Tag Archives: Freisa

The House At 15 Via Roma

I asked reserved Barolo winemaker Gianni Canonica which of his peers he particularly admired. He instantly, effusively blurted out the name of his near neighbour, Bartolo Mascarello. So I popped next door to 15 Via Roma – no golden ticket, just a referral from my farm-stay host and a sense of expectation. And I left, Charlie Bucket-like, the scales fallen from my eyes. The vision, the fixity of purpose, the magic, all of it there under one roof. I drank in its whole rich history.
Bartolo Mascarello would doubtless have scorned such hyperbole. And it is, to be fair, quite inappropriate for such a thoroughly modest, dignified family operation. But sometimes you walk through a door and walk out changed. What looked like an unassuming village dwelling was really a microcosm of Barolo, a potted history of pioneer and traditionalist, with a 100-year timeline running from room to room.
A pioneer because it was pretty rare to grow, make and market your own wine in 1919, when Giulio Mascarello got the ball rolling. Back then he had just a corner of the property, the old cellar hewn from river rock, which is now crammed with dusty demijohns and racks of visitors’ gifts.
Giulio’s son Bartolo went on to cement the reputation of the winery in the second half of the twentieth century, and continued the process of buying up, bit by bit, the rest of the ‘house’. To give an idea of how gradual that expansion’s been, until 2006 – a year after the legendary Bartolo died – bottles had to be stacked between the casks because there was nowhere else to put them. Until 2008, every bottle was labelled by hand. That’s quite a feat for an operation that’s grown to some 30,000 bottles a year.
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It’s now run by Bartolo’s daughter, Maria Teresa, who follows the proud and patient methods of her forbears. The fruit – even for the Barbera, Dolcetto and Freisa – comes from four crus of Barolo: Cannubi, San Lorenzo and Rué in Barolo itself and Rocche dell’Annunziata in La Morra. Primary fermentation occurs using natural yeasts in concrete tanks dating back to the middle of the last century. Malolactic fermentation is left to occur spontaneously (which often means waiting until the spring following the harvest – a “high-wire act” because of the risk of spoilage; everything I tasted had come through unscathed). Wines are matured in large, Slavonian oak casks. The Dolcetto, Freisa and Langhe Nebbiolo get nine months, the Barbera two years and the Barolo three years. There’s no temperature control and all wines are unfined and unfiltered.
The estate doesn’t go down the single-site route for its Barolo. It never has. Instead, it coferments the fruit from all four crus. Everything that goes into the bucket on the day of picking has to be perfect, because that’s where the wine’s made. During its time on skins, the fruit is tasted first thing every morning, with everyone poised to leap into action if it’s deemed ready for the basket press.
If you’re looking for the Wonka factor, then I’m sorry: you were misled. This is no factory and there’s no mad-professor jiggery-pokery here. But Bartolo Mascarello was a singular character and this alchemist’s lair cast its spell on me.
During the last years of his life, a wheelchair-bound Bartolo spent a lot of time drawing. Some 500 pictures were found after his death, and these now appear on the labels of wines every bit as beautiful and faithful and this family’s vision.

Bartolo Mascarello Langhe Nebbiolo 2011 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC

I had the pleasure of drinking this with my wife upon returning to Australia. The Barolo is tucked away in the cellar, for as long as I can resist it. The Langhe Nebbiolo is relatively intense ruby in colour, and the nose perfumed and pronounced, with lifted red fruits, raspberry compote and strawberry-flavoured boiled sweets. Hovering around the fruit is fresh mint and earth, with liquorice beneath. The medium to light-bodied palate pulsates with raspberries, redcurrants and a hint of blood orange, with a notable mesh of fine tannins and fresh acid. The medium-length finish features earth, wild strawberries and rose petals. Elegant and perfumed but no shrinking violet, this has a delicate strength and poise. A delicious wine.

RRP €17 from the cellar – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 22/11/13

Just Went Vajral

“The wine speaks very well, not me,” is the disarming claim from Milena Vaira. She’s wrong on one front – she’s an engaging hostess with very good English – but otherwise spot on: these are eloquent wines that you could listen to all day.
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In any case, Milena’s relieved from duty by her 28-year-old winemaker son Giuseppe, who’s clearly more at ease entertaining the masses. He’s just got back from showing his wines in Singapore, where Barolo-on-the-rocks in 40-degree heat was the order of the day. “It’s important to get out of your comfort zone,” he says.
I certainly get the impression throughout the tasting that this is a thoroughly adaptable clan, the kind that’ll run with a printing error that sticks a rogue ‘j’ in the family name. Giuseppe’s father Aldo set upon a life in wine despite vehement entreaties not to from those around him. His first vintage was 1972, uniformly written off as a stinker, maybe the toughest of the century. But he stuck at it.
This same man later took a shine to the art of Father Costantino Ruggeri. He wanted some stained-glass windows for the winery so the cellar hands would never lose sight of beauty as they went about their work. The talented monk declined Aldo’s request but received a case of wine as thanks for his consideration. Anyway, you guessed it: he changed his mind.
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And so to the wines. The winery is situated in Vergne, a couple of kilometres from Barolo village. The family has 60 hectares of vines, taking in Barolo, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba. Riesling is the token white here (floral and pure it is, too), while Pinot Noir (“a good teacher,” as Milena puts it) and Albarossa are the other outliers. Then you have the red quartet: Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Freisa, all showing finesse and sensitivity and – it must be said – thoroughly enjoyable drinking. Dolcetto and Barbera are given both a traditional and alternative rendition, while Nebbiolo comes in five guises. There’s a Langhe Nebbiolo and four Barolos: Albe (a blend of three vineyards); Bricco delle Viole (see below); and two wildly different single-vineyard wines bottled under the Luigi Baudana label, from the Baudana and Cerretta vineyards in Serralunga. I found the 2009 Baudana particularly exciting; a little unruly and way too young to drink but bursting with energy and personality.

G.D. Vajra Coste & Fossati Dolcetto 2011, Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, Italy

Named for the Barolo vineyards of Coste di Vergne and Fossati which provide the fruit, this is the big brother to the more conventional, light and fresh Dolcetto d’Alba. This one is aged for eight to 12 months in large oak casks.
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It’s medium ruby in colour, with a surprisingly subdued nose (for Dolcetto) of violets, red cherry and clove. It’s medium bodied, with a soft, slinky, almost creamy mouthfeel and lots of sweet, juicy damson, raspberry and cherry fruit plus a hint of menthol. The chalky tannins have a bit of grip, there’s enough acidity to give it drive and it finishes with a pleasing cherrystone tang.

RRP $52 from Enoteca Sileno in Melbourne – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 17/11/13

G.D. Vajra Barolo Bricco del Viole 2009, Barolo DOCG

You can see the sloping vineyard from the tasting room. Bricco del Viole takes its name from the violets exposed when the blanket of snow is peeled back each spring. A pretty image befitting this lovely Barolo, made from vines grown 400 metres up and aged 45 to 48 years old. It’s intensely perfumed, very reminiscent of top-notch Pinot Noir on the nose, with roses and violets joined by plums, earth and some underlying smokiness. It tastes like it smells, but the real winner here is the softness of the fruit on the palate – gentle but with real strength and length – allied to tannins that are almost velvety, finishing with some gentle spice.

RRP $175 from Enoteca Sileno or €55 direct from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 17/11/13

In Praise Of Freisa

This might shock and amaze ya
But you’re gonna dig this Freisa

At the mention of this little-known Piedmontese grape, my teetotal father – as white and English as they come – pulled out a terrible impression of Muhammad Ali’s rhyming-couplet threat to “destroy Joe Frazier”. Perhaps the fact that he’d nosed more Nebbiolo than the wine critic at the Barolo Chronicle had something to do with it. Whatever, the boxing legend and this underdog variety will be forever linked in my memory.
It’s fair to say Freisa is not the greatest. In fact, it was almost out for the count – once Piedmont’s second most planted variety, it’s little more than a palooka these days. Giuseppe Vaira, of Barolo family winery G.D. Vajra, says its decline has come about for a number of reasons. First, a good chunk of it is used for Vermouth, thanks to its vibrant acidity. Then there are the inconsistent yields, and the fact that it’s way down the pecking order when it comes to selecting sites. In addition, this highly tannic variety gives lots of harsh, malic acid. “If it’s not ripe, the acid/tannin combination kills the wine,” says Vaira.
It also has identity issues. It’s commonly made “vivace”, as a slightly sweet, forthy wine for quaffing at picnics, but is a very different beast as a quite masculine, dry red. And let’s not forget the divisive bittersweet flavour profile. The Oxford Companion to Wine quotes Hugh Johnson as finding it “immensely appetising” and Robert Parker shuddering at a “totally repugnant wine”.
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So what does it have going for it? Well, one can never overlook breeding, and Freisa is a close relative of Nebbiolo, Italy’s king of reds. (Apparently this DNA-profiling revelation was “mindblowing” for local growers. ‘How can this crappy grape be related to noble Nebbiolo?’ is the refrain Vaira recalls.) Then there’s its comely purple colour and fragrance of wild red fruits and violets.
For many, it’s a bit of a legacy grape. “We make Freisa because we’ve always made Freisa,” they quip at Bartolo Mascarello. Here it’s a dry version, but there’s no firm line taken on the spritz. If it happens, it happens, which means customers have to take the rough with the smooth – or the flat with the fizz. It’s not the kind of variation normally tolerated by wine folk but like everything at Bartolo Mascarello, the wine is good and runs out in no time.
Conversely, Brezza’s Langhe Freisa 2012 (14% alcohol) is a resolutely still version, with a perfumed nose of raspberry and red cherry, zingy acid and lots of fine tannins that carry the fruit nicely. It definitely calls out for food, though – pork belly or salami would go down a treat.
At Vajra they’ve gone to even greater lengths to get Freisa fighting fit. Giuseppe Vaira says the trick is to pick it late, at the same time or later than Nebbiolo. He gives it a long maceration – 20 to 25 days – before 12 to 18 months’ ageing in large, seasoned oak casks. The Langhe Freisa Kyè 2010 (14.5% alcohol; the name’s a phonetic transcription of the Italian ‘Chi é?’, or ‘Who is it?’) is a knockout. A nose of earth, cherry, plum, white pepper and spice, its rich, fine tannins and vibrant acidity give a firm frame for the juicy cherries, plums, redcurrants and herbs.
Not necessarily the greatest, but it’s well worth going a few rounds with this one.