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The Little Rascal

By Debra Meiburg MW

In the 1960’s there was a grainy black and white television program featuring a motley band of children stirring up mischief in their neighborhood. In 1994, Alfalfa, Spanky, Buckwheat and Darla reappeared in the Universal Pictures film The Little Rascals. Many grapes could be considered little rascals, but only one variety has been honored with the name: northern Italy’s arneis, which rhymes with race, means “little rascal” in the local Piedmontese dialect.

The grape concocts no end of mischief for wine producers. It has a tendency to be too low in acidity, is prone to oxidation and has a delicate skin, making it vulnerable to mold. It’s generally temperamental in its growing pattern and is notoriously low yielding.

Like Darla, the only female up against Spanky and the members of the “He-Man Woman Haters Club,” arneis struggles for acceptance in a wine region dominated by red grapes and home to one of the world’s noble red wines, Barolo. In fact, winemakers primarily cultivated the fragrant and voluptuous arneis to soften Barolo’s aggressive, grumpy character. With scientific advances in winemaking, producers no longer need to rely on a white wine to mellow Barolo. By the ‘70s this ancient, fragrant variety was on the verge of extinction with only one hectare remaining in the rolling Piedmontese hills.

The grape had become so ill-favored that arneis vines were randomly scattered in vineyards solely to distract birds and bees from the more valuable red varieties. Even so, like Alfalfa’s reluctant courtship of Darla, one Piedmontese winemaker, Alfred Currado of Vietti, courted the mischievous arneis, rescuing it from oblivion.

It wasn’t easy. Similar to Spanky and the gang cobbling a clubhouse from scavenged wood scraps, Currado had to source arneis grapes from 46 growers – just to obtain one ton of grapes (about 700 bottles). Fortunately his first bottling received rave reviews and by the ‘80s its cult status was established, with especially avid fans trying to elevate its image by nicknaming it Barolo Bianco (“white Barolo”). Piemonte is now home to 600 hectares (1500 acres) of this charming – if irascible – variety.

Arneis is at its finest in southern Piemonte, where the sandy soils firm up its acidity. There are two demarcated regions growing Arneis – the Langhe and Roero, with the latter producing slightly finer, leaner styles.

Roero is just north of Alba which produces an array of fine red wines, but is probably better known to gourmands as the home of white truffles. Notable producers include Giacosa, Vietti, Ceretto, Deltetto and Pio Cesare, from whom you can expect an elegant, exotic wine with subtle almond, peach, light pear and apricot scents accented with a hint of anise.

Arneis’ newfound success did not go unnoticed and plots of the grapes can be found in Oregon, California and New Zealand and at 26 wineries in Australia. This fine white wine is best consumed while youthful. Before the grape was taken seriously, Piedmontese tradition was to drink the last bottles by Easter, about six months after the autumn harvest. While participating in a pagan spring ritual somewhat along the lines of trick-or-treating at Halloween, boisterous groups would traipse from farmhouse to farmhouse singing “Non fatemi andar via senza una bottiglia di arneis” (Don’t make me go without giving me a bottle of arneis). Now that sounds like an activity worthy of the little rascals.

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