Arneis a winner, no matter how you say it

Name: Colin Mitchell

A small group of Australian grapegrowers and wine producers have made the foray into creating Arneis and have kindly shared their experiences and ideas about the variety in the latest issue of the Wine Industry Journal's Varietal Report. Colin Mitchell of Yandoit Hill Vineyard in Victoria, considered to be one of the earlier producers of Arneis in Australia, introduces us to this emerging variety.

Any in-depth look at the grape variety Arneis would seem to attract contradiction and confusion. Starting with the name itself, there seems to be at least a dozen authoritative pronunciation guides, all giving conflicting advice. I lean to 'arh-naze'. There are just as many translations of what this might mean in Italian Piedmontese dialect, most centred around 'little rascal', giving a strong indication that it's difficult in the vineyard.

Despite the fact that Arneis has been recorded as growing in Piedmont's Roeri hills as early as the 15th century, it had never been cultivated in great amounts. It would seem that it was not used as a single varietal white, but rather added in small measure to the premium variety Nebbiolo as a perfuming and sweetening agent in a similar way that Viogner might be used in the Northern Rhône. There are also recollections that it had a lowlier role as a distraction for pest birds, saving the more valuable Nebbiolo crop.

The variety was heading towards extinction in the late 1970s when a couple of Piedmont houses recognised the international trend for dry varietal whites and from that point on, demand has outstripped supply.

Roero, the traditional home of Arneis, is north-west of the major town of Alba, where it grows on its preferred lighter, sandier soils. In its natural home it ripens in late September, after other local varieties of Dolcetto and Cortese and before
Barbera and Nebbiolo, which usually comes in almost a month after Arneis. The wines are fresh, bright and fruity with aromas and flavours of pear, apple and almond, with a slight bitter almond edge on the finish.

Yandoit is in central Victoria about 20km north-west of Daylesford, or roughly the mid-point on a line drawn between Ballarat and Bendigo. In the 1860s, Yandoit had the second largest population of Italian migrants in Australia (to Hunter's Hill in New South Wales). The people planted vines, olives, fruit trees of every conceivable sort and grazed cattle. We have had the good fortune to inherit several of the original vineyards and we are in the process of refurbishing them.

In the early 1990s, I was fortunate to be exposed to the Arneis wines of Vietti, Malvira and Ceretto and decided this was the variety we wanted to add to our otherwise all-red vineyard. We had previously added Nebbiolo and talked neighbours into planting it, along with Barbera and Dolcetto, for which they have never forgiven me. Fortunately, at a viticultural conference at Lancefield in the Macedon Region of Victoria, I met Libby Tassie. At that time she was working, I think, with the Australian Vine Improvement Association and she informed me that vines had been imported from Torino in 1989, and that they were being held by the CSIRO. Nobody had expressed interest in the vines at that point.

The vines had been imported at the request of Carlo Corino who had done some great pioneering work with Italian varietals in his time at Montrose in Mudgee in the 1970s and 1980s. Corino was a native of Piedmont and wanted to add Arneis to the Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Sangiovese he was already working with, but before the vines became available he had left the country to take up a position in Sicily. We collected the rootlings in September 1995; there were a little less than 1000 divided between the two available clones CVT CN15 and CVT CN19. We planted them directly into the vineyard at Yandoit.

The Arneis site is 720m above sea level on the northern slope of a volcanic hill. The vineyard is non-irrigated, and the soils have good water-holding capacity if we get decent spring rains. Our average annual rainfall is 660mm (26in), but we've been below or well below average for the past 10 years. Predictably, the vines battled for establishment in the first couple of years, but we had very few losses. In 1998, we made our first wine in such small quantities that we bottled in 375mL bottles so we could stretch the volume of wine as far as possible.

The harsh vineyard conditions and the small number of vines makes it inappropriate for me to make definitive statements of performance, especially in a more pampered and irrigated situation. I feel there is little or no difference between the two clones, CVT CN15 and CVT CN19. My planting stock of CN19 was the poorer of the two, but it soon caught up and is now performing similarly.

Despite the fact that the Unione Produtti Vini Albesi, the regional growers' association, claim that Arneis' vegetative vigour is 'good, strong and straight' and productivity is 'good and constant', this has not been my experience.

I have found it much less vigorous than other Italian varieties that I have worked with, including Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and Pinot Grigio, and a modest bearer at most. For us, the biggest cultural downside is its extreme susceptibility to powdery mildew. We endeavour to operate with minimum chemical inputs and for all other varieties we are successful with preventative sprays at regular intervals. Th is is often not sufficient for Arneis and it becomes a disease hot spot, which in some vintages subsequently infects the Nebbiolo.

The variety is renowned for low acidity, but I find that if harvested at a moderate ripeness, with Baumé in the area of 12.5, the acid levels are good but seem to drop rapidly when extended ripeness is sought. At this stage, the berries become quite bronze and make a decent tablegrape. The grape has a reputation of rapid oxidisation while processing and the wines are generally believed to be short-lived. I think both of these criticisms are a bit over-stated.

It is probably obvious by now that I have a distinct preference or bias for the leaner, fresher, brighter, lower alcohol versions of the variety. Even at a lower alcohol level, 11.5-12.5%, the wines have a textural quality, more pronounced pear and apple characters, an Italian minerality and a slight bitterness on the finish. They make great food wines, especially with vegetable-based or lighter chicken dishes. As the alcohol level increases, wines become similar to Viognier in style. As I stated earlier, both were used historically as a perfuming agent to a red variety. A ripe pear and stone fruit or apricot character takes over from the apple. The palate gains weight considerably and the wines can become a little too viscous and oily.

In conversation with several Arneis winemakers, they felt that the consumer was more comfortable with the fuller style despite the fact it diminishes its varietal character. I have had similar discussions with regard to the growing and making of Barbera and I concede that it is easy to take the high ground for 'edgier' styles when you have a miniscule amount of wine to sell. In the 100 years since the first commercial Arneis was made in the district of Roero, production has risen to more than a million cases. It is currently the fashionable white wine in Italy. Recently, there has been a deal of interest and planting in the New World. In North America, there have been some promising wines from California and Oregon. Australia has several wineries producing wines from Arneis, mostly from Victoria. I have been informed that there are also a handful of wineries in New Zealand, but I have not had the opportunity to see any of the wines.

Arneis, I believe, is here to stay. Despite its challenges I feel it is distinctive enough to deserve a segment of the Australian and New Zealand dry white wine market. To quote US wine writer Dan Berger, 'it is beginning to show up in US restaurants, a sublime and sophisticated alternative to the simpler, less complex Pinot Grigio'. I have seen that especially in the US; it has also been used in blends, and Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai Fruilano and Chardonnay come to mind. I personally do not think this is Arneis' future. In 2005, I added about 5% to my Nebbiolo for no appreciable enhancement. In the niche white wine market in the future, will Arneis be a better bet than, say, Italy's Cortese, Spain's Albarino and Austria's Grüner Veltliner? I don't know. Given my time over, would I plant Arneis? Yes!

The full report can be found in the July/August issue of the Wine Industry Journal. To obtain your copy or to subscribe to the Journal please contact Winetitles on +61 8 8292 0888 or [email protected]

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