Behind the Wine

Arneis, the little rascal

a cluster of arneis grapes from piedmont, Italy
Arneis grapes ripen in the Roero, Piemonte photo: Cordero

This is a post about an Italian white wine by Serena and Gianfranco Cordero made out of a very special and rare grape called Arneis.

Arneis comes from the northwestern part of Italy (Roero in the Peidmont, just beside Barolo). And it’s a fantastic grape that doesn’t get enough attention.

Why you’ve never heard of Arneis

  1. It’s very rare – it was almost extinct.
  2. It’s hard to grow properly.
  3. It’s got very very famous neighbors.

Near extinction and rarity

The Arneis grape was nearly extinct in the 1970’s according to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes. Even after making a bit of a comeback, the 2000 Italian census reveals only 1,840 acres of Arneis being cultivated in all of Italy. By comparison, there are over 400,000 acres of Chardonnay planted on the planet.

And just a handful of producers are trying to explore what this grape can do in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand. So the Arneis grape is still pretty underground.

Gianfranco and Serena work with a vineyard in the Roero (where the grape is from in the Langhe) and this 100% Arneis is also part of the Langhe DOC.

Difficult to grow properly

To make a good white wine, you need to preserve the grape’s natural acidity. Arneis can easily get overripe and lose that acidity if it is grown in the wrong region or harvested too late. Some claim that the grape’s name (which literally means little rascal in Piemonte) alludes to how difficult it is to cultivate properly.

But Serena swears by the chalky and sandy soils of Arneis’ native Roero region, and she suggests that the wines age very well when the fruit is grown properly.

Serena Cordero, the winemaker, says:

So the Arneis, it’s our typical white wine, made 100% by the Arneis grape.
It comes from the Piedmont (region in the North-West Italy), specifically from the Roero, the left side of the Tanaro river, close to Alba.
This grape is really a small % [of the region’s grapes], and only in this area, so it’s not so well known all around the world…with its structure and acidity it’s also used for making good structured white wine, with a long shelf life.
I suggest a good pairing with fish meal.

Serena Cordero, winemaker

So, like many great grapes, it only truly shines in the hands of a winemaker who knows restraint. You cannot seek incredibly high yields. You have to be very diligent in the vineyard and pick at just the right time. And you have to be passionate enough to resist the temptation to grow more famous, more profitable grape varieties.

Very famous neighbors, Nebbiolo and Moscato

a row of arneis grapes growing in Piedmont, Italy
Arneis grapes ripen in the Roero, Piemonte

Arneis is mostly planted in the northwestern Piedmont region of Italy which is much more famous for its legendary reds like Barolo and Barbaresco made with high-acidity Nebbiolo grape.

So part of the struggle for Arneis is that it’s always been overshadowed by Nebbiolo. As a matter of fact, it is sometimes called Nebbiolo Bianco even though it is not genetically related to Nebbiolo.

Jancis Robinson also explains in Wine Grapes that “According to local tradition, Arneis used to be planted together with Nebbiolo to attract birds with its strong flavor, thus protecting Nebbiolo which had (and still has) a better market value.”

Well, the birds were on to something because this grape is delicious.

Medium-bodied and aromatic, Arneis has all the makings of a great white wine. In my humble opinion, grapes like Arneis and Cortese could be the signature white grapes of Piemonte, but that honor is mostly reserved for Moscato with its sweeter cotton candy flavors and fizzier forms.

Arneis has some stiff competition!

Why you should get to know Arneis

Well-made Arneis has a great body that makes it perfect for bigger sea food dishes and pasta.

When it leans to the riper side, it can develop some beautiful ripe pear and floral characteristics. When it’s a bit leaner it’s a firm medium bodied wine with a natural zestiness (that isn’t quite as exotic or overpowering as a Sauvignon Blanc). In either case, it will generally taste bigger and more intense than a traditionally made Pinot Grigio.

So if you like white wine that can pair with big flavorful seafood dishes or pasta, this is a serious contender.

And because Arneis isn’t world famous, it’s still a bargain. And it will likely stay that way until Kanye West finds a suitable rhyme for Arneis (fireplace? poker face?)

Want more hidden gems?

Our customers made us promise to find more hidden gems for our Angels, special wines that are a bit off the beaten path and taste like a hundred bucks.

We’ve written about Pecorino and Arneis so far. And we’ll keep the obscure grapes coming – they won’t all be limited to Italian whites either!

If you become an Angel, you can join in on the fun and vote on what we should focus on whether it’s hidden gems, funding new indie winemakers, improving US shipping and operations, or just sharing more cool wine stories. We look forward to hearing from you.

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[…] also step up and go with some dishes that are traditionally red wine dishes. I love pairing Italian Arneis with pasta for example. Or Richard Bruno’s Chenin Blanc can go great with a goat cheese […]

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