When asked to list the great whites of the world, few would include Soave, but as JIM BUDD reports, sights here are firmly fixed on raising the quality bar.
STANDING with Stefano Inama at the top of the Foscarino vineyard on a warm September evening and surveying the south-facing slopes carpeted with vines, it’s easy to believe him when he says, ‘This is one of the great white wine vineyards of the world… Notice that the leaves here are moving. There is always a slight breeze at the top of the col, while just a few metres away they are still.’ Of course, there is a gulf between commodity Soave and the Soaves made by top producers such as Anselmi, Pieropan and Inama, but then the same can be said for Chablis, Rioja and Bordeaux. However, that gulf seems particularly stark in Soave. For example, Inama’s full-flavoured, characterful Vigneti di Foscarino 2000 has nothing in common with the bland, anonymous, slightly lemony wine that many people associate with Soave.
Having never visited Soave before I was unprepared for the many steep-sloped vineyards in the Classico zone and the pretty, eponymous walled town dominated by its intact castello. Bearing in mind how much Châteauneuf-du-Pape benefits from the few fragments of the papal castle that remain, Soave is clearly missing a marketing trick here.
Garganega is the chief grape variety in the region and it must constitue 70% of all Soaves. The rest can be made up of Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay, but Stefano Inama is forthright about this practice: ‘To blend with Chardonnay is crazy. The appellation should be limited to local varieties. The people who designed the regulations are moronic.’
From the 2002 vintage there will be a new denomination: Soave Superiore DOCG. The existence of the new DOCG is largely the achievement of Aldo Lorenzoni, the dynamic director of the Soave Consorzio group of producers. ‘When I was appointed four years ago, I was pessimistic about the future of Soave. Now I am much more optimistic. It is important to differentiate between the quality producers and those who make ordinary wine,’ he says.
The new DOCG covers all the hillside vineyards. Yields will be limited to 70hl/ha and both the state of vineyards and the resulting wine will have to be judged worthy of DOCG status.
The next tier down will be DOC Soave Classico, from the arc of hills around Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone; and Soave Colli Scaligeri, a new DOC that covers the surrounding hills. Here the maximum yield will be 98hl/ha. Finally, the vines on the plain will be DOC Soave, with a permitted maximum of 105hl/ha. Lorenzoni estimates that this year there will only be about 100ha of vineyard that will be used for DOCG, but that this will increase to 1,000ha by 2005.
Since this is Italy it is perhaps not surprising that establishing a DOCG in Soave has come at a cost, in that it has split the growers. Some are enthusiastic about the new appellation, while others believe that it has all been too rushed and that the quality will not be there to justify the elevation to DOCG.
Teresita Pieropan says she has no great enthusiasm for the DOCG as it stands. ‘The area is too big. It should just be restricted to the Classico area – the Soave and Monteforte hills. It is being introduced too quickly. There should have been a five-year programme, giving the vines time to adapt. It just isn’t possible for a vine to produce 40% less in one year. The other problem is the market. Is it ready for good-quality Soaves and prepared to pay 30% more for it?’
Bucking the system
Long-time quality producer Roberto Anselmi has decided to label his wines IGT and stop using the Soave denomination in protest at vineyards using the pergola system being allowed into the DOCG.
‘It’s not a system for quality,’ says his daughter Lisa. ‘It encourages high yields, producing grapes that are too big and long. If the pergola is banned we may come back.’ Given the large area under pergola, it seems likely that the Anselmi ‘Soaves’ will be IGT for some time to come.
Sandro Gini also thinks that the change has come too quickly, but says that the DOCG is a good move. ‘It is important to distance the best wines from the wider production of Soave.’ Stefano Inama agrees. ‘It is better to be inside making it work, than to be outside criticising.’
Whatever the efforts of the private growers, 70% of Soaves are produced by cooperatives, so they have a big stake in the quality and image of the wines. Fortunately, however, there are investments in quality in this sector. The Cantina di Soave, which makes 25% of all Soave DOC and 37% of Soave Classico, has just spent Euro8million on a new winery with the aim of producing quality wine. The winery has an experimental vineyard attached, planted with a large number of different varieties and clones.
Bruno Trentini, director general of the Cantina, says, ‘The cooperatives are trying to work together more and more, and we now have an unofficial consortium in the Verona area.’ Also, in January 2001, the marketing arm of Sartori and Cantina Colognola ai Colli merged.
As Garganega has a delicate flavour and is not a highly aromatic variety, the chances are that, if it were made in Australia or New Zealand, Soave would be bottled with a screwcap. Certainly any cork taint stands out. At one coop, two of the four bottles put up to taste were corked and replacements had to be fetched.
the IGT way out
Unfortunately, given Soave’s desire to improve its image, there will be few top producers prepared to take the risk and use screwcaps. Furthermore, Italian regulations insist on natural cork for DOC Classico and DOCG wines. However, being IGTs, Roberto Anselmi’s ‘Soaves’ escape the mandatory cork requirements and he is apparently discussing putting these into screwcap for the UK market.
Hopefully DOCG Soave Superiore will be a success, justify its denomination and lift the wines’ reputation. Top quality Soaves have real personality and can age well, too. As always, the most important name on the label will be the producer’s, irrespective of how the wine is classified.
Jim Budd is a freelance wine writer.
All Soave must have a minimum of 70% Garganega, while the rest can be made up of Trebbiano di Soave, related to Verdicchio in the Marches, and Chardonnay. Other white varieties, such as Pinot Bianco, may make up 5%.
There is, however, a consensus that Garganega is the best variety here. In fact, many producers only use Garganega and steadfastly avoid Chardonnay, which ripens faster and tends to lack personality. Garganega can make still or sparkling wine, from dry to sweet. It’s very vigorous, easily producing 200 hl/ha on fertile plains, but in order to retain character the yield must be kept low.
Tendone or pergola are traditional, although there is a move to trellised vineyards to reduce yields, but some quality-minded producers, such as Suavia, believe the pergola system is best suited for the hillsides of Soave, and that quality can be achieved by opening up the canopy and by green harvesting.
TOP SOAVE PRODUCERS
Anselmi: nominally IGT but really top quality Soave; EnW
Coffele: family producer now run by dynamic younger generation; Maj
Fasoli Gino: an organic producer and emerging star; Vro
Gini: range of good wines; J&B
Inama: one of the leaders; Wtd
La Cappuccina: organic producer; BGr
Pieropan: long-term standard bearer making benchmark Soave; Lib
Suavia: family estate run by sisters; Bib