Freisa: An Uncommon Wine Worth Seeking Out

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Wine lovers have a role to play in this sporadically dawning age of eco-consciousness. The large, messy vitis vinifera family includes a good many endangered subspecies, and the ecologically worthy task of preserving them is a boon not only for biological diversity but for our own ever-curious palates: some of these near vanishing varieties make very fine wine. One such is Freisa, a very old Piedmontese grape, once extremely popular, now reduced to a few vineyards and a mere fraction of its former acreage.
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In this map of the Cavallotto vineyards, Freisa is the tiny piece in blue.

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No, you won’t find it everywhere, though I wish you could. Not even in Italy, where outside its northern stronghold it is close to totally unknown – and even in its heartland, the Piedmont, it is scarce and threatened. So why am I telling you about a wine you probably won’t be able to get? Because I think it’s worth an effort to save. Because if asked, local retailers will ask their distributors, who will pass the question up to corporate and – who knows? – somewhere along the line someone may actually do something that will eventually result in a potentially very great wine surviving to give pleasure for a few more centuries. I think that’s worth making a fuss about, don’t you?

What makes Freisa special is its relationships:  It is either the parent or the child of Nebbiolo, and that is special indeed. DNA studies have established the  relationship but not which is which. What is clear is that approximately 80% of Freisa’s DNA is identical to Nebbiolo’s, and that certainly gives it a head start on greatness.

Freisa has been grown in the Piedmont for centuries, and at one point in its long history it formed a part of almost every blended wine made there – and in the past they were almost all blended. Farmers loved it because it was hearty and disease-resistant, grew where many other varieties wouldn’t, and bore prolifically. Some of those characteristics can be the kiss of death for a wine of quality, inviting overplanting and exploitation. In addition, Freisa grapes are packed with tannins, which unless handled properly can be cruel on the palate. Many of you will remember that very similar things used to be said until quite recently about young Nebbiolo-based wines, Barolo in particular.

Right now, Freisa seems to be one of the varieties that is benefitting from global warming. The Piedmont’s lengthening growing season is giving the grapes the opportunity to achieve complete phenolic ripeness, and that – as with Nebbiolo – is the key to taming those rambunctious tannins, and even to lowering the variety’s very high malic acid content, resulting in a more balanced and drinkable wine right from fermentation.

The result, for the consumer, is a wine with an aroma that commentators describe as “haunting and complex” (that particular formulation is Ian D’Agata’s) and a fascinating flavor profile that features always the strawberry from which its name apparently derives and several other fruits, especially wild cherries. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Freisa from the Langhe, a young one from Cavalotto, a very traditional Barolo house that hasn’t abandoned the other traditional grapes of the region.
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This 2015 was deeply colored and deeply flavorful, redolent of cherry and earth, with a soft mouth feel – the tannins were totally under control – and an enlivening touch of acidity.  It combined beautifully with a simple, tasty weekday dinner of oven-roasted sausages, potatoes, bell peppers, and red onions, which we followed up with a few odds and ends of cheese. The Freisa loved every single component and adapted seamlessly to them all. That, in my never very humble opinion, defines a really good and useful wine. This was a young wine, but because of the tannins it shares with Nebbiolo, Freisa should age very well – if any of us could ever get hold of enough of it to cellar.

Let us hope for the future: There seem to be signs of a small revival of interest in the variety, both among producers and in the press:  Eric Asimov recently discussed it prominently in The New York Times, and that can’t hurt. By all means, try it if you can: It may give a welcome new palatal experience. Perhaps a new day is dawning for Freisa. Who knows? If global warming keeps increasing at its present pace, they may soon be growing Freisa in Burgundy.

 

6 Responses to “Freisa: An Uncommon Wine Worth Seeking Out”

  1. Ole Udsen Says:

    Excellent piece, Tom. I absolutely agree that we need to preserve vinous biodiversity, and I also very much agree that Freisa can make utterly lovely wines. It spans the whole range from light and fizzy, even slightly sweet, to dark, tannic and powerful, with the potential for very high quality indeed. Obviously, G.D. Vajra’s Kyè is a benchmark in this category, but I have recently come across the lovely wines from Crotin 1897 (of which I am now the highly biased Danish importer, so . Crotin make two Freisas, a lovely, dry, sapid, quite powerful rosé, and a juicy, medium weight, firm, somewhat tannic and ageworthy red. Both are highly recommended if you can find them.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thank you, Ole, both for the compliment and the information. I had not known about Crotin 1897, and I will try to find some now.

  2. Mark Henderson Says:

    Hi Tom,

    Your comment about asking retailers, importers and the like to bring in some Freisa (even just a little) rings true with me as I have been pushing that barrow with my local importers of Cavallotto. I tried the Freisa at the winery some years ago and thought it was fabulous; bringing a bottle home which also dazzled a couple of friends of mine. I’ve badgered the local importers for a while now, and just when I’d almost given up hope, they offered a tiny amount in their next shipment of Cavallotto. Finally, my prayers are answered, and my two friends are joining me in nabbing a few bottles….so I’m sort of hoping that it might become an ongoing thing, and of course an even bigger plus is that it is one of the lower priced wines in their portfolio. I’m looking forward to my bottles of the 2017 arriving in a few months!

    Cheers…Mark

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      It’s good to hear that consumer activism can p[roduce results. I hope we get more of it going for some of these fine, endangered wines.

  3. tom hyland Says:

    Tom: I love your sentence “Because I think it’s worth an effort to save.” Freisa is worth saving and good of you to note how scarce the grape is becoming. I too love the Cavallotto version (everything they touch seemingly turns to gold). Are you familiar with Balbiano, who specializes in Freisa di Chieri? They are among the few producers carrying the torch for this variety, as they produce at least four versions, including rosé and sparkling.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hi, Tom. I know of Balbiano, but I”ve not yet had the opportunity to taste their wines. Obviously, that’s something important to add to my to-do list.

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