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How a ‘little rascal’ of a grape made it to the big time


By Frank Cipparone

            Years ago, a winemaker in Piedmont sought the aid of a priest in tracking down a certain “little rascal.” He wanted the good father to ask nearby farmers to bring wagons loaded with a specific grape to mass the next Sunday, promising to give them a good price for their crop. He then traveled from town to town in the Langhe making similar offers.

            As a result, Alfredo Currado of Castiglione Falleto’s Vietti winery, known for its red wines, saved a white grape from anonymity. Arneis, a Piedmontese dialect term for an annoying and rascally person or a bratty child, was given new life. After decades of being nothing more than an ornery, tough-to-deal-with local variety, it became Italy’s most recognizable white wine, one that attracted consumers and was well received by critics. Ironically, it had always been added to Barbera and Barolo to tone down their strong tannins. At one point it was even called Nebbiolo Bianco!

            Standing on its own, Arneis is unusually creamy for a white, with a wide range of aromas and flavors from pears and peaches to almonds. Among the best are Giovanni Almondo, Correggia and Bruno Giacosa.

Not all of Piedmont’s whites have as folksy a background story as Arneis. For a variety of reasons, mostly economic, some fell out of favor and remained in limbo until recently. Back in the 1960s and prior to the growing popularity of Arneis, Gavi was Italy’s supernova big seller in Europe and America. As Arneis became a rising star in the 1980s, Gavi lost some of its luster. Wine drinkers are choosy, and when Gavi became over-produced and basically blah they looked elsewhere – Arneis’s gain turned into Gavi’s shame.

            Gavi is actually a town and the name of the wine made there from Cortese, a grape that  produces crisp and super dry wine that can be incredibly aromatic or powerfully concentrated with sharp, sometimes piercing lemony acidity. Top producers are Bergaglio, Chiarlo, Martinetti and La Giustiniana.

At the start of this millennium, Timorasso was unknown outside the Tortona area in southern Piedmont even though Tuscany’s favorite son Leonardo da Vinci was reputed to have spoken highly of it. Once as common as Cortese, it took the dedication and dogged labor of Walter Massa to not only save it from extinction but be instrumental in increasing its vines fourfold in the last 20 years. He and Elisa Semino of the family-operated La Colombera winery are, like other advocates of rare native grapes, working to showcase a grape whose intrinsic value transcends its limited production.

            That’s not an easy task. Timorasso isn’t popping up in every wine shop or taking wine bars and restaurant lists by storm. Commitment to it from a small band of believers will take time, patience and educating consumers to a crispness and acidity that are comparable to a really dry Riesling, but one with a softer texture and lots of citrus and white fruit flavors. If you give it a try stick to Massa and La Colombera – they’ve set a high standard.

            A varietal I’ve come to like is Nascetta, the prototype of a one-grape town. In this case, it’s Novello, a dot on the map in the heart of Barolo country. You’d think that growers and winemakers would be happy to regale people with its history and outstanding qualities, but written or oral accounts of Nascetta are almost non-existent.

            Nascetta never disappeared. It has always been there but obviously not as well regarded locally as Nebbiolo. So how in 10 years did it become more symbolic of Novello than its red vineyard mate? The same familiar tale. A grape that’s no picnic to work with, similar in that respect to Arneis and Timorasso, gets a push from a couple of well-regarded Barolo producers and others take notice. Twelve wineries are currently making Nascetta because, as one of them states, it’s the only true native white of Piedmont.

            What makes Nascetta different from the other whites? The deep color, flavors of mint, herbs, oranges and the ability to age well while staying fresh and lively. Look for those labeled “Commune del Novello,” especially Elvio Cogno and Le Strette.

            Only in Italy would there exist a wine that legend has it was a gift to the residents of Caluso from the fairy Albaluce, the “light of dawn.” Erbaluce’s pale yellowish color could make one a believer.

            Before the 20th century, Erbaluce was famous and considered a sign of good taste and social prominence, probably due to its proximity to the cultured city of Turin, which is still its primary production area. Even if you don’t buy the origin story, Erbaluce di Caluso was Piedmont’s first white wine DOC, a sweet spot for closely grouped vineyards exclusively planted with it.

            Erbaluce isn’t a knockout “modern” wine. What you get is a fine balance of green apples, citrus, apricots and high but refreshing acidity. It is also made as a sparkler, or a passito that is deeper and full of fig, almond, honey and tropical fruit flavors.

            Producers worth noting are Ferrando, Orsolani, Sperina and Antoniolo, all of which have filled my glass at one time or another.

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