From its hilltop location, the Castello di Soave and its crenellated 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-drinking, food-friendly white. Soave is poised to regain its position as one of Italy’s most popular white wines.
An Easy Wine to Love
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 (pictured, right), 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 as well as 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 spicy cuisines of India, Thailand and China.
Two Sides to Soave
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. Christian Scrinzi, head winemaker at Bolla, says that the historic Bolla winery 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 is releasing a new Soave under screwcap called Re Midas. At its $10 retail price, the producers 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.”
Soave x 3
Although Soave is Largely known in the United States as a dry white wine, the region’s winemakers also craft spumante (sparkling wines) and recioto (sweet wines made in the passito method).