Working in Maspeth, Queens may not be as glamorous as commuting to Midtown, Manhattan but it does have one major perk: my daily walk through the RWM warehouse. Housing thousands of bottles of wine, some decades old, every row of boxes holds something to discover. I like to poke around, turning up treasures like old Hubert Lignier Clos de la Roche or Puffeney Vin Jaune to add to my wish list.
After work on Friday I happened to pass an open case of 2008 Paolo Bea “Arboreus”, and curiosity won me over as I picked up a bottle to see clouds of fine sediment swirling around through the greenish glass.
Drinking the Arboreus was delightful (I’ll get to that later), but only gave me a narrow understanding of this remarkable wine. Once I learned more about what went into the bottle, it became much more enjoyable.
My conclusion is that Giampiero Bea’s wines deserve a mention in the list of great Umbrian exports, in the company of Perugina chocolates, black truffles, and Franciscan monks. Bea wines are singular, and while Umbrian reds generally carry more prestige than the whites, the Arboreus deserves special attention.
Arboreus is made from the Trebbiano Spoletino grape, a mutation of the more familiar Trebbiano. Trebbiano Spoletino differentiated itself over hundreds of years, growing in the plains around the Umbrian town of Spoleto. Common Trebbiano (also known as Ugni Blanc) is widely planted throughout Italy and France, and usually makes bland table wine. In contrast, Trebbiano Spoletino is rare even in Umbria and is capable of producing wines of balance, elegance, and longevity—a rarity for Italian whites.
If Trebbiano Spoletino vines are rare, the grapes that go into Arboreus are really exceptional. In the early 2000s Giampiero Bea started working with a plot of 80-100 year old own-rooted vines trained to grow up around trees, hence the name “Arboreus” meaning “tree-like”. Formerly, this was the prevalent style of viticulture in the area—efficient because it allowed room for other crops to grow under the vines. These days tree-trained vines are rare because they are inefficient: tractors have a hard time navigating around them, and yields per acre are extremely low because the trees (and hence the vines) must be spaced relatively far apart. Thus, Bea’s Arboreus offers us a glimpse into a disappearing Umbrian terroir.
In my first draft of this article I described Arboreus as an “orange” wine, a term indicating extended skin contact during vinification. While this is technically correct (the Arboreus undergoes up to three weeks of skin contact), Neal sent me some notes thoughtfully explaining his view on using the term “orange wine”:
Most wines made “orange” are created out of desperation because, if vinified in the classic, modern fashion, these wines would have little to nothing to say. The exceptional accomplishment of the two Bea wines, Arboreus and Santa Chiara, is that they both clearly capture and express their respective terroirs. Sadly, with the rare exception, other wines placed in this false category of wine are curiosities, sometimes tasty ones, the charm of which, if any, relies totally on the vinification and elevage rather than the terroir. Since we (RWM) are obsessed with terroir and require our wines to properly express their origins, we have to make certain that our wines are treated separate and apart from the majority of wines that are appreciated because of how they are marketed rather than what they say in the glass.
On to the tasting…back home, after half an hour of furious chopping, our ceviche (tilapia, bell peppers, red onion, avocado, jalapeño, mango, cilantro, cumin, olive oil, and lime juice) was ready. Normally a light fish like tilapia calls for a lighter, acidic, mineral-driven white, but I wanted something more substantial to offset (not emphasize) the acidity of the lime juice. The Arboreus fit the bill perfectly. It was balanced, rich, very mineral, a little funky, and showed just a hint of nuttiness. Apple cider notes overwhelmed the nose, but in a good way—my boyfriend compared it to a Saison we tasted in Brussels a few months back. Spice, orange blossom, and apricot rounded out the wine’s bouquet.
All in all, it was a successful, if unusual, pairing. Best of all, it gave me a chance to write about one of Italy’s most important winemakers, and opened a conversation about the nuances of terroir-centric winemaking.