Identity crisis

Identity crisis People & Places Articles
  • Tuesday 1 May 2001

The future is uncertain for Soave. Workmanlike wines are no longer good enough and the region needs to reinvent itself as a quality wine producer. RICHARD BAUDIANS reports

The future is uncertain for Soave. Workmanlike wines are no longer good enough and the region needs to reinvent itself as a quality wine producer. RICHARD BAUDIANS reports

The first year of the new millennium was an eventful one in Soave. The Bolla family, whose name has been synonymous with Italy's most famous white wine for more than 50 years, sold out to the multinational Brown-Forman, owners of Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Fetzer. Roberto Anselmi, pioneer of modern winemaking in Soave, abandoned the DOC in protest at its lack of credibility. The draft proposal for a DOCG for Soave was sent off to Rome for approval. The producers' consortium enforced the declassification of some 1,300 hectares of vineyards due to over cropping. And the latest edition of annual guide Gambero Rosso proclaimed Leonildo Pieropan's Soave La Rocca 1998 Italian white wine of the year. There may seem no obvious connection between this fairly disparate set of events, but all are related in one way or another to the profound changes taking place in Soave. Soave is at a turning point. Production over the past 30 years has been driven by a strategy with no pretensions to anything more ambitious than standard commercial quality, balancing the interests of everyone involved in the region. The problem is that with the general demand for cheap plonk falling like a barometer in a typhoon, this model is now rapidly losing economic viability. Soave desperately needs to convert from quantity to quality, but restructuring the production of 6,500ha of vineyard – the biggest still white wine zone in the country – is no easy task.

PROPOSALS FOR THE FUTURE

The institutional blueprint for the future is contained in the proposal for a new three-tier denomination which aims to establish a kind of Burgundian quality pyramid. At the top end the norms will create a new category of single cru – DOCG estate wines from the hills. One step down will be wines from the same area but without single cru designation. Wines from outside the prestige DOCG zone altogether will be classed as Soave DOC.The proposal has the merit of getting to the root of one of the major quality issues, the all too evident discrepancy between the viticultural potential of the tufaceous hills of the Classico zone above the villages of Soave and Monteforte d'Alpone and the flat arable lands tagged onto the DOC by the notorious laws of 1968. It it this area which today produces three quarters of the grapes of the denomination. The proposals have not, however, been greeted with unanimous approval by producers. The most vociferous of its critics, Roberto Anselmi, has fiercely condemned the proposed norms for not going further in imposing quality viticulture in the proposed DOCG areas and for fudging the crucial issue of yields (hence his departure from the DOC).

AZIENDE AGRICOLE MUST SHOW THE WAY

Whether the new norms, which should come into force with the 2001 vintage, will lead to effective restructuring or simply create a series of ambiguous sub-denominations remains to be seen. The key point about the DOCG, though, is that it puts the onus firmly on the Aziende Agricole, the grower-producers, to provide the lead for the future. The question is, are they up to it? There are sound reasons for an affirmative reply. The number of winemaking estates in the Classico area has increased significantly over the past 10 years as growers who previously sold grapes to the cooperatives have turned to making and bottling their own wines. If you leaf through this year's Gambero Rosso you will find reviews of 18 Soave estates; in the 1991 edition there were just six.

Standards, too, have increased considerably. Returning to the Gambero Rosso, besides Pieropan's white wine of the year, an unprecedented three wines won the coveted 'tre bicchieri' award this year, and good quality new entries include Tamellini, Bogoni and Fattori & Graney, all of whom have come out with impressive debut vintages in the last two years. Soave has never offered such a wide selection of wines of genuine interest.A dose of realism is needed, however, to put these trends into perspective. While the number of estate wines is increasing, the Aziende Agricole's share of the total annual production of 60 million bottles remains a drop in the wine lake. Even in the Classico area the vast majority of the grapes harvested finish up in the melting pot of the cooperatives and, although there are interesting new estates on the scene, there are just three producers with a proven track record at the very top level: Anselmi, Gini and Pieropan.

The existing viticulture in Soave needs serious examination. The vineyard is the weak link in the production chain of the cooperatives and big bottlers, and it is also the Achilles heel of many small estates. The overall effect on quality of the declassification of grapes from the plain is arguable. What ought to provide food for thought from the quality angle, though, is that even serious estates from the Classico area often need to thin their crops drastically to arrive at the legal limit of 140 hectolitres per hectare, a yield which is still higher than that for humble spumante base wines in any other part of the country. The issue of yields is related to the traditional pergola training. Roberto Anselmi began French-style, high density, low yielding guyot vineyards 20 years ago, but very few have followed his example. At the opposite extreme, Stefano Inama's top selection Vigneto du Lot comes from a plot planted on a system inspired by the canopy management theories of Dr. Richard Smart, which consists of three-metre long double cordons and astounding yields of 7–8 kg per vine. The Consorzio, with an eye towards cost-cutting mechanisation as well as quality, is in favour of guyot, cordon spur or casarsa training.

PERGOLA PROBLEMS

Other producers argue that it is not the pergola in itself which is the problem, but its misuse. Sandro Gini makes what is without a shadow of doubt today's top Soave from the 80-year old pergola-trained vines of the Contrada Salvarenza vineyard, and Leonildo Pieropan's splendid wines come from pergolas adapted to permit high density planting and substantially reduced yields.Perhaps the most serious reservation about the Aziende Agricole's readiness to create a new order in is the question of winemaking styles. Prior to the new wave of estate wines, you always knew what to expect from a bottle of Soave. This is no longer true. A number of producers have embarked on the use of barriques, with results which range from the discrete nuances of Gini's Contrada Salvarenza to the upfront effect of La Cappucina's San Brizio or Suavia's Le Rive. An equal number eschew the use of new oak on principle and Arturo Stocchetti at the Cantina del Castello has returned to traditional, larger oak casks for his Acini Soavi.

Cold maceration is a fairly common practice, but Stefano Inama and Giovanni Tessari at Ca'Rugate are both experimenting with skin contact at natural temperatures which has an effect on colour and gives wines a phenolic character. Other producers use percentages of lightly dried grapes to beef up their wines – Pra's Colle San Antonio and Portinari's Vigna Albare are particularly successful examples – and Stefano Inama goes as far as using botrytis-affected grapes.

Then there is the question of varieties. The DOC offers the option of blending with up to 30% Chardonnay, but on the whole producers have been shy of straying from the local Garganega. Roberto Anselmi, however, is convinced that the future lies with complex, personalised multi-grape blends. Another minority, including Pieropan, support the interesting but rather unreliable Trebbiano di Soave. 'Voglio stupire!' says Stefano Inama. 'I want to amaze.' And you can sympathise with the desire of young producers to kick against the mediocrity of industrial Soave and establish their own personal styles. The risk is that the diversity and lack of typicity become too great for the DOC(G) to accommodate and result in the emigration of trend-setting wines towards an upmarket IGT category. There is also a suspicion that some of the newer estates have been distracted by the idea of making a Soave which is different rather than making a Soave which is better, and that somewhere along the line the elegance and subtle floral-mineral character of this quintessentially Veronese white are getting lost.

STATE PRODUCERS, LABELS AND WINES

Soave may be labelled 'Classico' or 'Superiore' or both, but since producers use the terms inconsistently this is an unreliable guide to style or quality. More important is the distinction between basic Soave and the cellar or vineyard selections which all the major estates produce.

BASIC LABEL

This is the category in which estate wines have less of an edge over the equivalent bottlings from a good négociant, and especially in difficult vintages many can be disappointingly thin and vegetal. Best to drink through the spring and summer and in most cases as young as possible. Recommendations: Bogoni, Ca'Rugate, Fattori & Graney, Gini, Pieropan, Pra, Suavia.

SPECIAL SELECTIONS

These wines have greater body and character. They generally improve with a year's bottle age and can often show surprising longevity. Wines at this level are currently excellent value for money. Recommendations: Anselmi (IGT Veneto) – Capitel Foscarino and Capitel Croce; Cantina del Castello – Acini Soavi and Monte Pressoni; Ca'Rugate – Montefiorentine; Gini – La Frosca and Contrada Salvarenza; Inama – Vigneto du Lot; La Cappuccina – San Brizio; Pieropan – La Rocca and Calvarino; Portinare – Vigna Albare and Vigna Ronchetti; Pra – Monte Grande and Colle San Antonio; Suavia – Monte Carbonare and Le Rive; Tamellini – Le Bine and Anguane.

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