Cascina Gilli: “I’ve got a grape variety and I’m not a-Freisa use it!!”

A Boot-full of Wine – Tasting notes from Italy

Cascina Gilli – innovators of the Monferrato region in Piedmont

Whether one is talking about red or white wines, the style of wine produced can be very broadly placed into one of two categories: wines which reflect the composition of the grape (with factors such as the varietal type, location and manipulation of the vineyard, and the growing season being most important) and those that reflect the winemaking treatments applied post fermentation (where post-fermentation handling, age and type of cooperage used, and length of aging are important). Management of the fermentation and phenolic and flavour extraction by variations in temperature, juice and skin contact, and timing of pressing in red wines can contribute to both styles.

But what about when you are dealing with a variety whose essence is still to be discovered? A variety which has traditionally been vinified in a certain fashion, but has the ability to be made into ‘new’ wine styles, with potentially greater results than have hitherto been achieved by the variety?

Freisa is such a variety, and Gianni Vergnano is the visionary to lead the way.

Freisa is a native variety of Northwestern Italy, and has been produced in Piedmont for centuries, in several styles, including a lightly sparkling (“vivace”) version. Rich in anthocyanins and phenolics, it was sometimes used to give other varieties a boost of colour and body. Its tougher skin means it is more resistant to rot, another reason the variety was appreciated in this cooler, damper area of Italy.

But research by Prof Schnieder of the University of California Davis, in conjunction with the Instituto di San Michele all’Adige, has confirmed it is a close relative (and possibly the grandparent) of Nebbiolo, thus confirming what had been suspected by Gianni Vergnano, and Prof Gerbi in the Department of Oenology in the University of Torino: Freisa is special.

To bring the great nobility of the grape to the fore, Gianni has collaborated with local universities, and has performed microvinification experiments himself, exploring different fermentation and post fermentation strategies (such as cooperage and aging times) to attempt to uncover the full potential of this grape. To this end, he has engaged the young oenologist, Bruno Tamagnone, to assist him. If Gianni is the visionary, Bruno is the disciplined force that helps to realise Gianni’s ideas.

Gianni is the first to admit that his investigations are far from over. He laments the fact that others in the local area (which, unusually, has the light coloured ‘terrabianca’ soil of clay/marl, more akin to that found in the Langhe hills around Barolo than in Monferrato) are reluctant to follow his lead and innovative techniques. When he begins with issues such as reduction of yield, they run a mile!

Here are three examples of Freisa that we tasted (the winery also produces a range of other wines including the authoctonous Bonarda variety, a Barbera D’Asti, and two sweet Malvasias):

Freisa D’Asti Luna di Maggio 2009

This is a lightly sparkling or ‘vivace’ style so popular in the wine bars of Milan. The wine displays a fruity lightness, with lovely tannins that dance in the mouth. The sweetness is derived from the fruit core – there is no residual sugar to speak of. I felt that my long search for a wine to match lightly spiced Asian food, such as Barry Weinman’s dahl, was at long last, over! 17.25 pts

Freisa Vigna del Forno 2007

My first impression was of a medium weight palate, with ripe, firm tannins adding good structure to what was an easy to drink style. Then sweet fruit, lightly spiced, became more evident, with a long finish. No oak is evident – one gets the impression of pure cherry and dark berry fruit. Though drinking well now, I suggest it will develop further for 5 years or more. Yum! 18 pts

Freisa D’Asti Arvele 2004

The oak (1st or 2nd pass French oak barriques – 30 months) was immediately evident on the nose. Again, the structure contributed by firm tannins was evident, this time assisted by the oak. Dark stewed berry fruit mingled with some meaty characters (probably from a degree of oxidative handling), with good persistence of flavour. 17.75 pts

So again I have come across a lesser-known Italian variety, and have been absolutely enchanted by its different manifestations. A special thank you to Gianni and Bruno for their hospitality that day – I look forward to the ongoing results of their exploits at Cascina Gilli!

Ciao for now!

Brendan Jansen

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3 Responses to “Cascina Gilli: “I’ve got a grape variety and I’m not a-Freisa use it!!””

  1. vintrospective / joel Says:

    hi brendan, what a fine article and i see you were lucky enough to taste the three 🙂 i think timing here in the US is just right for cascina gilli’s freisa, and i agree, definitely a winery to watch in the future ! talk soon … joel.

  2. chiara Says:

    Brendan, you’re right: freisa’s “essence is yet to be discovered” but we are working on it and so far with great satisfaction. And of course people like you who taste it, like it and write about it are very important to us!
    I am pleased to read you enjoyed it also in the still version “Vigna del Forno”, which we believe is aimed to improve even further. Very much looking forward to your next visit! Chiara

  3. H.R. Zbinden Says:

    Today we were drinking a bottle of Arvelè 2004. Wow, what wine, absolutely fantastic! I did not think before I would like an “oaked” Freisa that very much before I tasted it… Bewitching the senses, warming the heart and making smile the soul even outside there is a lot of snow and a really cold wind is blowing around the house. It’s simply magic and one more prove what fabulous work is done by the team at Cascina Gilli under the guidance of Gianni Vergnano: Congratulations!!!

    Absolutely no doubt for me: For Freisas, Malvasias and Bonardas at its very best all roads lead to Cascina Gilli!

    What privilege having a nice quantity of these wines made of these rare grape-types in the cellar…! ;o)

    Looking forward already now to open the next bottle experiencing this magic again… ;o)

    With very best regards from Switzerland
    H.R. Zbinden / Switzerland

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