It’s funny. I’ve spent the last few years trudging through the doldrums of the WSET Diploma curriculum, using Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine as the Holy Grail of wine itself and then I come across this quote by David Gleave, MW in his write-up of the Arneis grape,
“The best examples tend to be unoaked and drunk young.”
I’m sorry but, “What?”
I suppose it isn’t the first time I’ve found a mistake in the Oxford Companion. But this isn’t merely a misplaced fact; it is a statement of misdirection. However, with all due respect, I am going to guess that he just hasn’t given himself the opportunity to gather enough correct information about Arneis to write what desires to be known. And for those who want to know, should know: he is incorrect.
It is true that most Arneis wines are neither made, nor aged in oak, but in all honesty quite a few producers use it judiciously on their best bottlings. It’s also true that most Arneis is ideally consumed in its youth but the best examples of Arneis are the exact ones that can take a few years in the bottle! Some of the best I’ve encountered are close to ten years old!
But let’s back up a minute.
To be fair, there is actually a decent reason that Gleave makes those claims. Today’s style of Arneis as a dry, single varietal, clean, crisp, drink-it-young white was born in the 1970s as Roero winemakers began to recognize the grape’s potential to shine on its own and focus on bottling it as a single varietal wine. This is important. The simple, upfront, fresh and fruity Arneis isn’t a bad thing. It has its place (and many places at that) on our tables. But now that we are over 40 years beyond the “Arneis Renaissance,” so to speak, Roero winemakers understand the very best sites for their grape, and certainly how to make it, in whichever fashion they desire: early drinking or for a longer haul.
So why do I care? Why not just crack a fresh bottle with friends for apertivo and move on to the Nebbiolo?
I’ll tell you.
The first documentation of the Arneis grape occurred over 500 years ago (in 1478) in Roero. It is reported to have been growing on the hillside called Bricco Renesio just north of Roero’s main city of Canale (a turquoise colored cru vineyard on the map). In Italian, the phrase “a renesio” means “to or of Renesio.” Thus comes the name, “Arneis.”
Considering how far back in history many of the Roero families go, I’d venture to say that the symbiotic relationship between Arneis and the Roero people could go back even beyond 1478. Take for example, the Almondo family, which dates back to the 1300s in the Località Vittori di Montà in the Caialupo zone of Roero (in the far northern reach of the map). Just like most families here, they survived as local farmers growing everything they needed, including grapes, and made the best wines they could using the indigenous varieties. The whites, typically a mix of Erbaluce, Moscato, Favorita and Arneis, were consumed locally or sold to the nobility of Torino. It also became common practice to co-ferment Arneis in tiny amounts with Nebbiolo to soften its hard tannins, a process documented in the Almondo family since the 1800s.
By the mid 1900s however, even though many Roero and even Langhe wines might have contained Arneis, it was never made into its own wine. But that Arneis survived the centuries in Roero, never receiving any real glory for itself, in my mind attests to its strength and natural fit to Roero’s environment—and I am certainly not the first to believe this! Arneis actually risked extinction if it hadn’t been for a few astute, local winemakers of the 60s and 70s.
In 1967, Barolo producer, Alfredo Currado of Vietti, known for his precocious talent to vinify single vineyard Barolo, was actually the very first to bottle a single varietal Arneis from Roero. Four years later Giovanni Negro became the first Roero producer to bottle Arneis on its own. Quite focused on his goal, and since Arneis still wasn’t grown in great volume by itself, he had to buy all of his Arneis from the grape vendors in the Canale market. He bottled this wine as “Arneis di Monteu Roero 1971” under the cooperative label, Cantina Club 3P (produrre, provare, progredire (to produce, try, progress)).
The absolute success of these wines brought an explosion of interest to the grape. Negro soon began planting Arneis vineyards on his own land, which his family has owned since 1670, and continued to bottle single varietal Arneis. Giovanni Almondo had actually planted an Arneis vineyard on his land in Caialupo in the 1960s, and jumped on board with his single varietal Arnies in the 1970s as well. Deltetto started to bottle Arneis on its own in late 1970s as did Cornarea and Malvira, followed by many of the other renowned producers today. Roero Arneis attained DOC status finally in 1985 and DOCG in 2005.
Today, over 50 harvests since the first single varietal bottling of Arneis, producers are well versed in the best soil types, altitudes and expositions for Arneis, as well as how to handle it in the winery. Some of these are certainly made for enjoyment in their youth—in fact most are. But others, the ones that have blown me away and inspired me to write this, exhibit more staying power, complexity and can become quite alluring and engaging after four, five, or even ten years and beyond. Given the vine’s nearly six centuries of history in Roero, and the vignerons’ dedication to, as well as potential of Arneis, that I’ve witnessed, I think it deserves to be more than a mere afterthought these days.
Last fall, with the idea of this story in mind, I visited Monchiero Carbone, Angelo Negro, Valfaccenda and Almondo, four producers I’ve consistently followed for the last decade (give or take). So for my subsequent post, I will describe a vertical of Monchiero Carbone Cecu D’la Biunda Roero Arneis DOCG 2004-2017, and report on a few older vintages of Angelo Negro Gianat, Perdaudin and Sette Anni. Rest assured that anything from Almondo and Valfaccenda is 100% worth acquiring and trying (but my last visits were more focused on theory than tasting so am lacking extensive notes).
Beyond these, Roero has no shortage of outstanding Arneis producers. I include my favorites below with some fun, distinguishing facts on their wines and winemaking—like the use of oak! 😉
Monchiero Carbone has been bottling their Recit Roero Arneis DOCG since 1993 and the Cecu D’la Biunda Roero Arneis DOCG since 2004. For these wines, a gentle pressing is done in the absence of oxygen and resting and aging is limited to stainless steel.
Angelo Negro bottles six different Roero Arneis DOCG wines: a metodo classico zero dosage sparkling wine as well as a sweet wine, and the following still dry wines: Serra Lupini, Perdaudin, Gianat and Sette Anni. Serra Lupini is the simplest bottling. The grapes for Perdaudin come from the family’s oldest Arneis vineyard and typically spend about 12 hours macerating on skins before pressing. Gianat sees almost full malolactic fermentation and is aged for six months in neutral barrel. Sette Anni is a very special selection in the best vintages, chosen to age seven years in bottle before release.
Giovanni Almondo bottles three separate Arneis wines: the Vigne Sparse, a more everyday version, Bricco delle Ciliegie, their top bottling, and in tiny amounts one called Le Rive del Bricco delle Ciliegie. Bricco delle Ciliegie is the single vineyard in the Caialupo area of Montà (in the far north on the map). Here compared to the rest of the Roero region, altitude is highest, air is driest and soils are sandiest. As the Almondo family explains, “consistent wind, exposure, altitude and acidity of the soil are the fundamental factors which create the vibrant, fresh and bright style of the Almondo Arneis.” A small percentage of the grapes for Bricco delle Ciliegie and Le Rive del Bricco are fermented in non-toasted barrel.
Luca Valfaccenda is one of the youngest producers of Arneis, though his family reaches far back into the history of Roero. His estate includes some of the finest locations in the Loreto cru (just north of Renesio in orange on the map). Luca’s production is 100% organic and he uses extended skin contact with great success. Arzigh traditionally saw the most skin contact, though he no longer bottles this on its own. Valfaccenda is his largest production Arneis, which is now a combination of pressed wine (90%) and “on skins for 10 days” wine (10%), which ages for six months in neutral barrel. Finally, Loreto, his single cru and top Arneis ages for eight months in neutral barrels. His wines are astounding and unique but perfectly, “Roero.”
Antonio Deltetto has been growing Arneis since 1977. Their cru, San Michele, sits due south of the Loreto cru and south of Canale. The San Michele Roero Arneis DOCG ferments in cement and barrique and rests for about six months between stainless steel and barrique before bottling.
Cornaerea, one of the first to refocus on Arneis, planted 12 hectares of it on the Cornarea hill in 1975 with the goal of “giving new life to this historical, autochthonous wine.” I am not as familiar personally with this producer but have been thoroughly impressed by any bottles that have crossed my path. They are located in the southern part of Roero, in Vezza d’Alba.
Other Roero producers with notable Arneis wines include Correggia, Demarie, Ghiomo, Marco Porello, Pace and Tenuta Carretta. Producers based in Barolo or Barbaresco, but who are recognized for their Roero Arneis include Vietti, Ceretto and Bruno Giacosa. This is not an exhaustive list but the producers with whom I have most experience. Do you have another favorite?