually, Freisa wines are just on the paler side of medium ruby, definitely deeper in colour than Nebbiolo. The picture below is Nebbiolo on the left and its deeper-hued relative on the right.

When it comes to Freisa as a drink, it definitely comes in two parts. The fruit is fairly powerful and complex. My notes, set out in full below, repeatedly return to strawberry (fresia means strawberry in Latin), red cherry and plum with rose and violet notes. Some do have the tarry, earthy themes as well. It is definitely at least semi-aromatic if without the grand bouquet of Nebbiolo.

But the real surprise is the demanding structure that goes with all those aromas and flavours. It is this structure that merits the ‘rustic’ tag. If you love acidity and tannin–and you do as you are reading a post about Italian red wine!–you will understand and may like Freisa. It has really high acidity. The 2019 harvest report on Piemontese varieties states that the average pH of their samples at harvest time was a stunning 3.0 and a total acidity of 12.5 g/L (L’annata vitivinicola in Piemonte, p. 29). The latter will, of course, be reduced by malolactic conversion. Nonetheless, this is a level of acidity more normally associated with Champagne or English sparkling wine than with red wine).

And with that acidity, there are also high tannins. This I think is the real challenge in growing Freisa. The best wines are those that have managed to ripen the fruit fully and thus produce wines with high, firm but ripe tannins; the less successful are just too tannic for many tastes and the occasional wine is actually bitter. In a world that loves easy-drinking Merlot and silky Pinot Noir, you can understand that Freisa has limited appeal. The comparison with Nebbiolo is fascinating here. It too has racy acidity (average pH 3.2 in the same harvest report) and high tannins but in many great examples that we are privileged to drink, they are fine and powdery and certainly not bitter.

In conclusion, Freisa is an interesting local variety but you have to pick your producer carefully. Of course, the wine is best drunk with food and preferably substantial meat dishes. I list the wines I tasted with scores out of 20 below.

I tasted a good cross-section of Freisa for this post, a number from its largest DOC, Freisa d’Asti, one from the historic Freisa di Chieri close to Turin, plus Langhe DOC Freisa, which is the denomination that Barolo and Barbaresco producers use for their examples. There were two frizzante wines but sadly no sweet ones, a traditional style which I think could really work. As with Lambrusco, the sweetness would offset that challenging structure.

Producer and wineGrape growing and winemakingNote and score (20 scale)Wine bought or provided
Giacomo Fenocchio, Freisa, Langhe DOC, 2018, 14.5%0.5 ha, W facing, 300 m, 15 year old vines, harvest early October   Wild yeast, 8 days on the skins, 6 months in SS, 6 months in Slavonian casks,Garnet tint despite its youth, dark plum and baked fruit, sweetness on the nose; rich and full mid-palate, high firm tannins ripe but bold, touch warm, demands food, 16.5Armit, £17
Giuseppe Mascarello, Toetto, Langhe DOC Freisa, 2016, 13.5%Fruit grown in the Toetto vineyard, just below Monprivato, 280m, planted 1989 the year after the vineyard acquired (Castiglione Falleto; floating cap method, 15-20 days; a few months in medium-sized Slavonian oak casksMed intensity ruby with a  purple hint; red  cherry and savoury notes initially, then  baked brambly/plum fruit, tea leaf; vivacious palate, medium bodied, red plum fruit and liquorice note, flowing palate, firm but rounded tannins increasingly evident, racy acidity, v long, v difficult to score; 16.5+Uncorked £27
Accornero, La Bernadina, Monferrato DOC Freisa, 2018, 13.5%Fermentation 7 days M- ruby (but close to medium), aromatic, strawberry, raspberry, vinous + floral and hint of tar; med body, medium touch grainy tannins, m+ length, distinctive and drinkable young, 16.5Tannico, £15
Trinchero, Runchet, Vino Rosso, 2013, 13.5% Med ruby with a touch of garnet; lovely rounded lifted  nose with fully integrated strawberry, floral and leather notes, gorgeously fluid mid-palate with fruit concentration, touch unrelentingly firm tannins, good fruit-acidity balance, m+ length. Really lovely just let down by the firm tannins, 16.5Tannico, £40
Pasquale Pelissero, La Ferma, Langhe DOC Freisa, 2017, 13.5%15-20 years old vineyards in the village of Neive at about 400 mt above sea level. SW facing, clay & limestone,  60 ql/ha and an average of 1.2 kg per plant; 10 days on the skins, aged in used French barrels, 3rd passage for 1 year.Med ruby with a garnet tint; lifted light leather/ mushroom, vanilla, strawberry to brambly fruit, firm if med++ tannins, med length, 16?+Armit, £15
Vinum Vita Est, Terre del Barolo Freisa, Langhe DOC, 2017, 13%9 ton/ha, 100% Freisa, picked early October, 4-5 days on the skins, FT 26ºC, 3-4 months in SSPurple tint still to medium ruby, moderately intense baked plum fruit, vinous, nutty, added red fruit on palate, rather aggressive acidity, pretty ripe tannins by tough Freisa standards, m+ length, 16+Armit £13
Cascina Gilli, Luna di Maggio, Freisa d’Asti DOC Frizzante, 2019300 m alt, 100% Freisa, aged in SS, natural second fermentation in tank   ‘si presenta secco’ Very expressive and fresh red cherry and plum fruit, violet, black fruit emerged, fruity and lightly fizzy palate, pleasantly fresh but not aggressive acidity, med grainy tannins, excellent example of a near fully dry (?3g/L) frizzante red wine, m+ length, 16Tannico £14
Cascina Gilli, Il Forno, Freisa d’Asti DOC, 2018, 14%360 m, 100% Freisa, SSM+ ruby,  not expressive nose but ripe fruit,    vg depth of red plum and raspberry fruit, elegant mid-palate, plenty of fruit to balance the firm, chalky med tannins, ripe acidity, 15.5 [Not a good bottle? Lacks the aromatic lift of Freisa]Tannico £14
Cascina Gilli, Arvelé, Freisa d’Asti DOC Superiore, 2016, 14.5%380 m, Low yields and late pick for perfect maturation, aged in first and second use barriques for 12 monthsM+ ruby on the turn; leads with vanilla and sweet spice over fairly dense red to black fruit; good fruit concentration including some prune notes, quite oaky flavours, ripe tannins, well done, 16.5Tannico £20
Cascina Gilli also make: Monferrato Chiaretto85% Freisa, 15% Bonarda frizzante  
Claudio Mariotto, Braghé da uve freisa, Colli Tortonesi, 2016, 14% M+ ruby with a purple tint (surprisingly deep); fresh red and black cherry, strawberry, violet, kirsch, reminiscent of Malbec, merest hint of tar and smoke, very rich palate, rustic in a good way, crunchy fruit and m+ tannins, not bitter, lifted acidity refreshes the ripe fruit, m+ length, 16£17 UK
La Biòca, Faje ‘n Ross, Freisa di Chieri DOC Superiore, 2016, 13.5%Fermented in SS and tonneau, no temperature control, 7 days, with manual punch-downs and pumpovers, 20 days on the skins post-fermentation; aged for 6 months in new barrels (‘botte’), 6 months in old barrels and 2 months in SS Medium bricking ruby,  brambly fruit + red and black cherry, floral lift, excellent depth of fruit, intense acidity, ripe if grainy tannins and no bitterness, 16Tannico £12.70
Tenuta Olim Bauda, Freisa d’Asti DOC Secco, 2016, 14.5% M+ ruby, floral notes and cooked plum, graphite, good complexity, m+ acidity,  grainy tannins, m+ length, 16Sample provided by producer
Montariolo, Zi’ Tania, Monferrato DOC Freisa, 2016, 13.5%100% Freisa, aged for 11 months stainless steelMid ruby just beginning to turn, moderate intensity, floral and wild red berry notes on nose, medium body, fluid and juicy palate, crisp acidity and v firm m+ tannins and a touch bitter, med length, 15.5Tannico £15
Voerzio Martini, Langhe Freisa frizzante, 2018Planted 1970 at 6,000 v/ha in tufo with some sand; have greatly increased the canopy in relation to the bunches to get top quality grapes; three thinnings through the season to get even ripening; cold maceration for 12 hours in the press with dry ice, CO2 to avoid oxidisation, fermentation in stainless steel with submerged cap and temp control, short ageing in SS, refermentation in autoclave, protected at every stage by nitrogen. Medium ruby and properly fizzy, brambly and not really that pure red fruit, better fruit expression on the palate, touch bitter grainy tannins, Perhaps a few g RS. 15+La Vite Turchese, Barolo, £17
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