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Advent of Arneis
By Jim Clarke
Apr 11, 2017
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Few grape varieties have a birthday that isn’t lost in the annals of time, but a handful of them at least have a turning point, a time when someone took notice of a grape and brought it to the world’s attention.  While rediscovering “lost varieties” is a favorite hobby for some sommeliers today, it’s easy to forget that similar discoveries have been made in the past, and that grapes we think of as well-established may have been bit players just decades ago.  One such variety is Piedmont’s Arneis.  While we don’t know whence it came or when, we do know that it wouldn’t be what it is today if one man hadn’t given it some renewed attention fifty years ago.

The man in question is the late Alfredo Currado (he passed away in 2010), then owner of Vietti.  Fifty years ago Currado took an interest in Arneis, which at the time was only planted on a few hectares around Piedmont -- about 4,000 vines -- and it typically disappeared into innocuous, bottom-shelf pink blends with Nebbiolo.  Some say it was only left in the vineyards to offer birds a sweeter distraction from the more valuable Nebbiolo grapes.

According to Luca Currado, Alfredo’s son and current CEO and winemaker at Vietti (which was sold to American businessman Kyle Krause last year), his father wanted to make an interesting white wine in a region so dominated by reds, and wanted to work with a local variety rather than something international, as some producers in the area were just beginning to do.  While the original plan was for something mildly sweet, the wine fermented to dryness.  After a winter spent aging, a visiting journalist tasted the wine from the vat and wrote a rave, and the modern, dry style of Arneis was born.

Today there are about 1,000 hectares in Piedmont, and two appellations might yield varietal Arneis, namely, Roero and Langhe.  Roero Arneis achieved DOCG status in 2007 after a couple decades as a DOC; Roero lies north of Barolo across the Tanaro River, and its sandy soils reputedly help Arneis keep its acidity.  Langhe is a broader, more varied area.  The grape’s attraction, for me, is its full, firm, texture; that and a characteristic almond note on the finish helped distinguish it from Italy’s many more generic, light-bodied indigenous white varieties when I was really diving into Italian wines as the wine director at the Armani Ristorante.

Vietti’s 2016 definitely fits this profile, with a lovely floral touch as well.  Another early adopter was Bruno Giacosa; their 2015 shows a fruitier take, with more apricot and peach notes and a softer texture.

While both Vietti and Giacosa play important roles in securing Arneis, it’s just one part of their respective production, and other producers, especially those actually based in the Roero region, have made it more of a specialty.  For example, for Giovanni Almondo, Arneis makes up more than half of their production and appears in two different Roero wines.  The Vigne Sparse is the lighter of the two -- medium-bodied, really but still shows a fantastic round, refined mouthfeel; the 2015 shows notes of fennel, pears, and lemon.  A portion -- 20% - of the Bricco delle Ciliegie spends time in new oak, an atypical technique for the grape, and while it retains similar tree fruit aromas and freshness it also has a touch of spice and a creamy, fuller texture.

Monchiero Carbone also makes two renditions of Roero Arneis, the Recit and the Cecu d’la Biunda.  The 2014 Recit is a textbook example on the nose -- pear, peach, floral, and almond -- if lighter (but still round) on the palate.  The Cecu d’la Biunda 2014 is firmer and more intense, with a lot of minerality.

Another Roero leader, Matteo Correggia, makes special efforts to preserve the acidity in their Arneis, harvesting a portion of the fruit earlier than normal and then blending it into must of the later-picked grapes.  In the 2015 it results in a medium-bodied, more linear wine, with green apple, oystershell, and melon notes.  Cornarea’s 2014 leans more toward a Sauvignon Blanc-like expression, with passionfruit and pineapple aromas along with the more expected almond and floral notes.

In the decades since its “rescue,” Arneis has not gone unnoticed among winemakers outside of Italy.  Cal-Ital specialist Palmina soucres the grape from the Honea Vinyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, producing a fresh, medium-bodied rendition with grapefruit and lemon notes.  Ponzi, in the Willamette Valley, has also planted it, in a nod to their Italian heritage; their 2015 shows hazelnut and meyer lemon aromas.  Fifty years on and even in a distant wine region from its origins, Arneis continues to show that Alfredo Currado’s instincts about the grape were right.