It was nearing the end of an exhausting afternoon at VinItaly & Slow Wine USA, the annual NYC spinoff of Italy’s legendarily massive flagship wine festival, and my cushy train seat and a voyage home beckoned. My palate and mind were weary, fatigued by too many tastes, despite having only made a dent in the full program. With taste buds reeling from the massive tannin wall of some too-young Barolo poured straight from the bottle, I searched for a better finale.
Meandering towards the exit, I spotted Stefano Almondo, a winemaker’s son whose scruffy charm was accentuated by his dirty blonde beard. More importantly, the bottle of Arneis perched in front of him. “Hit me with some of that,” I pleaded. He poured. A wave of crystalline cleanliness washed over my tongue, bright and alive. My buds awoke, restored and renewed. “Phew!” I sighed. “That really hit the spot.” Almondo’s smile emerged slowly, growing into an ear-to-ear number that emphasized his wine’s personality. He then uttered, in a thickly-accented Italian brogue, one single word that I’ll always remember: “Frrr-eshness.”
Though the detailed history of Arneis is disputed, most historians accept evidence of it from the 15th century in Piedmont. The grape was originally utilized as blending foil to the tannic beast Nebbiolo, so much so that it has occasionally been dubbed “white Barolo.” Rumors suggest it may have been planted alongside Nebbiolo vines because its sweet scent would attract snack-seeking birds, who in turn would forgo the more valuable red grapes. As production of 100% Nebbiolo wines became more fashionable, however, Arneis flirted with extinction, saved only by the perseverance of producers Bruno Giacosa and Vietti. Fortunately, the 1980s brought a renewed interest in whites from the region, leading to the more common vinification of Arneis as a varietal wine.
Literally the “little rascal”, Arneis is a tricky grape to grow due to naturally low acidity when fully ripe. As such, it fares best in cooler climates where maturation takes place over a longer period of time, allowing for wines that showcase both the telltale lush fruit as well as a crisp finish.
A finely-crafted Arneis may be the perfect bianco for red lovers, offering rich aromatics and explosive fruit, as refreshing as those bland, ubiquitous Italian whites without sacrificing taste. Because it can pack in the flavor, I like pairing Arneis with mid-weight foods, such as heartier chicken or fish dishes, and (not too spicy) Asian cuisine.
Tasting through a few bottles recently, I consistently encountered fruit flavors of pear and peach (of varying intensity levels), often augmented by fresh flowers and almonds. All were enjoyable, and any would would serve as a good introduction to the grape. My notes follow:
Monchiero Carbone ReCit Roero Arnies ($13.99)
Ripe, fruity notes leap from the glass, and continue to reign on the expressive palate. Though I typically think people serve whites too cold, this perks up with a chill; I’d store in the fridge and let it warm while serving. PLCB Chairman’s Selection buyer Steve Pollack called this the “perfect summer wine,” which is hard to dispute, especially considering the 12.5% ABV and delicious profile. Goes great with Chinese takeout.
Demarie Arneis Langhe DOC 2012 ($16.99)
Floral nose hints at melon. Palate fruits are moderated by herbs, saline and a sturdy dose of almond. Easygoing warm-weather wine to pair with oil-based pastas.
Ceretto Blange Roero Arneis 2010 ($22.99)
Nose displays herbal, resinous qualities. Typical Arnies fruits in a lighter, more elegant package lead to hints of toffee on the crisp finish. A lovely companion for al fresco happy hours or antipasto.
Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis 2012 ($31.99)
One of the grape’s saviors proves worthy. Tight nose reveals herbs and honeysuckle to careful observers. There’s even a hint of mushroom & smoke, almost like a red wine. On the palate, lush honey, peach and apple explode into the mid, and the long finish boasts pockets of herbs and amaretto. Both full-bodied and crisp. Try it with grilled or roasted chicken and Mediterranean herbs. Winery pictured above.
Giovanni Almondo Roero Arneis Vigna Sparse 2011 (tasted Feb 2013)