Italy is home to more indigenous grape varieties than anywhere else in the world. According to Ian D’Agata’s comprehensive guide, “Native Wine Grapes of Italy,” there are approximately 2,000 indigenous grape varieties in Italy. Of those 2,000, approximately 400 of them are used to make commercial wine.
Twenty of these grapes are grown in Piemonte in the northwest of Italy. The most famous grapes are Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto but it is also home to Cortese (the grape in Gavi) and the sweet wines Moscato and Brachetto. Many of the lesser known grape varieties in Piemonte have been close to extinction.
As in Napa, where many grape varieties were pulled up in order to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, in the Asti region in Piemonte, many grape varieties were decreased to plant more Barbera. But, thanks to some winemakers in Piemonte, some of these lesser known grapes have survived and are beginning to thrive again. Two of these grapes are Freisa and Grignolino. Both red grapes, they produce wines that are high in tannins and acidity. They both are fun to say out loud and even more fun to drink and enjoy with food.
Winemaker Luca Balbiano of Azienda Vitivinicola Balbiano in Torino describes Freisa as “a little gem of a wine.” A light red wine, it is a rare wine today but more than 100 years ago, it was the most planted grape in Piemonte. In fact, a quote was found from 1517 A.D. that proves that Freisa was cultivated back then and today it is celebrating its 500th anniversary.
Freisa is grown throughout Piemonte, although the quantities are limited, and can be found in the following DOCs – Freisa Di Chieri DOC, Asti DOC, Langhe DOC, Monferrato DOC and Pineronese DOC.
Freisa is considered one of the parents of Nebbiolo. It has been found that Fresia is the closest genetic relation to Nebbiolo as 85 percent of the DNA is the same. A similarity that Luca Balbiano explained is that for Nebbiolo, 70 percent of the tannins come from its skins and 30 percent from the grape seeds, whereas Freisa has 60 percent of its tannins from its skins and 40 percent from the grape seeds.
Freisa is a tough grape to work with. It is hard to vinify, but also very resilient. Traditionally, Freisa was used to make semi-sparkling wines and was thought of a wine that needed to be drunk young. But Freisa is also a wine with aging potential. Actually, Freisa is a wine that has a style for every moment as it can be produced as a sparkling wine, a semi-dry wine, a dry wine and a sweet wine.
Established in 1941 and located in the town of Chieri near Torino, the Balbiano family is a reference point for the production of Freisa of Chieri and produces different styles of Freisa.
— Balbiano Chiulín Cuvee del Fondatore Brut Rosé 2011 is the first vintage making a charmat method sparkling wine with Freisa and the result is an enjoyable wine that pairs with seafood.
— Balbiano Freisa di Chieri 2017 is the most historic and classic version of Freisa, semi-dry with 6-7 grams of residual sugar. The wine undergoes a short charmat method, making it frizzante. You can feel the bubbles but do not see them in the wine. The resulting wine has dark fruit notes, medium tannin and medium acidity, which hides the sweetness, and is a wine to enjoy with appetizers.
— Balbiano Surpreisa Freisa di Chieri 2017 has deep red fruit notes and a beautiful balance of tannin and acid, making this wine perfect to pair with salami and cheese.
— Balbiano Freisa di Chieri Federico il Barbarossa 2015 is made from a selection from the oldest vineyard. The wine undergoes a longer maceration of 10 days, followed by six months in large barrels and then one year in bottle. The wine is a deep rich red color and, on the palate, has both muscle and structure, making it a wine to pair with meat and pasta.
— Balbiano Freisa di Chieri Superiore Vigna Villa della Regina 2013 DOCG is a garnet red color with hints of orange. The wine has aromas of licorice, lavender, raspberry, violets and saffron and is delicate with soft tannins and balanced acidity.
Grignolino is a light red wine grown around Monferrato and Asti in Piemonte. Grignolino may be the most historical grape, having been mentioned in a document from 1243 and it has been considered a noble grape since the 8th century. In the 19th century, Grignolino was called the “pink Nebbiolo.” Unfortunately, the grape spent the past 50 years close to abandonment.
Grignolino is also a challenging grape to grow. Like Nebbiolo, it requires a lot of sun and southern exposure to ripen. The berries do not ripen evenly, requiring manual sorting. And, Grignolino grapes produce less juice than other grapes as the berries have lots of seed and less juice. As a result, yields are low with Grignolino.
Grignolino is a sexy-looking wine. It is not bold and dark but rather a translucent, light cranberry color, just a little darker than a rosé. The wine is medium bodied with complex tannins and zippy acidity. Grignolino is considered a fresh, easy-drinking wine but it also has the potential to age well.
Tenuta Santa Caterina
Located in Graziano Badoglio in the Monferrato area, Tenuta Santa Caterina is located on 20 hectares. The property was a farm estate in 1737 but by the end of the twentieth century, it was abandoned. In 2000, the Alleva family purchased and restored the property, building an elegant six-bedroom hotel on the property as well. The oldest vineyards that remained on the property are 40 years old.
Tenuta Santa Caterina produces single-vineyard wines. Following a sustainable model, the goal is to find balance in the vineyard and produce wines that showcase the terroir of Monferrato. They produce Freisa, Barbera and Nebbiolo but are also leading the charge with the revitalization of Grignolino.
— Arlandino 2016 Grignolino d’Asti is a light red color with an orange tint. Made in stainless steel, it has aromas of wild strawberry and raspberry as well as savory notes.
— Arlandino 2010 Grignolino d’Asti DOC demonstrates the aging potential of Grignolino. With aromas of dried red fruits and savory notes, this wine still has vivid acidity and tannins.
— M2012 Grignolino d’Asti DOC goes through a longer maceration period, following by two years in tonneau barrels (900 liters). The wine has aromas of stewed fruit, soft tannins and intense acidity.
Keep your eyes out for Freisa and Grignolino, as these are two Italian grapes that that should never be forgotten.