Soave's quiet revolution

  • Friday 3 July 2009

From its high as Italy’s flagship white, to its mass-produced, dilute low, Soave has improved quality, rebuilt its image and earned a DOCG in the process. So why don’t we know about it, asks kerin o’Keefe

Spreading out in a dense sea of vines beneath its emblematic medieval castle, Italy’s Soave denomination, north of Verona, has recently undergone a stunning transformation. The makeover is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it has gone largely unnoticed.

Once the undisputed kingdom of Italy’s dilute, uninspiring whites made in industrial quantities, Soave’s tighter production regulations have seriously escalated quality.

Many of today’s wines, particularly those from the historic Classico area – made from lower yields and perfectly matured grapes – are more like Chablis than the Soave of yore. Offering complex aromas and creamy fruit, punctuated with intense minerality, these premier bottlings are also surprisingly ageworthy.

Soave even has the highly coveted DOCG designation for two of its wines: the sweet Recioto made from dried grapes, and for Soave Superiore. Not that most people would know it.

Which perhaps explains why, best of all, despite the impressive leap in quality across the vast denomination, Soave remains incredibly well priced. According to David Gleave MW, director of UK specialist Italian merchant Liberty Wines, ‘The best wines offer superb value. They are underpriced.’

Why, then, hasn’t Soave become Italy’s flagship white? And why do wine lovers and critics continue to overlook this dynamic denomination? ‘Despite substantial investments in both vineyard and cellar, that have led to such a dramatic rise in quality, Soave suffers from an image problem,’ explains Andrea Sartori of the eponymous winery and president of the Unione Italiana Vini.

‘Most consumers still associate Soave with cheap, nondescript wines and massive output.’ So while a less than sterling reputation has kept prices down, it has also kept consumers from discovering Soave’s extraordinary revival.

Growing demand

Before widespread mediocrity invaded the denomination, Soave had been the symbol of Italian wine around the world. But only a few private firms, such as Pieropan and Gini, made world-class wines even during Soave’s Dark Ages.

‘Quality Soave is one of Italy’s most interesting whites,’ says Gleave. ‘But the quality depends very much on the Garganega grapes being ripe – when this happens, the minerality and spiciness of the wines gives them a personality that reminds me of good Chablis.’

Indeed, prior to 1931, notes Gleave, Soave was even known in Italy as Petit Chablis. But eventually, it became a victim of its own success.

‘For hundreds of years, the hillside vineyards above Soave, with their complex soils, were known for their exceptional white wines,’ confirms Andrea Pieropan of the iconic Pieropan winery. His father Leonildo was the first to understand the importance of attaining perfect ripeness for Soave and was a pioneer in single-vineyard vinification.

The family firm’s cult Classico bottling, La Rocca, made from late-picked Garganega grapes, shows impressive depth and complexity and has long proven the area’s potential. ‘Back in 1931, the government delimited only two wine growing zones in all of Italy in recognition of their excellence: Soave’s original growing zone, now known as Soave Classico, which stretches from the town of Soave to Monteforte d’Alpone here in the Veneto; and the Chianti Classico zone in Tuscany,’ explains Pieropan.

‘But in the 1960s, when Soave’s original 1,700ha (hectares) of vineyards couldn’t keep up with global demand, the growing area was expanded.’ The once restricted zone was enlarged to 7,000ha, spanning 13 municipalities.

The consequence was that growers began cultivating Soave’s main grapes, Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave, throughout the amplified growing area, including the lowlands and in parcels adjacent to busy roads and highways. To further increase production, many growers substituted Trebbiano di Soave with the vigorous, bland Trebbiano Toscano. Unsurprisingly, the results were weak wines and an overall decline in quality.

And because the bulk of Soave production was, and remains, in the hands of several large co-ops, growers had little incentive to aim for quality when it was quantity that paid the bills.

‘But in the 1990s, Soave producers went through a period of reflection,’ says Arturo Stocchetti of the Cantina del Castello winery and president of Soave’s Consorzio. By this time not only had consumers tired of Soave’s drab quaffability, but the stellar rise of Pinot Grigio had firmly supplanted Soave as Italy’s flagship white in export markets. ‘We knew we needed to take decisive action to improve standards and bring Soave back on top,’ explains Stocchetti.

From 1998 to 2001, the Consorzio studied all aspects of the growing area, including soils, altitude and exposure, that allowed it to define 51 distinct crus and spurred renewed interest in Garganega.

‘Soave is undoubtedly the most studied growing zone in all of Italy,’ says the Consorzio’s Giovanni Ponchia. The ambitious project led to the creation of a quality pyramid, with Soave Superiore DOCG on top, Classico DOC in the middle and Soave DOC at the bottom.

What’s in a name?

‘Based on the results of our research, the government granted DOCG status to Soave made from the denomination’s hillside vineyards,’ explains Aldo Lorenzoni, the Consorzio’s director.

‘Soave Superiore DOCG takes in not only the hilly Classico zone, but also hillsides dispersed throughout the denomination, known as Colli Scaligeri.’ The DOCG regulations not only ban Trebbiano Toscano and require the lowest yields in Soave, but also stipulate higher minimum alcohol and more extract than both the Classico and Soave DOCs.

‘Soave from the Classico area can be made either as a Superiore DOCG, if yields are reduced and the wine has more structure, or simply as Classico DOC. Soave from low-lying vineyards can only be Soave DOC,’ summarises Lorenzoni.

Subsequent modifications to the basic Soave DOC production code also banned Trebbiano Toscano and lowered yields, encouraging all growers to focus on quality not quantity. To ensure the production codes are being followed and no corners cut, the Consorzio has inspected vineyards and cellars since 2000.

Even the co-ops, which together control 78% of production, have noticeably tightened their standards. ‘We have a full-time staff of five agronomists who oversee our members’ vineyards. Selection is crucial,’ says Luca Sabatini of the massive Cantina di Soave.

With 2,200 members, it generates 48% of total Soave DOC production and 43% of Soave Classico.

Cantina di Soave, and the denomination’s seven other co-ops, including the outstanding Cantina di Monteforte, have long been a defining element in the denomination. But over the past decade many growers have begun bottling their own wine, further fuelling a shift towards higher standards.

Unfortunately, though, the overhaul hasn’t made it any easier for consumers to find the best wines. Though the new laws undoubtedly raised the grade, most of the best wines are still labelled DOC, and very little Superiore DOCG is made, causing more confusion than clarity.

‘Most consumers have no idea about the supposed quality pyramid, and very few producers make Soave Superiore,’ says Pieropan, who is critical of the system.

Flawed

‘The DOCG does not identify the best wines, but instead designates a style of more powerfully structured wines made by very low yields or with cellar technology,’ he says. ‘Nor does Superiore DOCG refer to a restricted area singled out for excellence – it can be applied to any hillside vineyard in the huge production zone. The DOCG should have been assigned only to the Classico area.’

Pieropan is not alone in his concern – most of the top private wineries have rejected the DOCG, including leading producer Sandro Gini, who runs the family estate with brother Claudio.

‘The Classico area deserves to be recognised for its unparallelled quality, thanks to its unique volcanic soil, altitude, and a wealth of old vines. Our vines are between 50-100 years old,’ says Gini, who shuns selected yeasts and sulphur and ages his wines in small, old French barrels.

‘Classico has a proven history of quality winemaking, but now any hillside vineyards in the enormous denomination can boast the DOCG if winemakers force the wine to meet the guidelines. And with so many contrasts, it’s hard to have a clear sense of identity.’

Gini adds that well-made Classico DOCs, even though they naturally have slightly less alcohol and extract than the DOCG demands, are nonetheless more refined and long-lived than the supposedly superior designation. A vertical tasting back to 1988 of Gini’s elegant, impeccably balanced Classico La Frosca that included an astonishingly vibrant and elegant 1997 proved the winemaker’s claim, as did a rich Pieropan La Rocca 1996.

‘It’s a shame not to use the DOCG. It’s Italy’s top designation, and should have helped move Soave forward,’ says Meri Tessari. She and her three sisters run the family’s estate in the heart of the Classico area and make crisp, fragrant Soaves. ‘I think the majority of producers want to revisit the DOCG issue and assign it to the Classico area only. There’s no point having a DOCG if no one uses it.’

The Consorzio agrees the DOCG is not working out as hoped, but insists that its existence has had a positive impact. ‘No one can deny the tighter requirements for both DOCG and DOC have led to higher quality Soaves being made across the denomination,’ says Lorenzoni. True, but consumers could be forgiven for not getting the message – and the tragedy is, they’re missing out as a result.

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