Three underrated white wines to try: Assyrtiko, Pecorino and Arneis
There is a universe of wine at your disposal to explore and conquer but sometimes sticking to the familiar is the best option if you are anxious about trying new wines. However, once in a while, one may feel more adventurous and try something off the beaten track. This post is about three varieties that once were obscure but now becoming more familiar in the wine lover's vocabulary: Assyrtiko, Pecorino and Arneis.
Pecorino-The noble sheep grape
Pecorino is an indigenous variety native of the Marche and Abruzzo regions situated on the Adriatic sea coast making a commercial comeback since the 1990’s. Pecorino means “ grape of the sheep'' and it's an example of the legacy of Italian transhumance practices.
Pecorino's revival can be credited to one man, legendary Italian winemaker Guido Cocci Grifoni, who in the 1980’s decided to research some forgotten grape vines in an abandoned vineyard. He took material from the vines he discovered and eventually grew enough grapes to make wine . Traditionally, Pecorino was used as a workhorse variety in white blends to provide good alcohol content acidity. Pecorino yields crisp wines with a good concentration of aromas. It is mineral and citrusy pairing nicely with light fares such as focaccias based with vegetables and light seafood dishes. Pecorino yields versatile wines in the unoaked, fuller body and barrel aged style. Good quality Pecorino can be found in the mid $20 range.
The Happy Marriage of Pecorino and Natural Wine
Pecorino is taken to greatness by the more minded artisanal natural wine producers. Exceptional producers of natural style Pecorino include Francesco Cirelli, DeFermo and Ausonia. Natural wine is a minimum intervention style that places importance on grapes grown biologically and biodynamically fermented with native yeasts and bottle unfiltered.
If shopping for natural Pecorino wine, you will find the most interesting whites under the IGP umbrella such as IGP Terre de Chieti or IGP Colline Pescaresi. IGP is an acronym for Indicazione Geografica Tipica or, when roughly translated- typical geographic indication.IGP wines tend to be less expensive than DOC or DOCG and are flexible with experimentation provided they use grapes allowed by the council body. This regulation is perfect for natural winemakers that want to coax the best characteristics of Pecorino by vinifing in solo the grape.
Arneis, the rascal of Piedmont
Arneis is another white grape variety, indigenous from the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. Arneis is also known as “the little rascal” given its difficulty to grow. It’s often prone to disease in the vineyard and difficult to get acidity unless it’s grown in the right terroir. Arneis is vinified as a single variety but traditionally it has been combined with Nebbiolo in Barolo territory where it helps to smooth the tannins and contribute complexity to the wine.
Arneis has been around since 1400 in the Roero, and for a long period of time was signified with white wine all together and confused as Moscato. From being an obscure variety, Arneis rode the hierarchy of the great wines of Piedmont obtaining DOCG status. Today Arneis fashions a sparkling variety under the Spumante DOCG and a Riserva DOCG made to cellar for a few years.
In addition, Arneis is appreciated for its orange blossom, pear, apricots and a hint of hazelnut aromas. Like Pecorino, the wine goes well with light seafood dishes, creamy pastas and salads. When it's unoaked, Arneis tends to be crisp and medium, reminiscent of a hybrid between Sauvignon Blanc and German Riesling. The oaked versions tend to be creamier and expansive in texture The wine goes particularly well with zucchini and asparagus dishes.
For a more traditional pairing, Arneis goes particularly well with Bagna Cauda;the traditional Piedmontese garlic and anchovy dip for raw vegetables. For an adventurous pairing, try an oaked version with Vitello Tonnato, the cold veal with tuna sauce Piedmontese delicacy.
Arneis producers and wines to try: Renato Buganza-Roero Arneis Dla Trifula, Punset-Arneis Langhe, Radici Filari Coclico
Assyrtiko, an ancient Greek variety
Assyrtiko is one of the noblest grapes of Greece's wine industry. Its origin can be traced from the beautiful volcanic island of Santorini, and from there it has followed a global itinerary encompassing continental Greece, Italy, Australia, Cyprus, South Africa, and the USA. Despite its globetrotting track, Santorini is the official residence of Assyrtiko, counting 40% share of vineyards in all Greece. In addition, Santorini holds very old Assyrtiko vines, some of them 200 years old and more.
One of the leading Assyrtiko producers was Haridimos Hatzidakis from Santorini. Hatzidakis cuvees such as Assyrtiko de Mylos, Assyrtiko de Louros and Cuvée 15 constitute some of the finest Greek wines and perhaps the world. Haridimos through his wines gave a different expression of Assyrtiko via organic viticulture. The wines he made under his belt can be characterized with a fascinating complexity reminiscent of an enticing oxidative perfume and precise freshness on the palate.
Assyrtiko is appreciated for its bold structure, aromatics and saline tension in the palate. It yields wines that are redolent of tart apple, honey, with a touch of lemony and chalky minerality. In its youth, Assyrtiko wines can be almost monolithic or backwards in concentration and weight combined with its natural high acidity. It is a natural partner with the Mediterranean salads of Greece and Italy but also it is an outstanding match with grilled seafood dishes consisting of octopus and prawns.
Most Assyrtiko wines, whether they receive barrel treatment or stainless steel , have a medium to long term aging potential (7-10 years) , developing aromas of smoke, ripe orchard fruits, honey, with smoke and acacia. For an offbeat food pairing, try Assyrtiko with lamb. The acidity of Assyrtiko cuts like a samurai sword, the fatness of the meat and the pungent mineral notes of the grape complement the gamey notes of the meat.
Assyrtiko producers and wines to try: Argyros-Atlantis, Domaine Sigalas-Assyrtiko, Kir-Yianni-Assyrtiko.
In wine as in life, the road less traveled leads to a colorful happiness. A varied wine exposure will lead the drinker to a richer and enhanced wine experience. Pecorino, Arneis and Assyrtiko, once grapes in obscurity , unfolded their secrets to those consumers ready to hear them. These are just a tiny chisel of the iceberg and others such as Lugana, Timorasso and Nascetta are waiting their turn to those brave winemakers and customers ready to hear their whispers.