For a grape that was nearly extinct less than 50 years ago, and is still modestly planted in Italy, its home country, arneis has a surprisingly strong presence in Australia, with plantings in most cool climate regions.
Also known as
While arneis has many synonyms in Italy, there are none that will confuse the consumer, and indeed in Italy, unless in a blend, the variety will adorn the label along with the DOC(G) name.
What arneis tastes like
Picked early, arneis can tend to the neutral with some herbal character, though it typically shows citrus, nashi, almond and white flower notes when a little riper, with ripe pear, cooked apple and stone fruit developing with even more ripeness.
Vineyard & winemaking
Arneis is a tricky grape for growers, with low yields and a susceptibility to diseases like powdery mildew. It also loses acidity rapidly once the grapes become ripe. Rather than a slow decline as the sugars go up, arneis will hold quite intense acidity only for it to plummet over a few days. Arneis goes to making white table wines, and is typically raised in steel tanks, though some fuller expressions employing oak, though rarely new, are also made. In Italy, it is also used to make spumante (sparkling) styles. In Australia, the wines made from arneis are usually on the brighter, crisper side, with some more textural examples, too.
Where is arneis grown?
Arneis is a native Italian grape, and one almost exclusive to Piedmont in the north-west. A region more celebrated for its reds, Piedmont’s standard-bearing white grape is actually cortese, which is responsible for Gavi, one of the country’s most celebrated white wines. Traditionally, arneis was co-planted with nebbiolo, ending up in some red wines (historically this included Barolo, but it is no longer allowed) to soften and add fragrance. Like many native grapes that are less than reliably productive – arneis means “little rascal”, a reflection of its difficulties for the grower – it all but disappeared by the mid-20th century. Interest was revived in part by the great Barolo and Barbaresco producer Bruno Giacosa’s leading example – though Giacosa had famously said that he grew arneis to protect his nebbiolo vines from the birds (a genuine historical use of the grape, in fact, but Giacosa certainly took the grape quite seriously). Plantings blossomed towards the end of the century, and though they have plateaued now, what once was a curio is key to the identity of Piedmontese wine. Arneis is primarily grown in the Roero, north of the Langhe, where it is also grown. It is also planted, in frugal amounts, in Sicily and Liguria.
Arneis around the world
Given that arneis is barely grown in Italy outside Piedmont, it’s perhaps unsurprising that arneis hasn’t spread around the world widely. It has found homes in the US, primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and California’s Sonoma County, and there are also modest plantings in New Zealand, primarily in Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Marlborough.
Arneis in Australia
Australia is home to the largest plantings of arneis outside of Italy, with the grape first championed by Garry Crittenden, who, in 1995, chanced upon the first 500 vines that had just left quarantine and needed a buyer. He took the lot, planting on his home property on the Mornington Peninsula. Those vines – though many are now grafted over to chardonnay – are Australia’s oldest, though Crittenden Estate made their last varietal bottling in 2018. But younger makers, like Barossa’s First Drop and Thick as Thieves from the Yarra Valley (the fruit’s from the King Valley), had already picked up the baton, while King Valley stalwarts, like Pizzini, continued to make thirst-slaking whites from the grape. While not grown in large amounts, arneis is planted in most cool climate regions in Australia, including the Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Tasmania and Victoria’s Alpine and King Valleys.
Photo of arneis grapes seen here, courtesy of Chalmers vineyard.
Some of the best Australian arneis
Somos (in a blend)
Thick as Thieves