Peasant Grapes Stake a Claim in Barolo Land

While Barolo and Barbaresco get most of the glory in Piemonte, winemakers continue to protect the region's "lesser grapes." Megan Krigbaum on the staying power of pelaverga, freisa and ruché amidst the rise of nebbiolo.

piedmont peasant grapes

Apparent to anyone who studied medieval times in middle school, history has organized the grapes of Piemonte into an almost feudal hierarchy. Up top, there’s the nebbiolo-based monarchy, with Barolo as king and Barbaresco as queen (a discussion for another time). Then comes Barbera as a noble, dolcetto as a knight and the peasants—the lesser-known indigenous varieties like freisa, pelaverga, ruché and grignolino.

But it hasn’t always been this way. “It wasn’t until recently that nebbiolo—and by recently, I would say in the last 80 years—that nebbiolo was seen as premium grape,” says Alfonso Cevola, author of the blog On the Wine Trail in Italy, which covers the history and culture of Italian wine. “Pelaverga had as much value as nebbiolo did or ruché did, and so did the areas where they were growing those grapes.”

It’s really only been since the 1980s and ‘90s that nebbiolo grown in Barolo has become so highly coveted—setting a high bar for wine prices in the region. Despite the financial opportunity in Barolo, many producers remain fervently committed to making sure those peasant varieties stick around.

But why exactly is that? What’s the reason for growing all these other grapes when they’re often taking up precious nebbiolo space?

From the wine buyer side, the existence of these “lesser” varieties has meant that many of us can still buy into a region that has become increasingly prohibitive (Barolo and Barbaresco from top producers typically release from about $80 to upwards of $200 per bottle, whereas the best pelavergas can be found at $20). What’s more, in an era of specialization in the world’s most prestigious wine regions (pinot noir and chardonnay in Burgundy; riesling in the Mosel) these are grapes—from the floral, rosewater inflected grignolino to the broodingly dense and structured freisa—that offer a more varied view of Piemonte as a region.

But their endurance in a place like Piemonte—which, despite the increasing attention paid to its wines, remains a deeply traditional place—speaks also to the way in which Italians think about wine as merely another element of their diet. Having a spectrum of wines for different occasions is a cultural imperative.

“Nebbiolo and pelaverga are complementary,” says sixth-generation winemaker Fabio Alessandria of winery G.B. Burlotto, whose family spearheaded the resurrection of the pelaverga grape beginning in the 1970s. “For everyday, we drink dolcetto, barbera or pelaverga. And then on Sundays or for something special, we’ll have Barolo. We can’t drink Barolo every day. Pelaverga is a better value; it’s more easy-drinking. There’s enough space for both grapes.”

That might be true, however, as the prices on nebbiolo-based wines continue to skyrocket, some of what stays and what goes is often a matter of simple economics.

But in what can be considered a survival-of-the-fittest, vineyard-claim-staking maneuver, some of these lesser-known grapes have carved out corners for themselves. Pelaverga makes its home primarily in Verduno; grignolino is mostly found in Monferrato and Asti (and, honestly, there’s not too much of it around these days), alongside ruché, which commands just 400 acres. Despite its minuteness, ruché garnered DOCG status (Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato) in 2010, thanks to the work of producers like Marco Maria Crivelli.

“Freisa is a statement against homogenization,” Vajra says. “It’s like a wild kid who’s not very easy to manage, but can explode into an amazing personality.”

Freisa, however, is planted all over the Langhe. According to Giuseppe Vajra of G.D. Vajra, freisa was historically grown closer to Torino, in Chieri, an area best known for its vermouth production. It has since gained traction as a standalone wine grape—one that makes wines that have dramatic tannins when young, but can be expressive, elegant and long-lived with age. In fact, the grape is so beloved amongst some producers (including Vajra) that they’ve banded together to form a collective, which they call Quelli che… il Freisa, Those that Freisa. They have biannual meetings, often including professor Vincenzo Gerbi, a food scientist who shares an admiration of the grape .

“Freisa is a wild varietal,” says Vajra, explaining that while nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto had all gone through massale and clonal selection in Piemonte, that’s not the case with freisa, which means it’s not all that dependable. Vines within a single vineyard plot will ripen at different times from one to the next because they’re different biotypes.

“Freisa is a statement against homogenization,” Vajra says. “It’s like a wild kid who’s not very easy to manage, but can explode into an amazing personality.”

Up for the challenge, Mario Andrion, winemaker for Castello di Verduno (where he produces exceptional pelaverga) launched his own freisa side project four years ago called 499, so named for the vineyard that sits 499 meters above sea level. He’s one who’s exhilarated by the difficulties of working with freisa.

“People pulled out a lot of freisa in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Barolo started to be very popular,” Andrion says. But Andrion is not just hunting for existing vineyards; last year, he planted a small parcel of the grape with its preferred southern exposure. “I wanted to see how freisa does in a perfect place,” he says. “We need more time to model freisa as a high-quality wine.”

As for Vajra, freisa vines for his Kyè bottling are planted in his most prestigious Barolo vineyard, Bricco delle Viole. “It’s our love for this grape,” he tells me. “This is why we plant freisa, dolcetto and barbera in meant-to-be-Barolo vineyards: We couldn’t conceive our love for these grapes in any way less than ‘total.’”

Vajra told me that, in 2004, scientist Anna Schneider discovered that nebbiolo and freisa have more in common than just their affinity for southwestern-facing slopes—they’re genetically linked, too. “This is proof of the nobility of freisa,” Vajra says. “It comes from noble blood.” Top Barolo producers, including Giuseppe Mascarello, Alfio Cavallotto and Scarpa all devote land to the grape that can create incredible, long-lived wines. Vajra also recently added more rows of freisa.

Pelaverga’s bloodline might not be as kingly, but it has real roots, particularly in Verduno, where il Commendatore G.B. Burlotto planted the grape in the mid-to-late 1800s. Today, G.B. Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, owned by two different branches of the Burlotto family, continue to lead the charge for the grape. Of late, it’s become something of a darling amongst the wine trade, despite its scarcity. “Pelaverga has a long history in Verduno, but there’s no such thing as old-vine pelaverga,” says Alessandria of G.B. Burlotto. In general, the production of pelaverga is growing very slowly, he tells me, but every year, someone plants a couple acres.

In 1995, the Verduno Pelaverga DOC was established, giving deserved importance to this place as the grape’s native home. Alessandria’s dream is that in 100 years, everyone will know that pelaverga is synonymous with Verduno. But, for now, his family is just happy that the wine has traction internationally. “My parents invested a lot of time and work in this project and, while it was expected that the wines would sell in Italy,” he says, “it’s been surprising to see it in the U.S. or Australia.”

Cevola wagers that perhaps it’s the success of Barolo that has actually solidified the survival of these lesser-knowns. “Now, most of these producers who are making Barolo are selling everything and making a little bit more money,” he says, “and while they’re not living high and wild…their quality of life in terms of economics is a little bit better, so they can also turn to these grapes and say, well, ‘Now we have to take care of our heritage and our traditions.’”