Wine like grandma used to be

Published9/10/2008 12:06 AM

"The tastes are delicate, but the sense of it isn't, like a buxom Italian grandma."



In our tastings, we don't usually compare wines to grandmas, but the joy of tasting different wines is that they take you places you hadn't expected, even to a discussion of the contrast between cashews and walnuts.

Over the past few weeks, we have recommended quite a few types of wine that would be good during warmer weather, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Barbera. Any good wine shop will have at least a couple of different examples of those. But we like to stop now and then to remind you that so much of the fun of wine is the thrill of discovering something new and different. There are so many unusual wines on shelves these days, especially at the burgeoning number of excellent wine stores that take pride in their diverse offerings, that there's no reason to always stick with the familiar.

That's why we decided to write about Arneis. This is a grape from the Piedmont region of Italy, particularly the Roero area, that was just about extinct 30 years ago until a small band of vintners brought it back to life. Although we've drunk it for years, in our private lives, it's still pretty obscure. But 175 Italian wineries made around 300,000 cases of it in 2007, and a few in the U.S. make it as well. It is not something you will find in every wine store, but we're writing about it as one example of the gems in good wine stores that will reward the adventurous.

Arneis is such a pleasant wine for warmer weather - it's unusually good with salads - that we figured now would be the perfect time to write about it. We bought every one we could find, from both Italy and the U.S., for a blind tasting.

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We taste thousands of wines every year, but these aren't quite like anything else. They're straw-colored and aromatic, with a particular nuttiness, sometimes with some honey and smokiness. They're often low in acidity, which means that they're more subtle and require a bit more thought than mouth-popping Sauvignon Blanc, for instance. There's an earthiness and a little bit of herbalness for depth and texture. They can, on occasion, simply taste neutral and dull, but the best have a very special soulfulness that's quite touching.

It was the 2006 from Bruno Giacosa (28.99)- one of the wineries that kept the grape alive in the 1970s - that reminded Dottie of the Italian grandma we never had. Her point was that the wine appears at first to be delicate, but the better you get to know it, the more backbone and earthiness appear, which means you can appreciate the wine on several levels.

Even the nuttiness is complex. Dottie, who is nuts for nuts, said the Giacosa reminded her of walnuts, while another wine in the same flight, from Villadoria, reminded her of cashews. To John, who primarily thinks of nuts as peanuts at the ballpark, this was curious, so he asked for a clarification. "A great walnut has a pleasant bitterness to its rich flesh, while a great cashew is sweet and creamy. You would make cashew butter, but you'd be much less likely to make walnut butter. To me, that wouldn't be right," Dottie explained. Got it?

(By the way, two of our long-time personal favorites, from Vietti and Ceretto, were good, but not at the top of our list in this tasting. We had the 2006 of each and tasted each twice, a disappointing outcome.)


We can't emphasize this strongly enough: If you go to a store today and ask for an Arneis, there's at least a 50-50 chance the merchant will say "Huh?" and if you look for any specific label, you'll drive yourself crazy. (For example, the production of our best of tasting, Marco Porello ($13.99), is about 4,500 cases a year and the winery says it exported 650 cases of the 2006 and 200 cases of the 2007 to the U.S.). Our other favorites were Pio Cesare 2007 (Langhe, $22.99) and Seghesio Family Vineyards Arneis 2006 (Russian River Valley, $16.99).

Keep your eyes peeled for one. Much more broadly, whenever you see something unusual on the shelf, from a Melon to a Muller-Thurgau, give it a try. The risk is small and the possible rewards are great. How much is it worth to taste such warm memories of Grandma - even someone else's grandma?

• Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher write Tastings for The Wall Street Journal. Melanie Grayce West contributed to this column.

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