From its hilltop location, the Castello di Soave and its crenelated towers boast commanding views of the vast flatlands east of Verona in northern Italy. Like other examples of medieval military architecture, the castle’s central tower occupies its highest point and is surrounded by multiple layers of walled protection that drape down in elevation and outward in circumference. At the summit is a fortified wall that encases the precious keep, designed to protect a mere handful of occupants; midway on the hill, there is a tight protective barrier; and at the foot of the castle is the outermost defensive wall, which skirts the perimeter of the sleepy town of Soave.
The Castello, a postcard-perfect symbol of the town, is also a compelling metaphor for the eponymous white wine that put this tiny corner of Italy on the world enological map.
Arguably, more than any other Italian wine, Soave is characterized by a pyramid-shaped production philosophy that puts a rigorously limited number of family producers at the apex and large, commercially driven cooperatives at the base. Depending on your point of view, Soave’s class-versus-mass dynamic is either its strongest selling point or its biggest weakness.
“What we really have are two faces of Soave,” says Leonildo Pieropan, who runs the acclaimed Pieropan winery with his wife and two sons. “Soave totals 16,400 acres of vines, but only 1,200 acres are in the hands of small family wineries. The rest belongs to big interests and cooperatives. We represent 7% of Soave production, they represent 93%.”
This fascinating juxtaposition is fueling momentum for this easy-drink-ing, food-friendly white. Soave is poised to regain its position as one of Italy’s most popular white wines.
Fresh and food-friendly
Soave is characterized by a small area of hillside production (under the Soave Classico denomination) that is surrounded by a large swath of flatlands for the production of Soave (without the word “Classico” on the bottle). Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as Soave’s popularity grew in the United States, farmers pushed deep into those flatlands, planting grapevines along the way, in order to keep up with the staggering demand. Ultimately, so much Soave was made available that prices dropped and the wine became sadly identified as a low-cost, low-quality product.
“When I go to the United States to promote Soave, I often notice that an older generation doesn’t want to touch it,” says Antonio Fattori of Fattori, who produces three excellent expressions of Soave. “But the young generation loves it because Soave today transmits a fresh, new image.”
Among small producers who make a few thousand bottles and large wineries that operate in the millions of cases, Soave is embracing a new era of quality. High-tech, oxygen-free winemaking is being employed in some cases, while more familiar but sophisticated techniques like long macerations and extended yeast contact are being tried in others. The result is a versatile portfolio of whites: from fresh, easy-to-drink wines for picnics and outdoor lunches to elaborate, oak-aged Soaves that can pair with shellfish or white meat.
“Soave is that fallback blue suit in the closet,” says Leonildo Pieropan. “It’s the wine you can count on to pair with anything.” Made with Garganega grapes (sometimes a small percentage of Trebbiano di Soave is added to the blend), Soave offers a naturally rich consistency and freshness that is never too biting or acidic. Depending on the vineyard site, it can deliver dry mineral tones as well as stone fruit, honey and dried sage.
Thanks to its structure and its generally noninvasive personality, Soave is often seen as the perfect pairing partner to the exotic and spicy cuisines of India, Thailand and China.
“My favorite Soave pairings are with local seasonal ingredients,” says Pieropan.
United we vinify
The question today is how can Soave keep its momentum and meet growing demand without making the mistakes of the past? Most producers agree that the answer is in finding a common goal, no matter where they figure on the production pyramid. “We need to think of what unites us, not divides us, and we need to move forward in small careful steps,” says Meri Tessari, who runs the 35-acre Suavia winery, founded in 1982, with her three sisters.
New groups have emerged to make sure Soave stays on track. They include the Vignaioli del Soave association, the Soave Cru group and the powerful Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave (the main winemakers’ association), which has been influential in promoting the Soave territory and drafting legislation to protect the denomination.
Soave’s variety of soil types means each turn of the hill in Soave Classico results in a different style, with varying levels of acidity, concentration and aromatic intensity. Soft-spoken Sandro Gini overlooks the Salvarenza cru near Monteforte d’Alpone in Soave Classico. His vineyards are comprised of dark, volcanic earth; Gini’s wines are characterized by a soft, yielding mouthfeel and notes of spring flower and stone fruit. A few miles away in Terrarossa di Roncà, Fattori’s wines benefit from red and yellow soils that add a dry sensation of minerality. “The real beauty of Soave is in the versatility and great dignity of the Garganega grape,” says Fattori.
“Our goal today is to understand market changes and offer more particular styles of Soave to appeal to different consumers,” says Christian Scrinzi, head winemaker at Bolla. The historic Bolla winery, credited with making Soave America’s favorite white wine several decades ago, hopes to reconnect with its consumers thanks to its varied portfolio of Garganega-based wines.
Along with these many microexpressions, Soave is home to Italy’s largest cooperative winery, the Cantina di Soave, which counts 2,200 farmers, 15,000 acres and an annual production of 30 million bottles (of which 300,000 bottles is Soave Classico). Cantina di Soave is releasing a new Soave under screwcap called Re Midas. At its $10 retail price, they predict demand will reach one million bottles in 2013. The ambitious goal is six million bottles in five years.
“We’re betting on Soave as the next big Italian white,” says Cantina di Soave Export Director Luca Sabatini. “It’s the new Pinot Grigio.”
12 Top Picks from Soave
92 Inama 2009 Vigneto du Lot (Soave Classico) $30.
This gorgeous Soave Classico boasts barrique-inspired aromas of toasted almond and vanilla cream with loads of ripe melon, peach, apricot and honey. Bright golden in color, this wine offers a silky, smooth feeling on the close. Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct. —M.L.
92 Pieropan 2009 La Rocca (Soave Classico); $30.
Past vintages of La Rocca have demonstrated Soave’s potential for cellar aging, and this beautiful expression from the excellent 2009 vintage also shows a bright future. The wine is redolent of yellow roses and stone fruit and offers a playfully spicy note at the end. Imported by Empson (USA) Ltd. Editor’s Choice. — M.L.
91 Gini 2008 Contrada Salvarenza Vecchie Vigne (Soave Classico); $35.
The name Salvarenza comes from a legend in which a damsel, Renza, needed to be saved (salva) from imminent danger. This vineyard cru expression shows wonderful intensity of peach, melon and citrus aromas and would pair well with asparagus flan and cheese sauce. Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. —M.L.
91 Fattori 2010 Motto Piane (Soave); $NA.
Motto Piane delivers a huge and sophisticated style (thanks to late-harvest fruit) with enormous intensity and thick glycerin streaks visible down the side of the glass. Aromas here include crushed white peppercorn, dried sage, almond paste and ripe fruit. —M.L.
89 Monte Tondo 2008 Foscarin Slavinus (Soave Classico); $29.
Here’s a rich and generous Soave Classico that opens with ripe melon and candied fruit aromas. Thanks to the wine’s density and length, it could be paired with spicy Thai or Vietnamese dishes. Imported by Clyde Thomas. —M.L.
89 Suavia 2007 Le Rive (Soave Classico); $44.
Run by an all-female team, Suavia has fashioned a rich, opulent Le Rive that has obviously benefited from careful oak aging. There are deep layers of candied fruit, honeysuckle and dried sage. Imported by Vias Imports. —M.L.
89 Cantina di Soave 2009 Rocca Sveva Castelcerino (Soave Classico Superiore); $20.
The success of this wine is the playful contrast between its fresh acidity and its naturally rich density. Rocca Sveva represents the top Soave expression from Cantina di Soave. Clean aromas of melon and peach characterize the nose. Imported by MW Imports. —M.L.
88 Bolla 2010 Tufaie (Soave Classico); $13.
Tufaie gets its name from the chalky tufa stone deposits that characterize its vineyard soils. That quality adds a pristine, dry quality to the wine that works nicely with its sweet melon, sage and stone fruit aromas. Imported by Banfi Vintners. —M.L. Best Buy.
88 Filippi 2008 Vigne della Brà (Soave); $NA.
From the Colli Scaligeri area of Soave, this vineyard designate white wine delivers warm and sophisticated aromas of stone fruit, sage and melon. The wine’s texture is velvety with a touch of bitter almond on the close. Imported by Omniwines Distribution. —M.L.
88 Marcato 2010 Le Barche Cru Monte Tenda (Soave Classico); $15.
From a small vineyard cru in the Soave Classico area, this luminous white wine offers a smooth approach and generous tones of stone fruit, honey and sage. Imported by V.E.D.I. Vintners Estates Direct Importers. —M.L.
88 Corte Moschina 2009 I Tarai (Soave); $24.
This rich and compelling Soave offers thick, persistent aromas of stone fruit, dried spice and almond with a thick, glycerine-rich mouthfeel. Pair this wine with white meat or creamy shellfish. Imported by Wines of the World. —M.L.
88 Le Battistelle 2009 Battistelle (Soave Classico); $30.
Le Battistelle offers a thick and generous Soave Classico with loads of yellow fruit and floral intensity. It’s a clean wine with a refreshing mouthfeel. Imported by Bonhomie Wine Imports. —M.L.