Sunday, September 02, 2018

A short personal history of Arneis

Arneis is an indigenous grape variety found in Piedmont that is enjoying a wave of popularity in this moment. Many people are discovering the charms of the little rascal. But it wasn’t always so. I know, because I was there, one of the early donkeys carrying the (Italian) water up the hill, in hopes of advancing the popularity of wines like Arneis.

I came in at 1982, was working for a distributor in Texas, Arwood H. Stowe. It was a small company specializing in importing top wines from some of the great wine producing regions of the world, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Mosel, Rheingau, Porto, Napa Valley, Champagne, and yes, Italy. I was brought in to look over the Italian wine business, and one of my first assignments was to work with Armando de Rham, who had the Enoteca de Rham in Florence, Italy. Armando was a barone, very tall, intellectual and possessing a great palate and a healthy ego. His taste was impeccable, and his network of nobility across Italy gave him entrée to some of the great wine estates in that country.

In his catalog was a wine producer, Cornarea, with a white wine, Arneis. Then a Vino da Tavola in a burgundy shaped bottle, with an elegant oval label, the Cornarea Arneis was my first exposure to a then-unknown wine from Piedmont. Piedmont was famous for red wine, with the exception of Gavi, and white wine was considered little more than a brief distraction from the true business of Piedmont - Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera. But there were white wine lovers, and some food courses called for white wine in a dinner. We had to explore these wines.

The Cornarea was a rich wine, with the slightest tinge of petillance. It was creamy, with good body and hints of the forest in the flavors. Evergreen, cream, medium-bodied, tinged with a liveliness. It differed enough from the Gavi’s we were selling (La Scolca and Tenuta San Pietro) at the time. And it was a bit pricey. Italian restaurateurs were looking for a white wine they could sell, rather than Pouilly-Fuisse or Puligny Montrachet. French was still an option in Italian restaurants. But Gavi was making inroads, and it appeared Arneis might also have a chance. We’d tell the willing Italian restaurateurs that the French saw nothing odd about a Montrachet and a Chablis on their list, and Italians should also consider expanding their white wines.

The two AC's: Alfredo Currado and Alfonso Cevola in Castiglione Falletto circa 1984
The next Arneis I encountered came about when we started bringing in the wines of Vietti. This was 1984, and on my first trip to visit the Currado family, we tasted through the lineup.

Over dinner this week Gerald Weisl related a story told to him by Alfredo Currado’s wife Luciana. In the late 1960’s, Alfredo went to a local church during the “…Sunday morning church service. Alfredo stood up and said ‘There's a white grape mixed in with the Nebbiolo. Please pick those grapes and bring them to my winery and I'll pay you.’ And that afternoon the little hamlet of Castiglione Falletto was filled with carts and wagons full of grapes, all in an effort to make a ‘new’ wine. And thus was born the first vintage of  'Arneis' (which some called Nebbiolo Bianco, apparently).”

Vietti is considered to be the first winery to develop these grapes into a wine for commercial purposes. Vietti’s Arneis was spritzy, sharp and electric. Almost the equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard with a citric splash. A palate tickler. It was an exciting wine.

Bruno Giacosa
My next encounter was with Bruno Giacosa. In 1987 we were working with the importer Vinifera (prior to Winebow, which subsequently imported the wine until 2011), to bring in the Giacosa wines. Bruno worked the Arneis grapes into a bit more ethereal style of white wine. With Bruno’s wines one could detect the hand of the man, but never one that was heavy or dominant. Always respect for the indigenous character of the grapes. But composing a symphony, not a little ditty. And his Arneis was elevated, with higher, soprano notes. It was a lovely wine and showed an evolution, married with a deep respect for the fruits of the land. Arneis was on its way to becoming an important white wine from Italy.

Filippo di Belardino and Ceretto "Blange" Arneis
Ceretto was my next exposure to Arneis. It was in 1990 and I was working at American Wine for the La Barba’s in Texas. Heublein, via its Palace Brands division, imported the wine into the USA, with Filippo di Belardino the main instrument in the exposure of Cerretto wines into America. Cerreto was famous for red wines, the Bricco Rocche Barolo being one of the first Italian wines to hit the $100 mark (along with accompanying high critic scores). But the Arneis “Blange’” started rolling into the distributors warehouses. It had an elegant graphic label, clear bottle and was premium priced. And it was sexy. And it sold like Hatch chiles in August, pretty successful from the get-go. Arneis was on its way to making a dent in the Pinot Grigio market, or so we thought.

And then the 1st Gulf War hit. And sales plummeted. People were scared, they were worried about their finances. They still wanted to drink, but they opted for lesser expensive wine. And there was this loyalty to American products at the time. California “Fighting Chardonnay” was all the rage. American beer was strong. Wine coolers (Bartles & Jaymes) also was making inroads. Zima was a thing, which oddly resemble a sweeter (and adulterated) version of Arneis and in a perverted way, presaged the Prosecco boom to come. But Arneis went into forced hibernation, for the time.

That was what was happening a generation ago. And now Arneis is a newly (re) discovered indigenous white Italian variety. An overnight success! Served in Brooklyn and the Marina District. It has arrived!! Hoorah!!!

Carlo Boffa (L) and Alessandro Locatelli (R)
Actually, I am quite happy that Arneis has greater recognition. Producer friends of mine, like Carlo Boffa in Barbaresco and Alessandro Locatelli in La Morra, are making distinct small-batches of Arneis. And they are lovely quaffs. And Vietti can’t make enough of theirs, and it is better than ever. I had a bottle the other night with homemade pesto – killer combo, as we used to say.

And Giacosa (and Ceretto) are still plugging. Giacosa is a steady reminder of making improvements, inch by inch, year by year. The wine is iconic and harder than ever to find.

I’ve even seen Cornarea on distributors lists. Which gives me infinite joy. I’m glad to note that the Italian desire to carry on vinous traditions (even if it only has the young life of a generation or two) is alive and healthy.

According to the fine folks at Italian Wine Central, Arneis grows in a "vineyard area of 2,396 acres and is a majority component in one or more wines of:
IGP Barbagia, IGP Colli del Limbara, IGP Isola dei Nuraghi, IGP Marmilla, IGP Nurra, IGP Ogliastra, IGP Parteolla, IGP Planargia, IGP Provincia di Nuoro, IGP Romangia, IGP Sibiola, IGP Tharros, IGP Trexenta, IGP Valle del Tirso, IGP Valli di Porto Pino, Langhe DOC, Roero DOCG, Terre Alfieri DOC" - 15 IGP’s, 2 DOC’s and 1 DOCG – a long way from the Vino da Tavola of yesteryear.

Arneis, as well as much Italian white wine, is a fresh force in the world of wine, these days. Something one could only hope for back in 1983. Hope and hard work, that is.

"One happy donkey"

written (photographs provided) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco said...

Very interesting article!

Although it should be noted that the final list of where Arneis is used as "a majority component" has no significance at all... all those IGPs are in Sardegna (where the grape is allowed but practically not planted or produced), Arneis is planted and produced only in Roero DOCG, Langhe DOC and Terre Alfieri DOC.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Marco...

It's important to note that the folks at Italian Wine Central wrote that Arneis grows in a "vineyard area of 2,396 acres and is a majority component in ONE OR MORE wines" mentioned - not ALL

Gerald Weisl said...

I think the point is that Arneis IS found in Sardegna, though it is certainly an obscure variety there, much in the shadows of Vermentino. Here's a link to a web site with a small bit of an indication that Arneis is found in Piemonte and Sardegna:

Who knows what the future holds? Perhaps some enterprising, rascally vintner in Sardegna will make a pure Arneis?
Chi sa?

Geralyn said...

Alfonso, thanks for sharing the pictures of these pioneers—your photo archives are priceless. That photo of Filippo is the essence of the man; it reminds me of how when he talked to you, he had the innate ability to make you feel like the only person in a very crowded room. The Giacosa photo is taken a bit before I met him but I love that you captured him smiling.
Thanks also for using the site. As Gerald points out, Arneis is unquestionably a Piemontese grape variety. As of the last agricultural census, out of 2,396 acres of Arneis in Italy, 2,335 were in Piemonte. However, the IGPs in Sardegna went to the trouble to include Arneis in their list of potential varietal wines, which means either that some persuasive winemaker has some and wanted it on the list, and/or that viticulturists have determined that Arneis would do very well in Sardegna and wanted to encourage growers to try it. Those are often the reasons you see varieties included in this way.
The last census was in 2010, and it’s not clear whether vineyards of Arneis have popped up on the island yet or not—but if they do, producers are able to make varietal Arneis wines at the IGP level. I, for one, would love to see what a “rascally” Sardinian vintner might do with Arneis!
BTW, we cannot wait for the 2020 census data to be public, so we can get an updated picture of all the changes that have taken place in Italy over the last 10 years…although data will probably not be released until late 2021 or 2022.
Let’s vow to stay well so we can be around to read that data!

Marco said...

Gerald, the point is that Arneis is NOT cultivated in Sardegna, the link you provided shows that Arneis is allowed, which is very different than saying Arneis is planted in Sardegna... this is not even a minor grape of the island...

The fact that is allowed in the disciplinare doesn't mean anything, all the IGP listed above allow for more than 70 different grape varieties in Sardegna... this doesn't mean that each one is planted...

in an article about Fiano would you mention Sardegna? I don't think so, there aren't plantings of Fiano in Sardegna, nonetheless the grape is allowed in the same above IGPs...

Jim Georges said...

mhh Arneis in Sardegna is a bit of a stretch but great article!

David said...

THANKS for a great story. Arneis is indeed flying. I sold a couple bottles of both Vietti and Giacosa the other day. It's good to know that the story I told the customer had in fact a glimmer of truth!

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