Arneis: A Born Again Italian White

As I continue my quest for awesomeness and value in Italy, I dipped into the world of whites. I’ve traditionally shied away from Italian whites since, with the exception of a few from the south, I find most of them to have a bitterness and watery quality that are missing umph, for lack of a better description. I think of Italy as red wine country and with good reason.

But there are some interesting whites to be discovered. And Arneis (are-NAYS) is one of them. A pain in the arse to grow and known in the local dialect of the northwestern Piedmont region from which it hails as “little rascal” because of that, this grape has a solid comeback story. Since we all love the underdog, I think this one deserves a little love.

Arneis is a white grape. It’s an oddball in that it grows right in the heart of red wine country. Expensive red wine country, at that. And it’s for that reason that the grape almost went the way of the dinosaur. When you have to compete with Nebbiolo in northwest Italy from which the famed and esteemed wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are made, it’s a hard roe to hoe to for a white wine to get some cred.

But then again, relative to how long they’ve been making wine, this area only just had its debutante ball, so reds didn’t have much fame either. For most of its history the Piedmont, north of Tuscany, was completely isolated. People were born and died in the towns around the areas of the Langhe (said Lang-GAH, the heart of wine country here) without ever leaving. Tourism was non-existent and the wines, made of the elusive, difficult to grow red Nebbiolo, sometimes with a little of the Arneis thrown in to soften the tannic, acidic wine that resulted, weren’t known the world around. The fog drenched mornings and cooler days made a nice place for the native grapes, but no one outside the region cared all that much.

Then things changed in the Piedmont. The wine producers of the area broke with tradition and started making more drinkable, commercially appealing red wines from the Nebbiolo grape, using modern methods. The results were amazing and brought interest, tourism (there are apparently wonderful restaurants in the area and lots of swanky places to stay, it’s high on my list to visit since when I lived in Florence in college there was nothing to visit there!), and money to this once sleepy area…and edged out Arneis. The poor little rascally white wasn’t made or needed as a blender since the wines became 100% red Nebbiolo. Since Arneis was hard to grow and had a tendency towards oxidation, which can make a wine taste like nail polish remover or rusty metal, not too many people were sad to see it go.

But a few folks kept tradition alive in a small area called Roero and in the larger area called the Langhe. The grape went from 2 producers in the 1970s to multiple producers making more than 1 million gallons of the stuff today.

Ceretto is a big producer in the Piedmont, making mostly reds and some white. Their Arneis is pretty huge — its 600,000 bottles represent 10% of all whites from the region alone. Kind of a big player.

Here’s the breakdown of the wine…

The Wine: 2009 Ceretto Blangé, Arneis Langhe

The Grape: 100% Arneis

Alcohol: 11.5%

Where it’s from: Alba/Langhe, in the northeast Piedmont region of Italy.

Color: Brassy, almost like a trumpet color the wine had a tiny bit of orange in it too — that’s a sign of oxidation so I was on watch for some weird flavors. The wine had little bubbles because the winemakers keep carbon dioxide in the wine from fermentation to give it a little texture, compensating for the grape’s low acid.

Smell: The wine smelled a little sharp — like a fresh cut lemon. It was like tart apples, unripe pears, and then like rocks baking in the sun or gravel.

Taste:It tasted like a green apple Jolly Rancher. Against the candied thing though, there was a little bitter, unripe pear flavor and a nuttiness too. The wine was a little smokey — like a campfire — which I liked. It had some good acid and a slight bubbly thing from that carbon dioxide I mentioned before.

Drink or sink?: A toss up. It’s not a bad wine, but it’s not great either. It could be nice with a pea/veggie risotto or a light salad but this is a very typically Italian white — a little bitter, and not super memorable. When there’s so many amazing whites from France, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, the US and more, I’m not going to be grabbing this on a regular basis. That said, for my porch in the summer, this could be a candidate.