Freisa: origin, viticulture, winemaking, and more

As early as 1517, Freisa—a parent/offspring of Nebbiolo—commanded twice the price of contemporaneous varieties. In 1799 Count Nuvolone, deputy director of the Turin Agrarian Society, described Freisa as one of the ‘best red grapes’ in the region, and by 1861 the variety was said to have been included in almost all Piedmontese red blends. In 1875, a third of all the vineyard acreage in Asti and Alessandria was still planted to Freisa; the variety was ubiquitous in Chieri, Monferatto and Langhe too. Its popularity continued into the early twentieth century, favoured for its hardiness, resilience to downy mildew and reliability. Popularity notwithstanding, scarcely more than twenty hectares remain planted in Langhe—several hundred more in Piedmont. Between 1960 to 2000, change characterised the region. Lacking as clear an identity as its autochthon counterparts, Freisa fell out of favour—not helped by war and mixed critical reviews. Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto better suited international palates and plantings grew dramatically, further compounding Freisa’s decline. Today, modern winemaking techniques allow growers to manage Freisa’s bitter tannins better or ferment the wines fully dry. Despite prominent producers scrubbing their productions, a small but impactful band of grower’s continues to cultivate the variety, championing tradition and biodiversity. Particularly resistant to flavescence dorée, requiring fewer treatments than other popular varieties, and yielding a ‘lighter’ canopy than Nebbiolo, Freisa’s revival may be necessary as well as deserving. Herein, I examine Freisa in detail, exploring origins, viticulture, and winemaking with Carlotta Rinaldi, Marie Teresa Mascarello and Isidoro Vajra.

Origin and divergence  

Customs documents recorded in 1517 in Pancalieri, a small commune 30km southwest of Turin, reference a toll paid on cartloads of a valuable wine named Fresearum. At the time, the toll was double that of common varieties. In 1692, Count Pietro Francesco Cotti recorded having cultivated Freisa at his family estate in Neive; two years earlier, the count had begun cultivating Barbera. In 1760, Lu Cantina (cooperative cellar) registers showed finished Freisa wine—as well as rooted cuttings—as having been sold alongside vineyard buffaloes. In 1799, in the ‘Calendario Georgico della Società Agraria di Torino’, an important text containing astronomical calculations, various writings on rural, domestic and animal economics, arts and more, Count Nuvolone provided an ampelographic description of Freisa. By 1800, the official vines’ register, written up by a committee led by Conte Giovanni di Rovasenda records Freisa as one of Piemonte’s principal grape varieties. Considering its prominence, concentration and locality to the town of Turin, The Royal Vineyard of the House of Savoy likely favoured Freisa. 

Freisa certainly produced desirable wines; however, early growers unquestionably favoured its hardiness. Post-late 19th to early 20th century, growers knew little about the vine, agronomy and disease. Freisa’s natural resistance to downy mildew, resilience to late frost, and healthy yields indisputably meant a more consistent viable crop. Still, in the early-20th century, Freisa remained important locally, cultivated by many prominent producers. At Giuseppe Rinaldi, Carlotta Rinaldi has found labels she believes to be from the early 20th century (most likely 1920-1930), belonging to Freisa varietal wines bottled by Barale & Rinaldi. Change characterised the post-World War II landscape in Langhe; growers made significant winemaking advancements and showed a concerted effort to make better wine. By the mid-20th century, locals had widely planted Nebbiolo, producing exceptional quality wines. 

Change notwithstanding, in 1970, the Italian National Institute of Statistics documented 7,410 hectares of Freisa were planted in all of Italy; estimates suggest roughly 80% of this (some 6000ha) was planted in Piedmont—much of it around Turin. For context, in 2010, c. 5400 hectares of Nebbiolo were planted in Piedmont (457ha elsewhere). Throughout the mid-70s, notable Langhe winegrowers continued to cultivate and bottle Freisa, including Gaja, Giacomo Conterno and Bruno Giacosa. Carlotta recalls that Beppe considered Freisa a noble variety. In his 1969 Catalogo Bolaffi dei vini d’Italia, Luigi Veronelli awards Prunotto’s Freisa secca delle Langhe three stars of prestige. Further, Veronelli—though admitting he has not yet established a comprehensive map—records plantings in revered cru, including Pora, Faset, and Tre Stelle. However, 1970-1990 saw a shift in the pace of change, a revolution was afoot, and Nebbiolo was king. International demand for Langhe wine grew exponentially, helped by a strong lira. Concomitantly, Maria Teresa Mascarello recalls a significant shift in both plantings and popularity of Freisa beginning in 1990. By 2010, hectarage had fallen to less than 1000 in Italy, and Langhe growers continued to grub up production—including Roberto Voerzio and Podderi Colla.

Freisa’s fall from grace is challenging to map precisely; Isidoro Vajra reinforces the contribution of two World Wars to this decline. Pre-war, a significant portion of Freisa plantings were close to Turin. After World War II, Italian farmers were impoverished; many began seeking factory work in nearby cities. Many Piedmontese farmers left to work at Fiat, particularly those closest to the city. Subsequently, vast swathes of Freisa were abandoned. Concomitantly, those who continued to farm favoured quantity for the most part. Such was the pursuit of volume that Dolcetto, favoured for its fertility, once outnumbered Barbera and Nebbiolo. Poverty notwithstanding, there remained in Piedmont a committed band of growers determined to continue producing quality wine. While Freisa may have been popular in Piedmont from c. 1500-1900, so too was Nebbiolo. Giulia Falletti di Barolo invested heavily in Barolo, introducing acquaintances to the region’s wines, and since 1850, General Paolo Francesco Staglieno had begun fermenting Nebbiolo dry. Subsequently, the variety produced wines of critical acclaim, which were represented internationally more than one hundred years ago by these same local families.

And so, once the tides eventually began to turn in Langhe, Freisa had sadly fallen by the wayside. Consequently, many of the region’s ‘best’ sites were planted to Nebbiolo Meanwhile, Freisa occupied areas less suited to its cultivation. Barbera and Dolcetto—able to flourish where Nebbiolo can’t—continued to produce quality wine. Interestingly, Carlotta suggests Freisa’s starkly varying styles may not have helped its survival. Since 1500, it has been made frizzante, still, off-dry and dry, and in a ripasso-style, known locally as Freisa Nebbiolata. Ferocious competition, muddled identity, and unsuitable plantings forged a perfect storm for Freisa’s decline. By 2018, only 787 hectares of Freisa were planted in Italian vineyards, a mere handful of this in Langhe and decreasing quickly elsewhere. 

Vineyards, viticulture and winemaking

In 2004, Anna Schneider et al. formally established a ‘parent-offspring’ relationship between Nebbiolo and Freisa. Author Ian D’Agata believes Freisa is most likely Nebbiolo’s parent, given its tendency to ‘behave like a wild vine’ (suggesting it may be the older of the two). Albeit anecdotal, locals suspected a relationship might exist; in northern Piedmont, farmers had called Freisa’ Spannina’ and Nebbiolo, ‘Spanna’. There are similarities in bunch structure too, both are medium-sized, elongated and winged, though Nebbiolo’s ‘wing’ is generally more pronounced. Freisa’s bunches are loose and open. Meanwhile, its berries are thicker-skinned, medium-small and blue-black with a particularly long peduncle. Similarities aside, Carlotta observes a divergence at ripening when Freisa turns a ‘dark, shiny prune colour’. Its leaves are medium-small and often trilobated. The vine is vigorous; today, it is primarily cane pruned, though in his early-1800 publication ‘Monografia sulla Viticoltura ed Enologia nella provincial di Cuneo’, Lorenzo Fantini records Freisa vines having been gobelet trained.

Freisa is hardy, suitably resistant to peronospora, botrytis and flavescence dorée, and commonly survives late frost. Its loose bunches help alleviate rot, and its lighter canopy allows ample airflow. ‘If in a given vintage, neighbouring vines require eight treatments, Freisa needs only five or six’, Carlotta tells me. Both Maria Teresa and Carlotta braid the apical shoot, further reducing excess laterals. Grapes are usually harvested in early October, two to three weeks later than Dolcetto; ‘this year we began harvesting Dolcetto around 11/12 September and Freisa first the week of October’, Maria Teresa recalls. Finally, irrespective of varying vintage conditions, Freisa tends toward a consistent and satisfying harvest—if afforded the same effort as its local neighbours. If it is to make praiseworthy wine, Freisa must fully ripen, requiring suitably exposed sites; elsewhere, it struggles. Exemplary producers recognise this; Mascarello in Monrobiolo di Bussia (Aldo Conterno once bottled a Freisa della Bussia too), Rinaldi in Ravera (creeping into Rivassi), Vajra in San Ponzio ( at the foot of Bricco delle Viole), Cavalotto in Bricco Boschis, and so on. 

langhe-freisa

More than twenty DOC wines include Freisa, both varietal wines and blends. Subsequently, finished styles can vary greatly, even in Langhe. Freisa is vinified sweet and dry, made still and frizzante, macerated traditionally and ripasso. At B. Mascarello, Maria Teresa no longer passes Freisa over Nebbiolo skins, believing the method might obscure typicity—speaking to Carlotta’s comments on identity. Most important in vinifying Freisa is tannin and acid management. Grapes are destemmed, crucial to managing acid (stem potassium impacts pH) and tannin, though Vajra recently added c. 2-3%. At Rinaldi and Vajra, fermentation is c. 15-20 days, a little shorter at B. Mascarello. Many opt for concrete or stainless, primarily dependent on volumes. ‘Softening’ tannins is paramount to producing high-quality Freisa, ‘we pump over twice each day; we want a lot of oxygen in the must to begin with, then we punch down toward the end’, Carlotta says. Once fermentation is complete, the wines are basket pressed at a slightly lower bar than Nebbiolo to avoid extracting harsh tannins or disrupting cake potassium. At Rinaldi and Vajra, Freisa is fermented dry (the latter accidentally after a Co2 valve broke in the 90s); meanwhile, at Mascarello, it is racked at roughly two degrees. To what degree Mascarello Freisa sparkles remains a ‘surprise’ according to Maria Teresa (2019 will be ‘accidentally still’). Once pressed, wines are aged in botti for 6-9 months followed by a period (usually 12 months) in bottle—essential to ‘resolve’ post-release. 

Changing tides

Troubles aside, there remains much hope for Freisa. Once a complex agricultural system—Beppe Rinaldi remembers a ‘bright ecosystem’—today, monocropping is a profound concern. ‘In Autumn, Dolcetto leaves turn red, Freisa and Nebbiolo yellow, and Barbera orange, now it is the same colour everywhere, only Nebbiolo’ Maria Teresa tells me, clearly perturbed. Reinvigorating biodiversity has never been more important, practically and philosophically. As flavescence ravages Barbera, growers realise the potential of Freisa and other autochthone varieties. Further, international drinkers show a marked interest in exploring esoteric varieties. Demand continues to grow at Mascarello, Rinaldi and Vajra, so much so Carlotta has recently planted two new parcels. Her investment in the variety transcends customer demand, though, as it does for other growers. Freisa is an integral part of Piedmont’s history and its future. Prudent growers yield intense and intriguing wines, typically rich in red berries, black cherry roses, and tobacco. Grown and vinified attentively, the best examples age gloriously, indistinguishable from Nebbiolo in many cases. Savvy readers ought to taste Freisa sooner rather than later. 

4 thoughts

  1. Great article, as per usual! Beyond the clear technical communication of the Freisa grape, this article also left me considering how wine consumption trends are formed. Your mapping of the rise and fall of this grape’s popularity using qualitative interviews was especially enjoyable. As a researcher who loves qualitative interviews and ethnography, your use of interview data is some of the best I’ve read within or outside of academia. You could give some experienced anthropologists and journalists a run for their money! The recorded contributions of the various winemakers you’ve liaised with strengthen the narrative of the piece and provide some valuable insight about the socioeconomic evolution of Freisa in the region.

    You mention in your conclusion that “…international drinkers show a marked interest in exploring esoteric varieties.” I couldn’t agree more. The amount of folks I overhear when shopping who rely on merchants for “something new” or something they haven’t tried before is really fascinating. It’s also often younger consumers looking for these wines, too!

    I wonder if wine merchants and critics also have a role to play in restoring biodiversity through the consumption of wines from a diverse array of varieties? They can drive interest and consumption in diverse (and delicious) wines which increase investment in the area, and thereby increase the capacity of winemakers and local officials to promote greater biodiversity. Not that I think saving the environment should be dependent on the pocketbook, but it sure does seem to help!

    1. Incredibly thoughtful feedback, Noel, thank you. You’re absolutely right, qualitative interviews were crucial in mapping Freisa’s tale. Each interviewee offered something unique, fascinating tidbits from relatives as well as their own experience.

      You make an interesting point regards the role merchants and critics have to play in restoring biodiversity as well as indigenous varieties. I’ve no doubt their role is crucial. It’s simply not enough for growers to want to grow these grapes, critics must support those ambition (with honest critique and impassioned support) such that drinkers are exposed to interesting—often fairly priced—varieties.

      I’m eagerly anticipating a Freisa revival!

  2. Very nice an informative article about the Freisa grape. I am myself producing a Freisa wine since 2007 in Langhe from a 100% south positioned vineyard. The grape is very resistant to diseases among them flavescence dorée (opposite to e.g. Dolcetto) and produces rather constant in the vineyard. The challenge is – as you write to – handle the green tannings and to some extend the acid. I am fermenting the Freisa on steel tanks with a maceration time of approx. two weeks. I mature the wine on French oak tonneaux barrels for about 18 months. I leave the wine in the bottle for about 12 months before releasing it. Well-made Freisa have many similarities to a good Nebbiolo wine. I often describe is a rustic cousin to Barolo/Barbaresco. My venery is called Ca’Barun (www.ca-barun.com) and located in the Langhe in Santo Stefano Belbo.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.