When one thinks of dry wines from Italy’s Piemonte, they are usually red wines. There is a white wine though that should be on everyone’s radar. I am speaking about Arneis. It is the perfect white for transitioning from summer to autumn. Arneis is both the name of a wine and the grape from which it is made. The name means “little rascal” in Piemontese dialect, so named because it can be difficult to grow. Historically that difficulty was because the better situated vineyards were planted with the “more important” red nebbiolo grape leaving the “lesser” sites for Arneis.
While it is grown elsewhere in Piemonte, Arneis is grown most famously in the district of Roero named after the family which ruled the area long ago. Roero is a district in the northeastern section of Cuneo, a province that lies between Bra and Alba in south central Piemonte. It is a heavily forested area known for having sandy soils.
Roero became a DOC in 1985 and was elevated to DOCG status in 2006. The whites are labeled as Roero Arneis and must be made from 100% Arneis grapes.
The reds, on the other hand, must be made from 95 to 98% Nebbiolo with the remainder being the white Arneis grape labeled simply as Arneis.
Traditionally, this white grape was planted more in an effort to attract birds and bees away from the red grapes rather than for its actual quality for drinking. It was also, however, added to the nebbiolo wines of the region to soften their harsh tannins. This earned Arneis the nickname Barolo Bianco or white Barolo. In recent times, the trend for reds became 100% Nebbiolo and Arneis grape production shrank so low that by the 1970’s, the grape was on the verge of extinction. It was saved from that fate by a few producers including Ceretto, Bruno Giacosa and Alfredo Currado (Vietti) who began bottling their own wines. The decade of the 1990s saw an explosion of interest in this grape and production quadrupled. Today, there are many producers making Arneis with over 1,500 acres under vine. They are taking advantage of modern techniques and knowledge to create a wine of interest and class.
Arneis is most often made in stainless steel vats. Although some producers use oak to make a fuller bodied wine, I believe that removes some of the crisp freshness that makes Arneis special. By DOCG rules, Arneis may be released no earlier than the June following the vintage. The wine is best to drink in the first year or two after that. Arneis should have a pale golden color with aromas of pear and apricot. With some producers, Arneis also has a floral tone. I have been told the wines produced from less sandy soils capture this floral quality better. Arneis is bone dry and very crisp to drink although an Arneis Passito, or sweet dessert wine, is also made. I have, however, never tasted one.
By far my favorite Arneis is made by Bruno Giacosa. No surprise as his reds are some of my favorites as well. The price on this varies by markets by if you can find it for under $30 it is an incredible wine and well worth purchasing. Other top producer’s worth trying include Ceretto Blange and Vietti. Although the Arneis grapes is also grown in other areas of the world including California (Palmina in particular is doing some very interesting wines from Italian varietals) and Australia, for my money, the best ones are still from Roero.
Arneis is traditionally paired with light pastas. It also pairs well with fish. I often find that it makes a nice “transition” wine from the lighter whites of summer to the heavier reds of winter.
I hope you do go out and try a bottle. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.