The Arneis grape

Today’s article is back to my basics again, I’m back to describe and investigate a little known Italian varietal that happens to be grown in Temecula Wine Country.  The Arneis (pronounced “are-NAYS”) grape is today’s featured varietal.  Some of the common synonyms for Arneis include Barolo Bianco, Bianchetta d’Alba, Bianchetto, Bianchetto di Verzuelo and Nebbiolo Bianco.  The last name is interesting, because Nebbiolo in Italy has been blended with Arneis in order to soften the tannins found in a traditional Nebbiolo.

The Arneis vine can be a difficult grape to cultivate, with naturally low acidity (although seems to possess more acidity in California than in Italy) and tendency to get over ripe if it is harvested after September.  Additionally, the vine is prone to powdery mildew though recent cloning research has begun to isolate clones of Arneis that have more tolerance to mildew. The vine’s propensity for low crop yields and for the wine to oxidize easily, contributed to its steady decline in the early to mid 20th century. Better understanding of the variety in the later half of the century helped revive the variety as winemakers found that the chalky, sandy soils around Roero gave the grapes more acidity and structure while Arneis grapes planted in sandy clay soil developed an elegant and exotic perfume.  (Roero is a geographical area in the north-east corner of the province of Cuneo in Piedmont, northwest Italy.)

Arneis historical role has been as a softening for Nebbiolo, though today the grape is more commonly seen as a varietal wine. Arneis is an ancient variety grown near Alba in Piemonte (northwest Italy).  Recently the grape was saved from extinction by a few notable Barolo (Nebbiolo) producers.  Wines fermented and/or aged in oak will be more full bodied while unoaked Arneis can have more aromatics and perfume. Arneis has the potential to produce highly perfumed wines with aromas of almonds, apricots, peaches, pears and hops. Some producers make a late harvest passito Arneis.

As an aside, passito is an Italian term used both for a method of making sweet wines and for the sweet wines made this way.  Passito wines begin by laying freshly picked grapes on mats (or hanging them in bunches) so that they can partially dry. This process eliminates much of the grape’s water and concentrates its’ sugar and flavor components.  Depending on the technique used, the drying time can vary from several weeks (in the hot sun) to several months (in a cool ventilated room).  When the grapes are crushed and fermentation begins, the sugar content is usually high enough to take the wine to a reasonable alcohol level and still end up with enough residual sugar so that these wines are fairly sweet.

Back to the grape at hand… food pairing. Arneis is a light to medium bodied white wine.  Arneis is a wonderful sipping wine with ripe Bartlett pears and a good companion for shellfish and lightly breaded, sauteed sole.  From what I have read, Arneis doesn’t pair well with cheeses and strongly herb-influenced dishes.  Myself, I prefer the wine with chicken and fish.

In Temecula Valley, Arneis is available in limited quantities as an estate wine at Cougar Vineyard & Winery located at 39870 De Portola Road.  The grapes are cordon trained and tend to have more acidity then their Italian grown counter-parts.  The higher acidity yields a crisper wine with a more lingering finish.  The wine is 100% varietal, aged in stainless steel tanks, and finished extremely dry with flavors of peach.  This winery resides on the De Portola Wine Trail of Temecula Wine Country.  Cougar Vineyard & Winery has planted 3 year old vines on the winery property in Temecula Wine Country.  Also growing Arneis in Temecula Wine Country is a newly planted vineyard located at Ponte Family Estate.  Ponte is located at 35053 Rancho California Road in Temecula Wine Country.  Look for this varietal on Ponte’s tasting room menu in a few years.  Cougar Vineyard & Winery and Ponte Family Estate are both members of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association.

Cougar Vineyard & Winery is planted entirely in Italian varietals.  The Arneis is actually planted on the adjacent property to Cougar that is managed as an estate vineyard.  The vineyard, La Vigna e Destra, is planted with sixteen hundred of the eight thousand vines planted being Arneis.  We will be discussing all of these other varietals being grown and managed by Cougar in upcoming articles about the Italian grape varietals planted in Temecula Wine Country of Southern California.