Vajra’s secret weapon: Freisa
A vertical tasting of some fine Barolo wines from the GD Vajra winery, which sits on the outskirts of the town of Barolo, sounded just right to prepare for a summer trip to Italy. My goal was to gain a clearer understanding of how these Nebbiolo grape wines age, what to look for in younger wines since that’s what I’ll be buying in July. The evening of the tasting session we were each given a sheet of paper at Cave SA in Gland, Vaud, which organized the tasting, listing the wines. Three wines, five flights or vintages of them. I watched the wine being poured into our glasses, picked up my pencil and prepared to reflect and note.
What a surprise! I fell in love with another grape, a wild thing called Freisa. To be fair to winemaker Aldo Vaira, his two more classic reds, Barolo Bricco delle Viole and Barolo Cerretta, Luigi Baudana, were everything I had hoped for, beautiful wines that age elegantly and make me dream of feasts with roast boar and risotto. The third wine was a discovery. Langhe Freisa Kye, which sounds like a Latin American painter to me (the name is a joke that was lost in translation from Italian to French to English), wasn’t everyone’s favourite of the three, but I found it exhilarating.
Wickedly unreliable, deliciously fun
It turns there isn’t a lot of it because growers find it wickedly unreliable. “Freisa is for me a diamond,” Aldo Vaira told us (Note that the family name is slightly different from that of the winery). “There are very few and it is a very difficult grape. It needs a very long fermentation – it’s a wild plant that seeks sunshine.” He’d come to Switzerland to present his wines and he did such a good job that I raced home and checked out the family winery. After the Freisa in person I fell in love with the Vaira family, digitally, and the winery is high on my list of Barolo destinations. Check out the many videos on their web site, all about the people behind the winery.
Here’s what I thought was wonderful about the Freisa wines, starting with the 2010, the nose: tickled is the word, a teasing wine with aromas that kept shifting. In mouth it was remarkably smooth, but then the tannins and and a pruny richness kicked in and it was less long than the two Nebbiolo Barolos. Its colour is a shade less deep and it picks up the light better, so ruby highlights would suddenly appear.
It’s not a new grape; in fact it may be one of the oldest in Piedmont. It was long used in the region and widely planted to make vermouth. It was not considered particularly suitable for wine. It’s a close kin of Nebbiolo, either father or son in the weirdly kinky world of grape families. José Vouillamoz, geneticist, believes it may be closely related to Rèze, the old white grape from canton Valais.
Nebbiolo at one time was used to help balance out too-high acidity. Freisa’s failure to do a malolactic fermentation during the winter – it sometimes waited until the summer after it was harvested – was enough to make growers give up on it. “It’s a marvellous yet modest grape variety, a mystery each time,” says Vaira, who bears some resemblance to it. He is generally acknowledged to be a brilliant professor (he is actively involved in research to find better ways to vinify grapes, sometimes working with Changins, the Swiss university) and winemaker, he is a very modest man but one has never been interested in following the crowd. “I’m a bit of a free spirit,” he admits.
My favourite was the 2013, very fresh and fruity and yet with the density that gives Barolo wines such class. All three wines, vintage 2013, were excellent, but the Freisa had more to offer: the nose was at first floral, then fruity, then slightly dusty before developing a roundness – complexity! There was a hint of bitterness at the end, which I found appealing; my neighbour at the table did not.
Nicolas Herbin, who is responsible for Cave SA’s wine school, noted that the three wines were on a par, a matter of the vintage, which gives them a purity (I would say balance). All three are lively in the mouth. But, he continued, the Freisa has more charm.
Aldo Veira then gave us a detailed account of the weather and the rain and the soil, and how the difference lies in how the rain is held by the soil. Freisa was planted (massal plantings) in 1980 next to the cellar, where the soil seemed more suitable. “A good year is one where the water makes it possible to carry all the minerals that are needed to give the terroir and vintage what gives them their [unique] identification.”
The beauty of old age
The 2014 was a bit stinky at the outset, then opened up and gave smoky notes, then hints of vanilla. But I suddenly felt I was tasting a very young wine. Vajra nodded yes, here we start to understand why these wines need ageing. They can be juicy but not well integrated or harmonious. Herbin points out that Vajra was the rare producer who, faced with a difficult 2014 harvest, stayed with what the harvest offered, made selections rather trying to produce a recipe wine. The 2014, Vajra says, should be drunk earlier than the 2013.
I found the 2015 gorgeous – until the tannins took over my mouth. The 2016 let me discern the smoky nose and fine fruits (raspberries, strawberries) before the tannins pushed me away.
How long do we need to leave them, I asked, thinking ahead to my summer purchases and when I might be able to open them. There are no rules, says Vajra; you have to taste them to decide. “The 2014, maybe 10 years? the 2015 maybe 20?”
I hope my children continue to like fine wine, in case I’m not around to uncork these. As for Vaira, “My dream is to sell wine when it is ready, not when the market and the cellar situation demand it…”
Organic and research, longtime partners
Herbin had introduced the Vajra winery earlier in the evening as one of the first in Barolo to be interested in organic. The winery was started in 1972 by Aldo’s father Giuseppe Domenico, and it was organic from the start, at a time when there was little interest in this. Aldo produced his own first vintage that year, at age 19, while a university student. The early years were a challenge for this family that did not have a long winemaking tradition like some in the region. Water has been scarce at times. “Every time I ran into a problem I saw an opportunity,” says Aldo, and you begin to understand the mindset that is behind his wines today. “We don’t want heavy rich wines, but drinkable wines.”
Today the family works 40 hectares on the highest land in Barolo and the wines have a touch of mountain freshness. “We are the most modern of the traditionalists and the most traditional of the modernists,” is how he describes their work. He worries about climate change, about water scarcity, but feels they have better experience managing it now, and this will help.
He plants grapes, like Riesling, that leave others scratching their heads: he is keen to learn from them. “Every time you go back to the glass you turn a page.”
Correction: the family name is Vaira, not Vajra, which is the winery name, and which I mistakenly used earlier.