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Piedmont’s Underdog Reds: 5 Native Grapes That Aren’t Nebbiolo

Burlotto Vineyards / Photo by Clay McLachlan

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.

Freisa Harvest / Photo Courtesy of Brezza


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Historical documents attest to Freisa’s existence in Piedmont as far back as the 1500s.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.