Friesa, Ruché and Other Grapes of Monferrato

Town of Grana in the Setting Sun

Our second day in Piedmont began with a wild romp through the many Vini del Monferrato, led by Ian d’Agata. His fascination with the diversity of the Italian native grape varieties is quite infectious: how can anyone not be in love with Grignolino and Freisa? Whether you can pronounce it or not matters little, honestly. By the end of the day, many of us were searching for these wines at home and thinking of what and how we can get our hands on them. And that was even before we got to Ruché, but I am jumping ahead again. Back to Grignolino – a rather unique and delightful grape (unless you are the one making the wine apparently). Ian calls the wine made from this grape akin to a “big rosato”, but I would caution the reader to think more of the juicier, fleshier style than the pale rosé currently en vogue. I loved the wines immediately, as they combine some of my absolute favorite descriptors. The Grignolinos we tasted were floral, with light cherry and raspberry tones, spicy and with excellent acidic and tannic structure. My favorite was the Tenuta Olim Bauda Grignolino d’Asti 2015 Isolavilla that showed more structure than the others, and a more complex, riper core of cherry fruit. The long finish had cloves and other spices along with a bright, fresh acidity.  

We then moved on to discuss Freisa. I have had wine from this grape before, specifically the Giuseppe Mascarello Friesa. But, I only had it a few times and rather young wine at that. With its direct relation to Nebbiolo, Freisa can age magnificently, and we found that out at Cascina Gilli, when we tasted their 2004 Friesa Arvele. While the jury is still out on whether Friesa is the offspring or the parent of Nebbiolo, both share a lighter color and a highly perfumed nose. That of Friesa strays closer to strawberry and sour cherry, while still keeping the lovely rose petal of Nebbiolo. With age, the two become even harder to tell apart, gaining savory notes as well as earthy tones. We tasted five Freisa wines at the tasting, and I was happy to taste several more during my visit to Cascina Gilli, including a frizzante version – Luna di Maggio 2017. The wine showed only a touch of fizz, but it added to the brightness of the strawberry fruit on the nose and a lightness to the front palate. The wine got darker as it receded, with pepper, tobacco leaf and fine tannin toward the finish. 

Gianni Vergnano of Cascina Gilli

Paolo Vergnano of Cascina Gilli

Cascina Gilli’s Freisa 2016 Il Forno is the lighter of the two still versions, as it is vinified and aged in stainless steel. It shows a hint of rose petal on the nose with lots of ripe cherries up front and blackberries toward the back of the palate. The wine finishes long with fresh but ripe notes of fruit. The 2015 Arvele, on the other hand, sees twelve months of barrique (10% new) and shows darker, more liquorous cherry, with a hint of vanilla and cardamom. The palate is riper, richer, with fresh acidity and a spicy touch. In many ways, this reminds one of Nebbiolo on the nose and Barbera on the palate. Delicious. To show us how the wine ages, the Vergnanos were kind enough to share a 2013 and 2004 Arvele. Both wines showed young, with the 2013 showing sandal wood and cigar box notes along with the deep cherry fruit and the 2004… savory, meaty notes with earthy blackberry fruit, complex, rich but light on its feet. I could drink that wine all day. Another Freisa I have to add was the Tenuta Olim Bauda Freisa d’Asti 2015. A lighter, more feminine wine, elegant, showing spice and leather along with earthy tones on the nose. The mid palate was bright with red sour cherry leading to a tangy, spicy finish. I think I need some Freisa in my cellar right about now…

Ksenia Berta of Berta Paolo

Francesca Schiavo of Cascina Gilli

There are two other grapes that I must mention: Dolcetto and the red-berried Malvasia di Schierano. Dolcetto from Asti is not as well-known as examples from Alba or Dogliani, but both of the examples we tried were quite interesting in their own right. Dolcetto is a notoriously difficult grape to grow, nevermind the “sweetness” in its name and berries. However, when done right, it can have a bright, fruity personality, leaning toward blackberry and black cherry, with floral notes of violets. That is what I found in the Berta Paolo Dolcetto d’Asti Livroje 2017 – with notes of fresh beets and a ripe core of cassis pastry. The wine had a fresh finish of mulling spices and a hint of cinnamon. The Malvasia, on the other hand, is a very different kind of sweetness. Imagine Moscato d’Asti had a red-berried cousin, same sweet apricot notes, but with hints of red fruit in the mix, perhaps a few pomegranate seeds in with the peaches and cream. That is how I would describe Cascina Gilli Malvasia Di Castelnuovo Don Bosco 2017, poached pears, whip cream and that wine is a combination I cannot wait to try. 

Sunset over Castagnole Monferrato

Ian D’Agata with Luca Ferraris

Our rowdy, international team

I have had Friesa before, though never on this level, and both Grignolino and Malvasia are wines I could compare to previous vinous experiences. I admit, I was not prepared for Ruché. I did read about it, know some of its origins - while it has been planted on these hills for centuries, it was really the 20th century work of Don Giacomo Cauda, the parish priest, that brought the wine into its own. He was the first to appreciate the potential of this floral grape in making a dry wine from it. Ruché has since received a DOCG in 2010, and the young, yet motivated, Association of Ruché Producers is working together to promote the grape in Italy and abroad. It was with this group of producers that we had the pleasure of tasting on a warm summer day in Castagnole Monferrato. However, no amount of reading can prepare a person for a red wine that smells like a white one. I was stunned by the pure peaches and nectarines that were wafting from the glass before me. Floral, richly floral – that would be my first impression – lilacs, yellow and red flowers. The middle was bright, in the best wines it veered toward raspberry and cherry, with cardamom and coriander notes. Several older examples we tried added leather and herbal tones but the beauty of that floral and fruity nose had receded. Thus, I would drink it early, to enjoy the autumnal bounty of its fruit and floral components. Both of my favorite wines were from the 2017 vintage and showed their freshness and the bright tart cherry core. The first was Dacapo Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2017 Majoli, a ripe and rich example with rosehips, cherries and peaches on the nose, with a bright, red fruited mid that finished with pepper and a hint of spice. A beauty of a wine, which would not only be a great match for cheese, but stands up well to rich meats and sauces. The other was Crivelli Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2017, which showed a very floral nose, with violets and iris notes on top of the peach and dried berries. The mid palate was ripe but with a very refreshing acidic backbone, showing tart sour cherries and a chewy, dense finish. An elegant, bright expression, yet brimming with sweet berries and floral notes - simply delicious!

Marco Crivelli

Renata Bonacina of Dacapo

Several other wines showed undeniable beauty of the grape, as well as its potential. One was the 2017 Vigna del Parroco, made by Luca Ferraris who recently took over the original vineyard of Don Giacomo (thus the name). Bottled in the old-school bottle, the wine remains an homage to the man who saw the beauty of this grape. The wine inside fulfills the promise as well, bright, floral and fresh, with a wonderful zing of acidity on the palate and a freshness to balance the rich berry fruit. The Ferraris Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2017 Clàsic opened with darker cherry, but then, veered toward peach and ripe nectarine! The mid-palate showed darker cherry tones as well as a lovely note of minerality leading to a zesty finish. Cantina Sant’Agata Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2016 showed a different approach, a richer, sweeter cherry and a blue-red floral profile. Violets and roses coming to the fore on the nose, allowing the sweet ripe fruit to caress the palate. The brighter, tarter cherry on the finish gave balance to the wine, and a freshness to go back for another glass. And the Garrone Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2017, showing the floral freshness and the bright, ripe crushed berries. The richer mid-palate of the wine is due to the red clay soil of the vineyard, according to Dante Garrone. There is a lovely spice note as well as a deep herbal tone toward the finish that adds a savory note to the wine. If you have yet to try Ruchè, make this your next vinous discovery – it is guaranteed to bring a smile, even on a warm, muggy day. 

Franco Cavallero of Cantine Sant’Agata

Dante Garrone

One final note, because there is a wine that Asti is known for throughout the world that needs to be mentioned. Of course, I have tried many Moscato d’Asti in the United States, and there are few wines that provide the sheer pleasure and drinkability of a good Moscato. However, it was not the focus of our tastings on this trip; rather, we concentrated on the red grapes of the region, with Barbera leading the way. However, we had several delicious versions throughout our time in Italy, often served with light, summery desserts. One Moscato that deserves a special mention appeared at our table at Collisioni, along with its charming winemaker, Roberto Garbarino. This was more than just a pleasurable aperitif, or a light dessert wine. Roberto’s 2017 Hiku Moscato, made from old vines (and sadly, in miniscule quantities) showed a minerality, and a depth to balance the floral, spicy and fruity wine. Excellent wine indeed. I cannot wait to return to the hills of Monferrato! 

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