Arneis is another of the many ancient varietals of Italian grape and this one is indigenous to the Piemonte region in northwest Italy. This enigmatic white grape was recently saved from extinction by a few notable Barolo (Nebbiolo) cultivators, the venerable “kings of Piemonte,” Ceretto, Giacosa and Vietti. In the local Piemontese dialect, Arneis means "little rascal", which is a reference to how difficult this grape is to grow in a vineyard where it yields low amounts of fruit, is susceptible to powdery mildew and often struggles to achieve good levels of acid. Traditionally, this white grape was planted more in an effort to attract birds and bees away from the valuable red grapes (Nebbiolo and Barbera) rather than for its actual quality for drinking. Even so, it has been commonly added to the Nebbiolo wines of the region for years to soften their harsh tannins. This earned Arneis the nickname Barolo bianco or white Barolo, though that may not be a very common name outside of Italy. The 1990s saw an explosion of interest in this grape and production quadrupled. It is now in regular production not only in Italy, but also Australia, California and South America… though no other country can reproduce the individuality of this grape when grown in its native terrior. While it's under vine elsewhere in Piemonte, Arneis has gained most of its acclaim from the district of Roero named after the family which ruled the area long ago. Roero is an area in the northeastern section of Cuneo, a province that lies between Bra and Alba in south central Piemonte. It's a heavily forested area notable for its sandy soils.
In Italy, the ‘Roero Arneis DOC’ was created for the Arneis varietal wines in 1985. This was elevated to DOCG status in 2006, and growers have never looked back. This is a distinct white wine, one that really provides the consumer a mouthful of Piedmont history. No other white wine can really compare to Arneis, and no other country has yet to replicate the level of complexity exhibited by Italy’s original. The wines are labeled as Roero Arneis and must be made from 100% Arneis grapes and by DOCG rules, and Arneis may be released no earlier than the June following the vintage. The wine drinks best in the first year or two after that. Arneis should have a pale golden color with aromas of peach and pear. Primarily fermented in stainless steel, which maintains the wonderful floral notes and crisp acidity, some growers will also introduce the wine to a bit of oak to smooth out the entire package. I think both methods serve this wine well. A late harvest, or “passito” version of this wine is made, though I’ve not been able to locate one. I suspect it will be something like nectar of the gods, perhaps like a French Sauternes.
2011 Cascina Riveri Roero Arneis DOCG, Piemonte ($12)
The palate is clean and crisp with herbaceous notes of thyme and white pepper. It is understated, elegant and full of regional character. It has a medium finish with lively acidity and pleasant minerality.
This wine pairs well with a great variety of foods, including most fish, sushi, chicken and non-red sauce pastas. I paired it with some roasted chicken, root vegetables, and sautéed rapini. The wine held up nicely and complimented this meal quite well. It's also exciting enough to be enjoyed on its own as an aperitivo, especially during the warm months.
Mike Mollica (aka "MikeMo") is an independent food & wine journalist for the "Italian American Community News", author & publisher of "Mike's Mostly Food and Wine Blog", a contributor to VinVillage.com and a lover of all things Italian.... "Cibo e vino italiano per sempre."
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