Soave, one of Italy’s great white wines, has an image problem, and, as a result, it gets no respect. Although I’m sure that must be frustrating for the producers, it’s a boon for consumers: The wines can be excellent but their prices fail to reflect their quality. If your memory of Soave is bland, watery swill marketed so successfully decades ago by Bolla–consumers have told me that they assumed the name of the region was Bolla Soave–then it’s time to try them again. Even Bolla’s.
Soave has never been better. To quote Ian D’Agata, a world authority on Italian wine, “It’s rare to get a bad Soave today.” (His meticulously researched book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, University of California Press, is essential reading for anyone interested in Italian wines.) Young Soave has a subtle stone fruit–peachy—character buttressed by lively acidity and a hint of almond-like bitterness in the finish. The quality/price ratio is outstanding, with most Soave from the current vintages selling for less than $20 and even top wines, such as the Prà 2015 Soave “Monte Grande,” retail for less than $30.
Consumers are lucky to have examples from both the 2015 and 2016 vintages in the market currently. Both are excellent vintages, though different in character, with the 2015s being richer and riper, while the 2016s are generally more racy. Though Soave is consumed primarily within a year or two of the vintage, the best ones, similar to other fine wines, develop beautifully with bottle age. A tasting of Gini’s Soave Classico “La Froscá” at their estate in 2009 was eye-opening: The wines, stretching back to 1990 had developed a warm and nuanced complexity while maintaining exquisite energy. Tasted blind, you could be excused thinking they were mature white Burgundies. Even well-aged examples are affordable: At the Michelin 3-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena, a superb 2005 Pieropan Soave Classico “La Rocca”–10 years old at the time–was less than $100 (including tax and tip.)
Soave’s popularity sprang to life after World War II, even outpacing sales of Chianti in the U.S. in the 1970s. As is often the case, increased demand resulted in increased production. To satisfy the markets, growers planted vines on the less well-suited fertile plains and maximized yields. Quite predictably, dilute and vapid wines appeared. In an attempt to compensate, growers included Chardonnay in the blend to add body and weight, which actually made matters worse. Soave became relegated to the “innocuous white wine” category. Thankfully, this is all past history. Although small amounts of Chardonnay are still allowed, few growers embrace it, preferring to limit the yield of the primary grape, Garganega, and to blending it sometimes with Trebbiano di Soave, a far superior biotype of Trebbiano compared to Trebbiano di Toscana.
To help reinvigorate the area, around the turn of the last century, the Soave Consorzio lobbied and finally convinced the Italian wine regulators to elevate Soave from a DOC and create a Soave Superiore DOCG category starting with the 2002 vintage. To my mind, the quality of the some of the wines deserved this higher classification, though the implementation of it was controversial with many producers in the prestigious Soave Classico zone refusing to use it even though they were entitled to because they felt sub-par areas were included within its boundaries. Indeed, one prominent producer, Roberto Anselmi, opted to abandon the DOC altogether in 2000, and to label his wines under the less prestigious IGT designation.
The Classico zone, originally delineated in 1927, well before the DOC was established, was limited to about 2,700 acres of hillside vineyards around the communes of Monteforte d’Alpone and Soave itself. (For perspective, the total planted Soave area is about 16,000 acres.) The soil in the Classico area is poor, not fertile, with limestone and volcanic rock, superior for growing quality grapes. The newly created DOCG Superiore zone included the Classico area–and here’s where the controversy started–as well as other hillside areas, which were named Colli Scaligeri, in honor of the Lords of Verona who owned much of those hills in the 13th and 14th centuries. Classico producers felt the inclusion of these other, less well-situated hillside vineyards in their opinion, “diluted” the reputation of the Classico area, and have opted to continue to label their wines as Soave Classico DOC instead of Soave Superiore DOCG.
As a result, the DOCG designation has not been widely embraced and hence, has not fulfilled the hope of reinvigorating the area. Graziano Prà, of the eponymous estate, summed up his opinion succinctly when he said that my name is Prà, what more guarantee do you need. Even Giovanni Ponchia, the former head oenologist for the Soave Consorzio, says with a sense of resignation, “the DOCG classification is losing credibility year by year.”
Enter the “cru” system. As part of their application to create Soave Superiore DOCG, the Soave Consorzio started mapping of the Soave vineyards to identify the best ones. Now, hoping to replace, or at least to supplement, Soave Superiore and to polish Soave’s overall image as a place for fine wine, they have recently released their list of 59 noteworthy vineyards, which, borrowing the French term, they refer to as cru. The cru system makes enormous sense in a place like Soave where the both the volcanic soil and exposure of the vineyards varies dramatically from place to place. Some wines from grapes grown on black, lava-filled soil are racy and bold, while others whose origins lie in the calcium-filled white soil are racy and sleek. Typically wines from the cru require two or three years of bottle age for full expression.
This focus on site specificity is nothing new–the French classified vineyards in Burgundy in the 1930s. And Pieropan, a top Soave producer, has been bottling vineyard-designated wines since the 1970s. Regulations forbid fantasy names, allowing the use only of real places, many of which could be found on military maps dating from the 19th century. Although when I tasted a range of 2016 Soave in April of this year with Chiara Mattiello, the current head oenologist of the Consorzio, some labels still sported fantasy names.
The Consorzio has done micro-vinification–small batch vinification–of grapes from the different crus to validate the uniqueness and individuality of the wines from them. Nonetheless for consumers, the challenge is to determine whether the differences in the glass are due to the unique character of the individual cru or the differences in winemaking/viticultural practices of the producer.
This challenge is not unique to Soave. The same is true in Burgundy and Barolo. When I compare a Musigny from Drouhin and a Bonnes Mares from Jadot, I ask myself, do I taste the differences between Musigny and Bonnes Mares or do I just taste the difference in winemaking between two fine producers who have different styles? Similarly, in Barolo, where vineyards, like those in Burgundy, often have multiple owners, is the difference between Vietti’s Brunate and Chiarlo’s Cannubi a result of the site or just the differences between these two top producers? At least in Barolo, producers often own parcels of several vineyards, so for example if you taste the Marchesi di Barolo’s Sarmassa side by side with their Coste di Rose you can see immediately how these two parcels are different because the winemaking is basically the same for both. In Burgundy, it’s even easier because of the tradition of négociants making wine from a vast number of sites within the region. Taste a line-up Louis Latour’s Corton Clos du Roi, Beaune Vignes-Franches, and Romanée St. Vivant and the impact of site on the character of the wine is readily apparent. But in Soave, few producers own pieces of multiple crus so it is hard for the consumers to learn first hand the different expressions of wine from these sites.
What’s more, the cru system in Soave, and in Barolo, for that matter, lacks the more rigorous regulations found in the Burgundian system. In Burgundy, for example, allowable yields decrease as the prestige of the cru increases from a village vineyard, to a premier cur to a grand cru, increasing the potential quality of the wine. But in Soave, the regulations governing wine production in the cru are no different from those elsewhere. And given the continued appearance of fantasy names on the label, it’s not clear how vigorously even the current regulations are enforced.
Since the hierarchical DOC/DOCG classification is certainly flawed in this region and the Cru system is confusing and imperfect, one might reasonably ask: What then is the solution for the consumer wishing to take advantage of the bargains that abound currently in Soave? My advice echoes that of Graziano Prà: producer, producer, producer.
In the alphabetical listing of recommended producers below, my favorites are in bold, but frankly, I’d be happy to drink Soave from any of them.
Ca’ Rugate, Cambrago, Cantina del Castello, Cantina di Soave, a super co-operative, Casarotto, Coffele, Colato, Corte Adami, Corte Mainente, Corte Moschina, Dal Cero, Fasoli Gino, Fattori, Fornaro, Franchetto, especially their La Capelina, Gini, Gianni Tessari, I Stefanini, Inama, Le Albare, Le Battistelle, Portinare, Pagani, Pieropan, Prà, Tenuta Solar, Suavia, Villa Canestrari, Vitevis, another good co-op, Vicentini Agostino, and Zambon.
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July 19, 2017