Spirit Guide: Little Rascal
The white grape arneis flies under the radar in Italy’s most famous region.
It can’t be easy to be a grape growing up in Piedmont with nebbiolo as your big brother. You’re unique and full of personality, but as soon as anyone hears where you’re from, all they want to talk about is Barolo and Barbaresco. But if you’re arneis—pronounced AR-nays and sometimes known as white Barolo—the lack of respect is pretty much par for the course.
Back in the day—the day being 100-plus years ago—arneis actually had a supporting role with nebbiolo in the creation of Barolo. Over time, the white grapes were dropped from the wine, but winemakers kept them in the vineyard in the hope that birds would eat them over the prized nebbiolo grapes. The indignity continued to the late 1960s, when the grape was in jeopardy of extinction.
Enter the famed producer Vietti, who, along with Bruno Giacosa, more or less saved the grape from extinction by keeping it planted and in production. If this were a Hollywood movie, arneis would move on to being the most prized white wine in the world—but the reality is it’s still something of a niche wine, albeit a niche prized by those who dedicate their lives to sourcing amazing wine.
Its name means “little rascal” in Piedmontese, and it’s a hint to some of the difficulties that come with growing the grape. First and foremost, it’s prone to overripeness and a resulting lack of acidity that can produce seriously flabby wines. But when cultivated properly—and Piedmont winemakers are nothing if not obsessively careful—it can be a transcendent wine with the rich viscosity of viognier paired with the fruit and flowers of Alsace. The gorgeous 2010 Damilano ($22) is a textbook example of the grape—it tastes like biting into a fully ripe pear and then eating a handful of roasted almonds. Arneis at its most serious is still the domain of the grape’s saviour, Vietti. Vietti’s acclaimed Barolos are legendary for their longevity and power, so it’s no surprise their 2012 Arneis ($39) manages amazing structure and serious acidity. But the most exciting news for local wine geeks comes from Osoyoos’ Moon Curser ($22) : they’ve just released Canada’s first arneis and they’ve managed to tame the little rascal to produce a classic version—soft but not flabby. With its hit of sweet white peach and long finish, it may be the most exciting white wine released in Canada this year.