Freisa is the wild and more rustic kin of one of the world’s greatest cultivars, Nebbiolo.
An ancient variety found in Italy’s northwestern region of Piedmont, particularly around Chieri, the Monferrato, and the Langhe, Freisa is the closest relative to Nebbiolo, aside from Nebbiolo Rosé.
Genetic studies (Schneider, Boccacci, Torello et al, 2004) show that Freisa and Nebbiolo share a parent-offspring connection and, according to Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, Freisa is more likely Nebbiolo’s parent.
This would explain their similarities, from the light ruby hue of their wines, to high tannins and acidity which lend to the wine’s ability to age.
‘Give Freisa 10-12 years and it’s almost indistinguishable to Nebbiolo,’ says D’Agata.
Like Nebbiolo, it is capable of producing a mesmerisingly perfumed wine of great structure, and is almost always a varietal wine.
‘At its best, Freisa is made in a less self-aggrandizing style than its Nebbiolo-based cousins Barolo or Barbaresco and it’s this vivacity that is the key to its charm,’ says Kirk Peterson, Italian wine expert, writer and sommelier.
Freisa was first documented in early 1500s in the commune of Pancalieri when customs tariffs revealed an expensive, quality wine for the time called Fresearum.
Up until the 19th century, Freisa was more popular and valuable than it is today and occupied up to half of all acreage devoted to vines in Asti and Alessandria.
According to D’Agata, noble properties – notably the The Royal Vineyard of the House of Savoy – most likely cultivated Freisa as it was always associated with the vineyards surrounding the town of Turin. Ernest Hemingway expressed curiosity towards Freisa in Farewell to Arms noting a ‘clear, red, tannic and lovely’ wine.
Freisa was prevalent in nearly all red blends from Piedmont. Often made sweet and fizzy, farmers favoured Freisa for its rusticity, resilience and vigour.
Because of these attributes, however, the grapes were planted on marginal sites and eventually became a target of criticism, in addition to being eclipsed by more popular grapes, namely Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.
In a deliberate move, the historic Royal Vineyard was recently restored when Balbiano winery collaborated with the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Piedmont and Turin governments to ‘rescue’ Freisa with the planting of the grape and the eventual release the Vigna della Regina Freisa di Chieri DOC in 2009.
The wine boasts two namesake DOCs – Freisa d’Asti and Freisa di Chieri – and is also present in Piemonte, Langhe and Monferrato DOCs, among others.
Freisa d’Asti DOC was established in 1972. Rosso, Superiore and Spumante wines are made of 100 percent Freisa. Superiore has a minimum 11.5 percent ABV with minimum one year aging.
Freisa di Chieri DOC was established in 1973. Rosso, Superior and Spumante require at least 90 percent Freisa. Ageing for Superiore requires a minimum of one year, including six months in the barrel. Vineyard area for all Freisa grown is just over 1,000 hectares.
The grape variety derives its name from the Latin word freisa, meaning strawberry.
The wine, which is essentially named after the grape, exhibits aromas and flavors that are hauntingly complex and vivacious, often reminiscent of the characteristics of the brambly aggregate fruit, ranging from sweet to sour with an attractive bitter edge.
Produced in an array of styles from sweet to dry and still to frizzante and spumante, sommeliers are drawn by its profound swirl of berry aromas, spice and earth, crunchy freshness and flavours of sour red cherries.
Freisa exhibits mouth-watering acidity and is adamantly tannic, both of which contribute to its ageability. It’s the style of wine whose profile exquisitely suits the modern palate and pairs well with a variety of dishes.
‘As a close relative to Nebbiolo, Freisa is very much at home with the classic dishes associated with its native region, braised short ribs and rich, meat-filled agnolotti del plin and the like,’ says Peterson.
‘But Freisa’s structural and flavor profile grant it a versatility that earns it a place on the world stage, pairing extremely well with the exotic spice of dishes as diverse as chana masala to crispy aromatic Peking-style duck.’
Several producers are embracing Freisa, including Vietti, Terre dei Santi, Cascina Gilli, G.D. Vajra, La Borgarella, Giacomo Fenocchio and Giuseppe Mascarello.
Vajra produces a Langhe DOC Freisa named ‘Kyè’, which in Piedmontese dialect translates to ‘Who is it?’ – a playful nod to the little-known Freisa.