Sometimes my 18-month-old gets so excited that she doesn’t know what to do. She squinches up her nose, tightly squeezes the source of excitement against her tummy, and then squeals with unbridled glee. My reaction to certain wines is not dissimilar, much to the horror of many a wine distributor. I can’t help it—some wines are just that good. For instance, one mention of the wine Arneis and I abandon all professionalism and carry on like a giddy little girl.
Though not strictly obvious from this photo of the region in Northwest Italy, the Piedmont area has 1,500 acres of Arneis vines after decades of near extinction.
A grape indigenous to the Piedmont region in Northwest Italy, Arneis dates back to the 1400s, but is only recently getting the spotlight it deserves. Originally, the vintners in Piedmont interspersed Arneis vines to keep the birds and bees away from their prized Nebbiolo vines. Often, Arneis was blended with Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco to soften their massive tannins. Gradually this practice became obsolete and by the ‘70s, the number of Arneis plantings dwindled to virtual extinction.
Between 1989 and 1998, production quadrupled and now Piedmont boasts more than 1,500 acres of Arneis vines. Most lay their roots in the sandy soils of the densely forested Roero zone west of Alba, but some grow in the chalkier soils of the Langhe (not to mention outside of Piedmont in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand). With a recent upgrade to DOCG status (a.k.a., winemaker-tested, government-approved), Roero holds the higher esteem of the two zones.
Difficult to grow, Arneis means “stubborn, little rascal” in Piemontese dialect. I like to think of it as viticultural revenge for being bird food for so many years. Besides, who really likes a cooperative grape? The harder to grow, the sweeter the reward.
Playing it cool in the shadows of the Alps, Arneis manages to strike that glorious, hard-to-get balance between a crisp, lip-licking wine and a rich, luscious wine. It feels like a mouthful of gelato, but refreshes like a scoop of sorbetto. So, it is only appropriate to continue in this confectionary vein to describe Arneis’ flavor profile: melon meets mango meets pear meets apricot meets almond meets orange blossom. Is it any wonder that I am clutching the bottle to my tummy and shrieking like an over-sugared toddler?
Three ways to drink with glee:
— Paitin Roero Vigna Elisa Arneis 2008. tavola, $24
— Vietti Arneis 2008. Special order from your favorite local wine retailer, $25
— Rocche Costamagna Arneis Langhe 2008. Foods of All Nations, $14.99
Another charm of this wayward little live wire is its ability to pair with food. Arneis dances confidently from course to course, gracefully partnering with antipasti, pastas and seafood, but can also expertly take the hand of a richer dish, like veal milanese. A sweet passito version also exists, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting, but do imagine it to be just as squeal-worthy as the dry versions. Also, Arneis’ heftiness makes it the perfect summer-to-fall transition wine, when it is still too warm to snuggle up to reds, but just cool enough to crave a white with a little oomph.
There are few things that I find as heart-warming as watching my little girl overcome with delight, but a white wine with a similar zest for life is a close second. Finally getting its deserved space on Piedmont’s top shelf, Arneis holds its own next to Gavi di Gavi, Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara in this region with an embarrassment of riches. Not bad for a grape once considered only fit for the birds.