Roero Arneis, an exhilarating ride

Author: Giancarlo Montaldo

It did not take Roero Arneis many years to carve out a privileged place for itself in the world’s major wine markets. Beginning in the 1970s, in just a few decades those few rows of vines scattered here and there throughout the territory to the left of the Tanaro became an extensive and highly productive wine heritage.

Few wines in the world have developed as quickly and steadily over time as Roero Arneis. Its modern course in the Roero territory indicatively began in the early 1970s, and it took a few decades to build up a vineyard that exceeds 900 hectares and brings more than 7.5 million bottles to the market.

Probably in the era preceding the arrival of phylloxera infection (on the hills of the Roero it arrived between the late 19th and early 20th century), Arneis vineyards were more extensive than those recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. But, not even in the pre-phylloxera eras did they reach today’s levels.

On the hills of the Roero, the spread of phylloxera resulted in the abandonment of vine growing and wine production in favour of fruit growing, which was destined to become more extensive and profitable in the first half of the 20th century. That was the period in which, in the Roero as well as in the Langa and other areas of Piedmont, mixed farming dominated, with vineyards growing alongside other crops, from arable land to meadows, from livestock farming to fruit and vegetable growing, and ending with minor productions such as silkworm breeding.

Paesaggio di vigneti e cime in Roero, nel comune di Vezza d'Alba

In wine-growing Piemonte region, the production of red wines excelled. The few whites were represented by Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante. The ‘dry’ white wines revealed minority production. In this regard, it is useful to recall the segmentation by colour of Piedmontese wine production at the end of the 1970s: of the entire production at that time (about 4,500,000 hectolitres), red wines accounted for 90%, while white wines barely accounted for 10%. And this 10% (450,000 hectolitres) consisted of 90% Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante, while dry whites accounted for just 10%, or 45,000 hectolitres.

These 45,000 hectolitres included the production of Cortese di Gavi, Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato and Colli Tortonesi Cortese. And, then, Erbaluce di Caluso and wines without designation still based on Cortese and then Favorita, Arneis and other native varieties. International grape varieties (Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling, etc.) were scarcely present in the Piedmontese vineyard and their real establishment would manifest itself in the 1980s and subsequent decades.

Arneis, a path first uncertain, then overwhelming

The gradual spread of the Arneis vine in the Roero vineyards began in the 1970s, at first timidly and then with increasing conviction. In reality, the development started almost casually. ‘There was a strong need to find something of our own that could advance the agricultural world of the Roero, but there were no certainties’. This is how speaks Giovanni Negro, now owner of a qualified company producing Roero Arneis in Monteu Roero, at that time a young farmer with high hopes and a great desire to get busy. But for the start of the development of Arneis in the Roero hills, his commitment was crucial. Therefore, we leave the tale of those initial stages to him.

Giovanni Negro e una bottiglia di Arneis degli anni Settanta

‘It was the 1950s and in Italian agriculture, on the initiative of the Coltivatori Diretti, the 3P Clubs had been promoted (3P meant try, produce, progress). In my area too, in Sant’Anna di Monteu Roero, one had been set up and I – still a young boy, but curious and enterprising – had been elected its secretary. We organised in-depth studies on technical and economic issues of our crops, and we also began to think about viticulture, then just one crop among many. In order to learn more about the historical facts of our viticulture, I asked the mayor at the time, Alessandro Boetti, to consult the municipal archives and, to my surprise, I discovered that Arneis had played an important role in the history of my territory. At that time, however, there was not even an Arneis vineyard, just a few rows here and there, often placed on the periphery of the vineyards to defend the black grapes (Nebbiolo and Barbera) from birds and hunters. So I brought the results of my research to the board of Club 3P. I remember starting out by saying that we had a treasure in our hands but we didn’t know it. It was Arneis’.

At that time, there were many trials of dry vinification of many white grapes, including Arneis, and so we decided to try to vinify Arneis to make a dry wine as early as 1970, the vintage that was coming up.

‘After a check among the members,’ Negro continues, ‘we discovered that there were seven of us with a few rows of Arneis and we committed ourselves to vinifying together the grapes produced on our estates. I put my then small cellar at our disposal. We crushed all the Arneis grapes from our rows and could not fill a 7-hectolitre barrel. We didn’t know what to do. The next day there would be a market in Canale and so we decided to go there to get more Arneis grapes.

In Canale, however, no one wanted to sell them to us. At the market there were middlemen who were buying for other winemakers and had been promised Arneis. So I improvised a rally of my own, promising those who sold us Arneis not 500 lire per miriagram as the brokers were paying, but 1,000 lire. In a few minutes the situation changed and so we found the grapes to fill the first barrel and make a second one.

The wine was made. It had to be made known. What did you invent?

‘Back then, opportunities for promotion were rare. We had heard that there was going to be a wine fair in Turin, at the old Castello del Valentino. So we went there, booked a small display table and I undertook to present the wine. The novelty was so much appreciated that from that moment on Arneis became a darling of Piedmontese restaurants. But we did not stop there. We continued to work in the territory to give concrete support to the new wine. The work was arduous: the obstacles to overcome were endless, but on our side we had the enthusiasm of beginners and the conviction that we were building something useful for the Roero.

Grappoli di Arneis di una vecchia vite

At the end of the 1970s, the Piedmont Region launched the ‘Zonal Agricultural Plans’ and I was appointed president of the Agricultural Plan for Zone 1102, which included many Roero villages. With this investiture, I was further stimulated to work on the ‘Arneis project’ and so I coordinated the work to obtain DOC status for this wine. The most important work was to delimit the area of origin of the grapes for Roero Arneis. And our work resulted in an area of 19 villages to the left of the Tanaro, 4 for the entire territory and 15 for a part’.

The rest is recent history, the stages of which can be summarised as follows: in 1985 the Roero (Nebbiolo-based red wine) was granted DOC status; in 1989 it was the turn of the Roero Arneis. In 2005, the two wines went from DOC to DOCG. In 2013, the Consorzio per la tutela del Roero e del Roero Arneis was established to give an effective identity to the wines produced on the hills of this territory.

‘But there are two other dates I would still like to remember,’ Negro recalls, ‘and they are 1985, when I became mayor of Monteu Roero and remained so for a few terms, and then 1988, when with the collaboration of some highly sensitive people and the Comitato Manifestazioni Sant’Anna I set up the Roero Journalism Award, which celebrates its 35th edition in 2023.

2018, the importance of the new Specifications

Undoubtedly, the issuing of the decree of 27 July 2017 that launched the new Disciplinary Regulations for the Roero DOCG, and thus also for Roero Arneis wine, was not a point of arrival. It would be reductive for this territory to have demonstrated its ambitions and to have been able to materialise them. We therefore do not speak of a finishing line, but of an intermediate result destined to dictate to producers and institutional bodies other bets to give the wine, the territory and its interpreters a qualified identity and an essential value.

In order to understand the qualitative and strategic value of Roero Arneis in the Roero appellation, it seems useful to review the salient norms that guide the production of the wine and orient it to a quality market.

Let’s start with the typologies: there are five in all, two red wines (Roero and Roero Riserva) and three whites (Roero Arneis, Roero Arneis Riserva and Roero Arneis Spumante). Also linked to the typologies there is the chance of naming the white Roero, omitting the reference to the grape variety, until now considered indispensable. Comments among producers differ: some claim they will never renounce the grape variety, while others think renouncing the variety is not problematic. For the time being, it is the younger companies, those with a more export-oriented market and those with a very strong reference of origin that are less in need of varietal support. Remember that this is an opportunity, not an obligation. Among the producers, the possible Roero Arneis Passito typology was also evaluated. At the moment, this was not considered essential due to current market dynamics and high production costs.

The ampelographic base. Here too, the optimal solution was found some time ago. For the red wine types, Nebbiolo must be present for at least 95%, with the possibility of having in the vineyard up to 5% of other varieties, of the same colour, among those suitable for cultivation in Piedmont. The same applies to the three white varieties. In this case, the reference grape variety (95-100%) is Arneis.

The area of origin of the grapes is a well-established fact. All attempts in recent years to rectify the zone of origin to include some territories from countries not included globally have failed. Therefore, the area of origin of grapes for the production of Docg Roero wines remains defined as follows: the entire administrative territory of the municipalities of Canale, Corneliano d’Alba, Piobesi d’Alba, Vezza d’Alba and part of that of the municipalities of Baldissero d’Alba, Castagnito, Castellinaldo, Govone, Guarene, Magliano Alfieri, Montà, Montaldo Roero, Monteu Roero, Monticello d’Alba, Pocapaglia, Priocca, S. Vittoria d’Alba, S. Stefano Roero, Sommariva Perno.

Colline a coltivazione mista in Roero

The Use of ‘Vineyard’ and ‘Additional Geographical Mentions’

The use of the term ‘Vigna’ with the relative toponym or traditional name and the Additional Geographical Mention (MeGA – from the Italian definition Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva) is possible on the various types of Docg Roero.

The ‘Vigna’ is an indication of company reference and can be used provided that:

  • the toponyms or traditional names appear in the appropriate regional list;
  • the term is indicated in the grape declaration, registers and accompanying documents;
  • vinification of the grapes, storage and bottling of the wine are carried out separately.

As far as the Additional Geographical Mentions are concerned, the Decree of 27 July 2017 lists them and their delimitations in an annex. This work was conducted by the Consorzio del Roero, which for the delimitation did not only use the geographical criterion, but also took into account the vocation of the various hillside environments for the cultivation of Arneis and Nebbiolo to produce the wines of the Roero DOCG.

In all, 153 mentions have been identified and delimited. Of these, 18 refer to the names of the municipalities in the area of origin, excluding Castellinaldo, which from 2021 will be a sub-zone of Barbera d’Alba. The remaining 135 are confined to areas smaller than a village; some belong to a single municipality, others to several. Geographical Mentions can be used for both Roero red wine and Roero Arneis types. The application of the use of Menzioni dates back to the 2017 vintage and the passage of time is reinforcing their use. In 2022, 31 Geographical Mentions were claimed for Roero vino rosso and 18 for Roero Riserva. With regard to Roero Arneis, there were 27 Geographical Mentions claimed in 2022 and 6 for the Riserva. Some of them are claimed for more than one type of wine.

Unlike other appellations, the use of ‘Vigna’ is not tied to the simultaneous use of the Geographical Mention.

Other qualifying rules

The wine-making area: first of all, this area is made up of the municipalities that are wholly or partially included in the area of origin of the grapes. In addition, taking into account traditional situations, the area is also extended to include the municipalities of Alba, Bra, Barbaresco, Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monchiero, Monforte d’Alba, Montelupo Albese, Neive, Novello, Roddi, Roddino, Serralunga d’Alba, Sinio, Treiso and Verduno in the province of Cuneo. In past years, efforts had been made to identify a single wine-making area for Nebbiolo grapes for Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero and Nebbiolo d’Alba wines, a project that did not come to fruition. A pity because this hypothesis could have activated greater synergy between the Nebbiolo-related denominations.

Wine maturation: the maturation periods of the types of this DOCG deserve some attention. Roero Arneis without further specification has no compulsory maturation. Things change with the other solutions, and in these cases the maturation period is calculated from 1 November after the harvest. Roero Arneis with the Geographical Mention must mature for at least 4 months. Roero Arneis Riserva, with or without Geographical Mention, has to rest 16 months in the cellar.

Vigneto in collina, verso Monteu Roero

As for the Roero red wine, the minimum maturation period is set at 20 months, with 6 of these to be spent in wood. Finally, the Roero Riserva must mature for at least 32 months, including 6 in wood containers. The ‘Riserva’ specification can be claimed directly in the post-harvest period or at the time of DOCG certification.

Lastly, two notes on the Spumante type, reserved for Roero Arneis. The specifications do not propose a specific regulation, although some producers would have liked it. The production rules refer to the general rules for sparkling wines, bearing in mind that this type can be made using both the Classical Method (the most widely used) and Martinotti. On the basis of these considerations, it is possible that more specific rules will be determined in the future, perhaps favouring the Classical Method over Martinotti. A final note should be made for the sparkling wine processing area, which reiterates the boundaries of the still wine vinification area.

15th February 2023,

Giancarlo Montaldo

original in Italian published in Barolo&Co nr I-2023 / courtesy of Barolo&Co

translation by Barbara Fassio

Picture of Giancarlo Montaldo
Giancarlo Montaldo
Business consultant on wine issues, journalist and writer.
Picture of Giancarlo Montaldo
Giancarlo Montaldo
Business consultant on wine issues, journalist and writer.

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