A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.
Friday, August 5, 2011
Arneis - California and Roero, Piemonte, Italy
Arneis is not some Johnny-come-lately that popped up and nearly disappeared in a short period of time. There are records of this grape that go all the way back to the 15th Century, when the grape was known as Renesium or Ornesio and was sometimes used in the production of sweet wines but most often was used as a softening agent when paired with Nebbiolo grapes in Barolo (and other areas of Piemonte to a lesser extent). It was such a big part of Barolo production for so long that it came to have the synonym Barolo Bianco. Since dry white wine production has not historically been very important in Piemonte, there was never much acreage devoted to Arneis since it was used almost exclusively as a very minor blending partner in the region's red wine production.
The acreage really started to drop in the mid 20th Century, though, for a couple of reasons. First of all, many Barolo producers (and other producers making wine from Nebbiolo) decided that they no longer wanted or needed to use white grapes to try and soften Nebbiolo's sharp corners. Further, when the DOC and DOCG systems came online, it became mandatory for several of the Nebbiolo based wines of Piemonte (Barolo and Barbaresco most notably) to be made from 100% Nebbiolo. Blending grapes for these wines were no longer legally acceptable, so demand for them started to fall. Couple that with Arneis' reputation as a tricky grape to grow and vinify (its name translates as "little rascal" because it's susceptible to mildew, has naturally low acidity, ripens late, oxidizes easily, and is a low yielder to boot), and you've got all of the elements starting to come together for its disappearance. By the 1970's, the grape was being grown by only two producers and was in danger of extinction.
And then the 1980's happened. Suddenly consumers wanted dry, still white wines and they wanted them badly. Many winemakers in Piemonte were left scrambling as the signature white wines of the region were sweet and fizzy. Bruno Giacosa and the Vietti winery began to make varietal wines from the little bits of Arneis that they had and it turned out that these wines were pretty good. By 1990, Burton Anderson in his Wine Atlas of Italy, was referring to Arneis as a "rising variety." Production quadrupled between 1989 and 1998 and as of 2005, vineyard acreage devoted to Arneis had surged beyond 1500 acres. The Roero region, whose sandy soils are particularly hospitable to Arneis, was elevated to DOCG status in 2005.