ARNEIS AND THE CLONAL SELECTION
The story begins several centuries ago in the province of Asti and makes an important stop in Neive on its way to Roero.
The first documents referring to Arneis are from the province of Asti in the 14th century, where it was referred to as Vinum Renexij.
Over the following centuries, references to Arneis were increasingly linked to Roero (that is, the Roero family). The Roero were a rich Asti family who accumulated their wealth by lending money. They either bought or conquered a correspondingly large area of land, mostly in what is now Roero. In 1478, the last will and testament of Domenico Roero at Canale made mention of a vineyard «ad Reneysium»;
In 1797, the first listing of historical cellars speaks of “Brente of Arneis”, “Vigna Costa” at Castagnito and “Vermouth made with Arneis”.
Towards 1800, Arneis is mentioned in the writings of Gallesio, who listed it among the traditional varieties of Roero. Rovasenda confirmed its link with the city of Corneliano d’Alba.
In 1810, “Arneis” appears in an inventory of the cellar of the Castello di Monticello, belonging to the Counts of Roero.
Gazettes from 1879 indicated that 40% of the vineyards in Monteu Roero were planted with Arneis.
Just prior to World War I, the price of Arneis grapes (then called “Arnese”) reached prices of up to 10 times the price of other varieties. It has been suggested that this higher price reflected the consumption of Arneis as a table grape, as opposed to a grape for winemaking.
Unfortunately, in the first half of the 20th century there was a crisis in the wine industry, which Arneis was unable to escape. In fact…
With the arrival of phylloxera, the value of Arneis fell brusquely, along with most of the grape varieties in Piedmont, though it maintained its value better than Nebbiolo (9 lire vs 6-8 lire). Phylloxera, the economic crisis, and the Second World War all had an adverse effect on Roero viticulture.
Arneis gradually disappeared; until the end of the 1960's, it was absent from exhibition catalogues as well as from the inventories of Alba, Langa and Roero cellars.
Professors Dall’Olio (first president of the Oenological School at Alba) and Macaluso wrote in their book Principal Wine Grape Varieties Cultivated in Italy, published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests in 1965, that "The Arneis grape is used exclusively for winemaking, but it is not to be found on the market under that name, because it is generally blended with other whites of the area.
These grapes–mostly Favorita, occasionally Cortese, and others–predominate in the mix”. “It is not unusual to find small amounts of Arneis added to Barbera, and in general to other red wine blends in the area. When Barbera is the main variety, Arneis is added with the objective of obtaining a smoother wine, ready to drink earlier.”
The history of Arneis in its current form began towards the 1960's. This was a period of great change and great innovation in Italian winemaking, and it was in this context that the renaissance of Arneis took place.
THE REBIRTH OF ARNEIS
Five pioneering winemakers overcame great difficulty, much uncertainty and limited technical means began, with great enthusiasm, to vinify and bottle this new white wine. They were: Alfredo Currado (Cantine Vietti), Umberto Ambrois (Tenuta Carretta), Sergio Battaglino ( Ristorante Trifula Bianca), Giovanni Negro (Cantina Negro) and Bruno Giacosa.
In reading the history of these innovators, as recounted by the oenologist Lorenzo Tablino in his detailed history, the parallels between then–all are dated between 1965 and 1970–and now, are amusing. Quantities were derisory and cobbled together from many growers, cuttings were non-existent, and vines were scattered among tracts of Nebbiolo and Barbera; often Arneis was mixed with Favorita or other white grape varieties.
On a more positive note, Luigi Veronelli wrote the following review of Cantine Vietti’s Arneis in the weekly Panorama:
“A crisp wine with notes of viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) and a floral, fruity nose, that quivers like a viper's tail”.
These winemakers deserve to be honoured for their faith in this wine during a difficult period, and for continuing to invest time, effort and money in it.
Over time, cellar improvements took effect; however, greater efforts were needed in the vineyards. Plantings were few, and were often disordered and rife with disease.
THE REBIRTH OF VITICULTURE
In 1970, Italo Stupino married, and his new wife, Mita, drank only white wine.
Unfortunately, of the estate’s 27 hectares of vines, Moscato was the sole white grape–excellent for dessert wines, but ill-matched for dinner. At the outset, he consulted his producer friends, especially in the northeast of Italy, to fill his cellar, but subsequently decided to produce an autochthonous white wine on the estate. After tasting Favorita, Erbaluce, Cortese and Arneis, he settled on Arneis. Tastings of the first Arneis produced by his friend Bruno Giacosa, co-owner with Italo of the Castello of Barbaresco and the Falletto vineyard, influenced his choice.
From his university days, Italo was inclined to approach challenges scientifically and he asked his schoolfriend, Professor Roberto Paglietta, for advice. n turn, Professor Paglietta, recommended Professor Italo Eynard, one of the most renowned experts in viticulture at the time.
Professor Eynard confessed that he knew little of Arneis, a nearly abandoned variety. However, Eynard had a brainstorm and proposed planting a vineyard to carry out a clonal selection of Arneis.
A clonal selection was necessary to provide a sufficient quantity of certified, homogeneous, virus-free material.
THE CLONAL SELECTION
"We accepted the proposal with great enthusiasm” Italo recalls, and thus in conjunction with the University of Turin, the C.N.R and the University of Bologna, the project began. Over the next two years, ampelographic and technological analyses were carried out in Roero so as to choose the healthiest Arneis vines and thus obtain the best quality grapes. In 1977, 23 possible clones were grafted onto the most popular rootstocks of the time, and the new vineyard was finally planted. The Montebertotto site was chosen for the new vineyard. Each row had a different rootstock and the potential clones were distributed randomly.
The setup was repeated in the historic area of Montaldo Roero, however for unknown reasons it did not come to fruition.
Professor Eynard appointed the following group of promising young researchers from the viticulture faculty and from the C.N.R. to oversee the selection: Messrs. Mannini, Bovio, Schneider, Novello and others.
After three years, in 1979, separate microvinifications of the tiny yields of each of the various clones were carried out.
The oenological aspect was overseen by Vincenzo Gerbi, Dino Marengo, Marco Rissone and others, led by Professor Annibale Gandini, a distinguished microbiologist.
The clonal selection carried out in the vineyard of the Castello di Neive ended in 1979 with the harvest of the first Arneis grapes; the same year Italo celebrated the birth of his daughter Carolina.
Following chemical analysis, tastings of each of the microvinified wines from the prospective clones took place. Italo invited fellow producers and journalists of note. Foremost among these was his friend, Gino Veronelli. It was the occasion too, for memorable lunches at the Castello prepared by Claudia of «La Contea di Neive» paired with Arneis made by Italo’s friend Bruno Giacosa, alongside Castello di Neive Barbaresco. After the tastings, and by dint of the assiduous work of the Universities of Turin and Bologna, and the C.N.R., three clones (CVT 15, CVT 19 and CVT 32) were registered, thus reviving the Arneis variety.
With the clonal selection completed, the story of Arneis at the Castello di Neive began, and still continues today.
CASTELLO DI NEIVE ARNEIS
In the intervening years, and because of the important contribution to the clonal selection process by the C.N.R., the University of Turin and the Castello di Neive, a total surface–theoretically of 20 hectares–though some were previously misnamed–has now increased to today’s more than 1000 single-variety hectares of Arneis.
It is reasonable to estimate that more than 80% of the vineyards in current production were planted with the CVT clones selected from Montebertotto and this fact is a source of great pride to Italo…
In 1982, we made a wine that we liked very much with the remaining grapes from the clonal selection. We have jealously laid down these few, precious bottles in our cellarmaster Talin’s sand to protect them from light and sudden changes in temperature. And then Gino Veronelli made a suggestion, that he had witnessed Giorgio Gray do in similar circumstances.
The subsequent tasting of one of these 32-year-old bottles in 2014 left us–along with our illustrious guest, Kerin O'Keefe–open-mouthed and astounded by such crisp freshness and minerality.