Exploring under-discovered Piemontese wines
November 25, 2013
Nebbiolo is the undisputed king of Piemontese grapes. Certainly, it isn't the only member of Genus Vitis in Piemonte worth noting. Given the large region is geologically and topographically diverse, it's natural Piemonte would be home to many varietals suitable for wine. That diversity provides an interesting supporting cast for Nebbiolo. Therefore, as an epilogue to my four-week Nebbiolo harvest adventure series, let's look at two of my favorite under-discovered wines of Piemonte: Arneis and Brachetto. Perhaps this will inspire you to try something new this holiday season.
The little rascal
We often relive experiences when presented with stimuli that spur our brains to retrace the past. For me, one such experience was my first taste of Arneis, the white Piemontese varietal predominately from Roero.
It was a cold, foggy November day. I can still feel the damp chill and smell the faint hint of recently harvested fermenting grapes wafting in the air. With my husband, Dani, we met Marchesi di Gresy owner Alberto di Gresy and his cellarmaster, Jeffrey Chilcott, at Osteria dell'Unione in Treiso for a light lunch, as though such a thing exists there.
As usual, we left wine and food choices to Chilcott. Allowing him to direct our gastronomic adventures always meant we'd discover something new and delicious. To pair with our antipasti, he chose an unfamiliar white wine: Arneis, specifically from one of the great Roero Arneis producers, Malvira.
The libation's straw color and citrus fruit perfume that teased more flavors out of the antipasti are imprinted in my gustatory memory. It was a simple, yet complex and well-structured wine that had been fermented in steel tanks. Simply put, it bewitched me.
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In Piemonese dialect, "Arneis" means "little rascal," probably because of its unpredictable behavior in the vineyards. This is one rascal, however, that nearly met its end in the mid-20th century.
Although Arneis is an ancient grape, the origins of which ampelographers bicker, it was first documented in Roero in the 15th century. It wasn't until the explosion of Vermouth's popularity in the late 1700s that Arneis gained the respect of vintners. In later years, Barolo producers discovered Arneis was a useful blending wine that could tame and soften Nebbiolo's tough tannins, hence the origins of one of its names, "Nebbiolo bianco."
The brink of extinction
In the mid-20th century, when Piemonte emerged from the darkness of two world wars, Arneis faced its greatest threat. With the appearance of Barbaresco on the world stage and Barolo regaining its footing and no longer blended with Arneis, Nebbiolo vines quickly displaced most Arneis vineyards. The rascally vines were relegated to serve as "vineyard scarecrows" to draw away birds and animals from feasting on the prized Nebbiolo grapes. Sadly, the Nebbiolo craze pushed Arneis to the brink of extinction.
It's hard to keep a rascal down. In the 1970s, savvy vintners replanted Arneis and began to produce the white wine that soon came to define Roero. Although it's found in both Langhe and Roero, it is in Roero's chalky, sandy soil that it flourishes.
Arneis di Roero received its D.O.C. in 1989 and D.O.C.G. in 2006. Today, Arneis is in high demand in Europe and is growing in popularity in America. My favorites come from Roero producers Deltetto, Matteo Corregia and Malvira. I also like Vietti's Langhe Arneis that's available at Zino Ristorante in Edwards. Arneis' crisp, fresh complexity and fruity aromas make a great alternative to the more prolific Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and (horrors) Pinot Grigio. It's an enchanting wine that I'm sure will bewitch you, too.
Arneis also appears as sparkling and fortified wines. For example, Deltetto makes a wonderful late harvest Passito Bric du Liun that is as comfortable with foie gras at the beginning of the meal or at the end with dessert and cheese, or both.
Looking for it in the Vail Valley? Unfortunately, Deltetto wines are not currently available in Colorado, but you can find Matteo Correggia at Vin48 and Zino. One of Colorado's most knowledgeable and respected Italian wine importers, Steve Lewis of Giuliana Imports, represents Correggia. He describes their Arneis as "a very good one on the fresh side that is nervy and ripe at the same time (that) highlights the variety's unique character." I agree. I guess "nervy" goes with "rascally." What I don't understand, though, is why the sales follow a rose pattern — popular in summer, but not so in winter. Although it's crisp, fresh and great on a summer day, this dry varietal is truly a wine for all seasons.
I suggest you ask your favorite bottle shop to order it for you if it's not on the shelf. Then ask them why they aren't carrying it! Traveling to New Orleans? Drop in to see fellow Piemonte-phile chef Alon Shaya at Domenica in the Roosevelt where you can enjoy Malvira Arneis by the glass with Shaya's tantalizing Mediterranean cuisine.
Wines are like scrapbooks. They can help us remember wonderful times we've first tasted different wines. One fond memory is my first taste of Brachetto last March when I interviewed Ornella Correggia. After three hours with director of sales Sara Palma translating, Correggia and I dined together in the tasting room on a light, delicious meal she had prepared. Neither of us is fluent in the other's language, but that was not a barrier to communication between us.
Correggia opened a bottle of their Anthos Brachetto to pair with her salad, vegetables and flourless quiche, thus opening up my relationship with this lovely, under-discovered wine. Suddenly, with the addition of this aromatic libation, the food and wine became the common language between us.
Anthos is a dry, still Brachetto. Although sparkling Brachetto d'Aqui D.O.C.G. is relatively easy to find in America, dry Brachetto like Anthos is more challenging, but not impossible. Brachetto d'Aqui bears little resemblance to still Brachetto. It comes from a different clone, and the soils and farming methods aren't the same. Correggia Anthos comes from the sandy Roero soil, while Sottimano Mate's grapes are from a 30-year-old vineyard near Neive in Langhe. Both are lovely representatives of this under-discovered varietal.
When it is well made from high quality grapes that Correggia and Sottimano grow, it can be a heavenly dry red, bursting with strawberry perfume suitable for hot summer days, but is equally at home in winter as well. Brachetto is a delightful partner for rich fish dishes, vegetables, smoked foods and even pairs well with artichokes and balsamic vinegar. In describing Brachetto, importer Steve Lewis called it "one of the top five picnic wines in the world that can't be beat with salumi and a slight chill." A delightful winter picnic on a snowshoe hike could consist of Brachetto, salumi and bread. Greg Eynon, partner and wine director at Vin48, carries Sottimano Mate on his intriguing, adventuresome wine list.
Arneis and Brachetto are but two of the many under-discovered varietals of Piemonte. Freisa, Favorita, Vespolina and Ruche are other intriguing varietals. In describing Piemonte's vinous bounty, Lewis cheerfully proclaimed, the region's "greatest wines are still ahead of us and it's super exciting." Coming from someone who is always seeking the best of class, wine lovers can look to a bright future here in Colorado.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.