Piedmont’s Underdog Reds: 5 Native Grapes That Aren’t Nebbiolo
Celebrated for structured, ageworthy reds made with Nebbiolo—think Barolo and Barbaresco—and for delicious and fun full-bodied Barberas, Piedmont also turns out fascinating reds from other little-known native grapes (some once nearly extinct) chock full of personality.
Made with indigenous grapes Ruchè, Pelaverga, Freisa, Grignolino and Vespolina, a few of these lithe reds have genetic relationships with noble Nebbiolo. While they share spicy sensations, they also boast their own distinct aromas, flavors and histories. These singular reds remain largely under the radar, but thanks to their vibrancy, great fruit and savoriness, interest in these varieties is taking off.
Not only are a growing number of producers investing in these ancient grapes, but more of these relatively rare wines are making their way outside Italy, including to the U.S.
Grown primarily in the Langhe, Chieri and Monferrato growing zones, Freisa got its 15 minutes of fame in 2004 when genetic researchers Dr. Anna Schneider and Dr. José Vouillamoz released findings from their DNA research into Nebbiolo that showed Freisa is a first-degree relative of Piedmont’s most celebrated grape.
The Nebbiolo kinship is evident in Freisa’s luminous color, tannic structure and vibrant acidity. It is almost always produced as a varietal wine, and its flexibility means Freisa can be made sweet and fizzy or dry and still. The latter expression—yielding wines with firm tannins, bright strawberry, tart cherry, spice and earthy sensations as well as bitter, brambly notes—is currently finding a wider audience.
Historical documents attest to Freisa’s existence in Piedmont as far back as the 1500s. Due to its resistance to disease, Freisa was planted in sites considered unsuitable for more prestigious Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. The results were often mediocre and by the 20th century, the grape had fallen out of fashion.
Better site selection, lowering yields and careful winemaking have proven the grape can make fascinating wines. When grown in the Langhe’s famous calcareous soils, Freisa yields a wine, as the locals say, Nebbioleggia—it possesses the structure and prominent tannins similar to Piedmont’s flagship grape. Freisa made exclusively in steel can age three to five years, while wines aged in oak can age up to 12 years.
Barolo producer Brezza, located in the village of Barolo, planted Freisa in 1991 with its debut vintage landing in 1994. Fermented in steel and aged for six months in 15hL Slavonian casks, it’s released the spring after the vintage, boasting both structure and the potential for immediate enjoyment.
“Our Freisa is dry, with rustic tannins, bright acidity and a slightly bitter finish,” says Enzo Brezza, enologist at the family-run winery. “It’s ready to drink upon release, but it also ages well for another four or five years. It pairs really well with salumi and rich dishes,” he adds.
Giuseppe Rinaldi 2020 Freisa (Langhe); $90, 93 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Brezza 2021 Freisa (Langhe); $25, 91 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Of all the region’s unsung wines, Grignolino remains the secret gem of Piedmont. Little-known outside of the region, most of it is consumed locally, although top producers also export to the U.S. and those who have discovered Grignolino can’t get enough of this delicious wine.
Cultivated primarily in the province of Alessandria and part of Asti, Grignolino is an ancient grape that was first documented in 1249, originating in Piedmont’s Casale area. It also has a noble lineage: A recent DNA-based genealogy study on Nebbiolo published in Scientific Reports in 2020 by Anna Schneider and her colleagues revealed a kinship with Grignolino, with the hypothesis that Nebbiolo is Grignolino’s grandfather.
The noble relationship is evident. Wines made with Grignolino dazzle with their light, luminous color and intense floral, spicy aromas. Bone dry, energetic and tannic, they have flavors of red berry, white pepper and clove. These wines can be enjoyed right away or, but the best will also maintain 5-7 years if you can wait.
As consumer tastes veered toward fuller-bodied, more structured reds, over the decades, growers and producers abandoned Grignolino. Thankfully, several estates have long believed in the grape’s potential.
“Like Nebbiolo, Grignolino is extremely site sensitive. But when you find the magical combination of soil, cultivar and rootstock, you obtain sublime, long-lived wines,” says enologist Raffaella Bologna, who runs the family firm Braida along with her brother Giuseppe, also an enologist, and her physician husband, Norbert Reinisch. She adds that climate change has greatly improved tannins that “used to be green and coarse but are now softer and silkier.” Braida’s Grignolino d’Asti Limonte, made from grapes grown in soils rich in clay and silt, is aged in steel and is a classic example of today’s new and improved Grignolino.
Braida di Giacomo Bologna 2021 Limonte (Grignolino d’Asti); $25, 92 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Franco Roero 2021 Grignolino d’Asti; $18, 89 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Vespolina is one of the most important grapes in Alto Piemonte, though it’s usually blended with Nebbiolo, Croatina and Uva Rara. It’s allowed in varying amounts in the area’s Nebbiolo-based denominations, including Ghemme, Gattinara, Lessona, Colline Novaresi, Coste della Sesia and Boca. It can also found in Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy.
The name “Vespolina” is thought to derive from the Italian word vespa, or wasp, referring to the wasps that are attracted to the mature grapes.
It’s now believed that Vespolina is an offspring of Piedmont’s rock star grape and it’s often used to soften Nebbiolo’s firmer tannins and add color and aromatics. Vespolina also shares spicy white pepper notes with another relative, Freisa.
“Vespolina is high in rotundone that lends notable spiciness to Alto Piemonte’s Nebbiolo-based wines,” says Daniele Dinoia, owner and winemaker at Villa Guelpa. Dinoia’s debut vintage of Boca, arriving in the U.S. this September, contains 70% Nebbiolo and 30% Vespolina. “In Boca, Vespolina does really well thanks to the volcanic soils and imparts even more minerality to the wine,” says Dinoia.
Once upon a time, Vespolina was relegated to sites deemed unsuitable for Nebbiolo and other varieties. Today, it is treated with more respect and planted in better vineyard locations where the vines can thrive.
A handful of wineries make Vespolina in purezza, 100% varietal expressions that boast rose, violet, white pepper and raspberry sensations alongside bright acidity and taut, refined tannins. Ready to enjoy upon release, they can also age another 10 to 12 years—that’s if you can wait.
Villa Guelpa 2019 (Boca); $20, 96 Points. (Buy on Vivino)
La Badina 2018 Vespolina (Coste della Sesia); $30, 94 Points. (Buy on La Badina)
Grown primarily in the Monferrato Astigiano area, rare Ruchè owes its newfound success to Castiglione Monferrato’s late pastor, Don Giacomo Cauda. Upon his arrival in 1964, Cauda found a few rows of Ruchè in the parish vineyards and started making a dry single-varietal wine. Before this, local farmers made tiny amounts of sweet wine from the nearly extinct grape and reserved it for important occasions.
Cauda’s experiment paid off: By the 1980s, his Ruchè was considered Castagnole Monferrato’s classic wine. Other growers invested in the variety, and in 1987, the wines became regulated as Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). It achieved DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status in 2010. The production zone covers seven townships: Castagnole Monferrato, Grana, Montemagno, Portacomaro, Refrancore, Scurzolengo and Viarigi.
Ruchè is made in an array of styles, ranging from young and easygoing when vinified entirely in steel to more structured, complex and ageworthy when aged in oak. In all versions, the most distinguished trait of Ruchè is its intense floral fragrance of rose, violet and sometimes geranium that mingles with spicy white and black pepper notes.
One of the few aromatic reds vinified dry, genetic research proves that Ruchè is related to two other grapes, Croatina and Malvasia Aromatica di Parma. When compared to Piedmont’s other native varieties, Ruchè has lower acidity and less tannic structure. “Besides its distinctive aromatics, Ruchè has its own natural softness, fresh but with mild acidity and pleasant tannins,” says enologist Giulio Bava, co-owner with other family members of the Bava Winery. The firm’s Ruchè is made only in steel, which Bava says preserves freshness and aromas. “It’s best to start enjoying it the summer after the harvest, but it can age for another five years,” he adds.
Bava 2021 Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato; $25, 92 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Zoppi Cristina 2020 Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato; $20, 90 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Grown almost exclusively in the township of Verduno, Pelaverga—or to be precise, Pelaverga Piccolo—is the grape behind one of Piedmont’s most intriguing red wines, Verduno Pelaverga. The growing zone includes a fraction of bordering municipalities of La Morra and Roddi d’Alba. Its exact origins aren’t known but it has been cultivated for centuries in Verduno, one of the 11 villages in the Barolo denomination.
Pelaverga Verduno boasts strawberry, cherry and spicy sensations, and is instantly recognizable for its pronounced aromas of white and black pepper. It is less tannic than Nebbiolo, with good—but never excessive— acidity. Made to be enjoyed upon release, it can also drink well for another five years or more, depending on the vintage.
Like many of Italy’s native grapes, in the mid-20th century Pelaverga Piccolo was on the verge of extinction. By the 1950s, Comm. G.B. Burlotto, a pioneer in Barolo production, was the only winery producing and bottling varietal wine from Pelaverga, from estate grapes and small amounts bought from neighboring farmers. Now run by Marina Burlotto, her husband Giuseppe Alessandria and their children, Fabio and Cristina, the fourth and fifth generations respectively, the winery has slowly increased production and now makes about 20,000 bottles annually.
The secret to Pelaverga’s spiciness lies in an aroma compound known as rotundone, part of a class of terpenes called sesquiterpenes. “Pelaverga Piccolo is rich in rotundone, which imparts spicy pepper notes,” says Comm. G.B. Burlotto’s winemaker and co-owner Fabio Alessandria. Even if Pelaverga di Verduno isn’t high in acidity, “it always has great freshness thanks to its characteristic menthol and aromatic herb sensations,” says Fabio.
Made by just a handful of small wineries in Verduno, the wine exudes a combination of strawberry, spice, polish and freshness that has captured the attention of wine lovers. Thankfully “plantings are increasing slowly but consistently,” according to Fabio.
Comm. G.B. Burlotto 2020 Pelaverga (Verduno); $25, 92 Points. (Buy on Vivino)
Fratelli Alessandria 2021 Speziato Pelaverga Piccolo (Verduno); $25, 91 Points. (Buy on Fratelli Alessandria)
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This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!