Last month, I wrote about the white wines of Friuli because as summer approaches, many of us are on the lookout for tasty and interesting white wines. This month, I would like to continue talk about white wines from Italy, this time from their neighbors in the Veneto.
The Veneto has several wines that are world famous including the sparkling wine Prosecco as well as the famous red wines of Valpolicella and Amarone. In fact, the Veneto produces more bottles of DOC wine than any other region in Italy. Unfortunately, not all of it is really worth drinking. But, there is also a plethora of well-priced and enjoyable white wines from this region worth buying and taking pleasure in. One white in particular will be discussed here: Soave (pronounced SWAH-vay). Soave is the third most popular Italian wine produced (after Chianti and Asti) and the most popular white wine of Italy. Soave is usually served dry but sparkling versions exist.
The Veneto is located in Northeastern Italy. It includes the cities of Venice and Verona and also the surrounding countryside. Just south of Friuli, bordered on the east by the Adriatic, the Veneto has a mountainous north and lower plains in the south. The Romans called this region Venetia that gave both the area and the city of Venice its names. During the middle ages, Venice became a major trading post that bridged the wealth of Europe and Asia.
No one knows for certain where the ubiquitous name Soave comes from. One theory attributes it to the famous Italian poet Dante in the 13th Century. Another theory says that Romeo drank it after a tryst with Juliet calling the wine “Soave”. In fact, the poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio is quoted as saying, “It is the wine of youth and love so that it’s not for me, since I am now loaded down with years and was ever a discreet lover. But, I drink it in homage to the past. If it can’t restore me to the age of twenty, it can at least reawaken memories of that time.”
Thirty percent of the DOC wine produced in the Veneto is Soave. Originally a narrow strip just east of Verona, the recognized geographical limits of Soave date back to 1926. With soils built on ancient volcanic ranges, the soil in the traditional area is mineral rich and well drained. The soils provide vines with little nutrients and the plants have to dig deep to find water. The grapes, especially Gargenega, also tend to ripen later, giving them plenty of time to slowly reach maturity. It is the vines struggle to produce fruit, putting all of its effort into a limited amount of grapes, that creates quality wine in traditional Soave as in the rest of the world.
Soave obtained official DOC status in 1968. That classification was both a blessing and a curse for this region. The demand for Soave in America and internationally was increasing. In restaurants and supermarkets, Soave is an easy name to remember when buying. One large producer, Bolla became quite successful in the American market producing inexpensive Soave. Other producers quickly followed suit. Many of these larger producers exerted pressure to increase the recognized geographic limits in the zone in order to meet demand. The vineyard areas spread into the more productive (but less quality for wine) fertile areas. More than 10,000 acres were added to the original Soave zone. In addition, many producers in search of quantity at any cost increased mechanization to increase the yields from the grapes.
Most of the grapes grown in this region are thought to be indigenous to the area. Soave was traditionally blended from Gargenega and Trebbiano di Soave grapes. The majority of the wine being from the Garganega grape with also up to 30% being Trebbiano di Soave. The large producers also forced changes in the allowed blend of the grapes. Non-indigenous grapes were allowed to be used instead of the more difficult to grow Trebbiano di Soave. Trebbiano Toscana, an easier to grow varietal that produced higher yields is permissible. Even Chardonnay is acceptable, which in the Vento produces a non-descript white wine that adds some weight to the wine but little else.
While Trebbiano di Soave can produce a lovely aromatic wine, other versions of Trebbiano seem to be much more non-descript and add nothing but volume to the wine. While Gargenega must still comprise 70% of the blend, Trebbiano di Soave, Trebbiano Tosaca, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanco are allowed up to 30% of the blend. Another 5% of local white varietals are also allowed as part of the 30%. As these other white grapes were blended into the wines, larger quantities of Soave could be produced, but the cost was measured in terms of quality and international reputation. Soave was becoming the white wine for parties and the mass markets. The reputations built by the truly grand Soaves were being smeared.
Recently, Soave Superiore has been elevated to the DOCG status. Therefore, the Soave Superiore wines are generally the best. Like many traditional DOC’s, the wine coming from the traditional heart of the production area can also carry the Classico labels. Hence, the Soave Superiore Classico wines are generally the cream of the crop. Less than 25% of the 6 million or so bottles produced every year carry the Classico designation. There is no required ageing for regular DOC Soave’s. There is, however, a 6 months requirement of ageing for the Superiore wines before release, and 24 months of ageing for the Riservas.
When choosing any wine it often helps to stick with some of the better producers and Soave is no different. There are many who make quality Soaves. To my mind, there are three who stand above the rest.
Perhaps, then, it is fitting, and oh so Italian, to start with a producer who no longer makes Soave. I am speaking about Roberto Anselmi. Anselmi was one of the leaders in the production of quality Soaves. Always a rebel, he battled the DOC laws for years demanding tighter restrictions on sources of grapes and qualities of the wine. He was and is dismayed at the liters of plonk being produced under the Soave label. Finally, in 2000, with the clout to not worry about being able to sell his wines without the name Soave on it, and as a protest, Anselmi voluntarily withdrew from the Soave appellation. Anselmi wrote a famous letter, which he published in a variety of newspapers, and trade journals, explaining that he was leaving the DOC. He chastised the industry for not maintaining the Soave quality levels.
Anselmi now labels his wines as Veneto IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica). This is Italy’s equivalent of table wine. In Italy, where flaunting the breaking of wine rules is considered bold and not frowned down upon as it is France, the result of this was to hurt the Soave designation more than the sales of Anselmi’s wine. His basic bottling called San Vincento is very good and available for a reasonable price usually under $15. The Capitel Foscarino is a world-class white wine; yet can be purchased for under $20. They also make a wonderful sweet dessert wine called I Capitel that is world class too. Anselmi prides himself on making excellent wines through great vineyard sites that are well cared for. Then the winemaker takes those grapes and does nothing in the winery to reduce the quality that the vineyards have provided.
Claudio and Sandro Gini make Soaves that need to be tasted. Along with Pieropan, these are the heights to which Soave reaches. Actually the basic bottling of their Soave is very good and well worthy drinking at under $15 on the back patio on a summer day. Where they really shine is the single vineyard bottling known as La Frosca, which can be purchased for around $20. From 50 years old vines, this Soave is not a simple wine. It is well structured with a depth of flavor and complexity. The wine does not go through malolactic fermentation (the quality that gives whites a buttery rounded edge) leaving these wines crisp and enticing. They also create an interesting barrique (smaller wooden barrel) aged wine known as Salvarenza, which is worth trying although, a bit more pricey at around $30. Perhaps this treatment makes the wine too international for some and hides the crisp acidity and refreshing flavors the Soave can offer.
The Soaves of Nino Pieropan are always among the best the region has to offer. Like Gini, the basic Soave offering is good and refreshing and worth buying at around $15. It is when tasting the single vineyard wines that you see his genius. The La Rocca and Calvarino single vineyard expressions of Soave are just fantastic. The Calvarino is crisp and vivacious and at around $25 a great value for this quality white wine. The La Rocca is aged in large oak barrels and is a rich velvety full-bodied Soave. It is a bit more expensive, often priced at $35 or so, but well worth the money. This wine stands up with any of the great white wines of the world. Both wines belong on any dinner table.
So what should a Soave experience provide for you? I would suggest going out and looking for Anselmi, Pieropan and Gini. Try their basic bottling. The 2006’s should be in the stores now. The 2005’s are still good for this summer. They should be pale yellow straw in color, clear and bright. The aromas should be delicate with floral tones, white flowers, maybe some pine and also look for some cantaloupe. These are dry wines that should be served cold. When drinking them, the melon fruit is noticeable and perhaps a mineral component too. The finish should be crisp and refreshing. They make wonderful aperitifs or go well with salads and light summer fare. Once you have established a benchmark for how good Soave can be, then experiment and try others. There are other good producers too. Inama comes to mind as another whose wines I have also enjoyed in the past.
But don’t stop with the basic bottlings. If your budget allows, buy a bottle of the more expensive single vineyard wines. I realize for some, $20 or $30 can be a lot to spend on a bottle of wine, especially an Italian white wine. Yet, if a white wine of this quality were from Napa or Burgundy, it would be well over $50 and closer to $100. The single vineyard Soave offerings will be rounder and fuller than the more basic Soaves. The nose on the single vineyard releases is perhaps a bit less flowery and more apples and melons. The taste flavors more of melons and some tropical fruits. These wines should be served at the dinner table. Salads, fish, or pasta are all great ideas for matching. They can stand up to a cream sauce nicely.
Truth be told though, I just as often prefer the regular bottling. Why? For me, that is what Soave is all about. Refreshing, slightly fruity, slightly mineral. A wine that I can contemplate if I choose, or else just enjoy on a warm summer evening. I like to say, it is proud to be what it is. These Soaves are not trying to be anything more than nature allowed them to be. And that is quite special in the right location and from the right producer.
I hope you enjoyed this journey through Soave wines. Please feel free to let me know your comments and especially how you enjoyed these Soaves.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.