If you want to sell ice cream you usually start with vanilla and chocolate, and only after you develop a consumer following do you unveil your Macadamia Butter Brickle. Same thing with wine: most emerging wine regions break into the U.S. market with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the two fail-safe grape varieties that Americans can easily recognize and understand.
In 2017 it’s hard to believe that Italy was once an emerging wine region, but there was a time when perception of Italian wine quality in this country couldn’t have been lower. When I was growing up Chianti was poured from straw baskets, in restaurants with red and white checkered tablecloths. It was the cheapest wine on the list (or on any list, for that matter). The American perception of Chianti began to improve only when the Italian wine law was changed to allow for the inclusion of “foreign” grape varieties, notably Cabernet. Today it would be difficult to find a Chianti Classico with no Cabernet in the blend, and many Tuscan IGTs are fragrant with the aroma of Syrah.
Several Italian wine regions resisted that trend, preferring to take the riskier course of glorifying obscure regional grape varieties. Some even went back in time and resurrected varieties that had once flourished and were now nearly extinct. I call them grape archaeologists. Mastroberardino was the pioneer in the south, reintroducing white wines such as Greco and Fiano and making history with their Aglianico-based Taurasi DOCG, one of Italy’s great reds. In the north, the breakthrough grape was Arneis.
There’s evidence that Arneis was grown in northern Italy as early as the 15th century, and has traditionally thrived in the hills surrounding the village of Roero in Piemonte. By the 20th century it was almost wiped out, as most of the desirable land had been planted with Nebbiolo vines to make Barolo and Barbaresco. It was brought back into circulation about 50 years ago as the result of efforts by two pioneering wineries, Bruno Giacosa and Vietti.
Those two properties still argue about who was the first to resurrect Arneis, but the evidence points clearly to Vietti. The late winemaker Alfredo Currado, sometimes called “the father of Arneis,” devoted a great deal of effort to the grape variety from 1967 onward. It was not an easy task, since the grape is difficult to grow: the yield is low, the wine can easily become oxidized and overripe, and it is prone to powdery mildew in the vineyard. In the Piemontese dialect, the name translates as “little rascal.”
Even so, Arneis today is a staple of the Piemonte region alongside Barolo and Barbaresco, and is also grown in areas such as Oregon and Sonoma County. Crisp and floral, filled with succulent flavors of citrus and stone fruit, it is a good match with finger foods, seafood, poultry, pork and veal, and a perfect companion to life outdoors as we move into spring and summer.
The 2016 Roero Arneis ($22) is Vietti’s 50 anniversary bottling. It has a pale straw color and a nose fragrant with the aromas of citrus and minerals. In the mouth, the acidity is literally mouthwatering and nearly effervescent, enhancing the flavors of lemon and ripe melon and enticing the taster to take another sip. As the acidity recedes, a rich core of peach and apricot flavors linger from the midpalate onto a long and seductive finish. This is a wine of unexpected substance, one which will enhance a wide range of dishes and add a glimmer of excitement to your day.