The wines of Soave in Italy have improved markedly over the past decade, after a change in winemaking approach. For publication in week of 5 June 2017
A couple of decades ago Soave was a thin white with a low price tag that one drank young because it was cheap and fresh. But over the past two decades or so Soave’s producers have changed the wine’s style and character to the point where it has become one of the best whites in Italy.
Much of the work has centred on improved viticulture practices, a focus on quality rather than quantity, and the identification of special plots that allow for production of single-vineyard wines.
The Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave represents winegrowers in the region. In partnership with UK Master of Wine Sarah Abbott the consortium has worked to confront outdated perceptions of Soave, and to introduce buyers and media to the current versions of quality Soave.
The general manager of the Soave Consorzio, Aldo Lorenzoni, emphasised the hard work that has been happening in Soave over the past decade. “Soave is a historic wine region that has been able to renew itself,” he said, noting the wide range of young winemakers producing wines “with new, exciting interpretations”.
Soave has about 7,000 hectares of vines and produces about 40 million bottles a year. Main export markets include Germany, the UK and the USA. Only about 16 per cent of Soave is consumed in Italy.
The region, which only produces white wine, is in north-east Italy, stretching east of the city of Verona to the foothills of the Lessini Mountains. Soave has DOC and DOCG designations, the latter also known as Soave Superiore. Both are sub-divided into general and “Classico” designations for wines produced in the heartland of the Soave region.
Soave Classico covers the area from the western edge of the town of Soave to Monteforte d’Alpone in the east of the province, and designates the oldest or most classic “zones”. The western part of the region effectively joins the eastern edge of the Valpolicella DOC. Think of Soave Classico as a patchwork of small vineyards. Many are little more than a hectare in size.
Garganega is the main grape of Soave and can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent in both DOC and DOCG wines. For Soave DOC the other part of the blend can be Trebbiano di Soave, also known locally as Verdicchio and Nestrano, up to 30 per cent. Yields for DOC wines must be no more than 14 tonnes per hectare and wines must have a minimum alcohol of 10.5 per cent.
DOCG Soave also contains mainly Garganega, though the other 30 per cent can include Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Trebbiano di Soave. In France Trebbiano di Soave is known as Ugni Blanc, where it is used to make cognac. It is different from the Trebbiano Toscano variety grown in Tuscany in northern Italy.
Garganega can produce a range of styles from dry and fresh through to a sweet nectar known as Recioto di Soave. Aldo Lorenzoni said an on-going study of sub-zones in the region and cultivation methods had boosted knowledge of “how truly expressive the Garganega grape can be”.
Mists from the Po River valley influence the region’s climate. Humidity can create problems for winemakers because of mould and similar fungal diseases. Garganega’s thick skin helps it resist disease. The Soave Consortio believes that its wines are “a happy combination” of terroir and the Garganega grape.
Soils in vineyards are less fertile than the soils in the alluvial plains, where food crops are grown. Some vineyards were ancient sea-beds. The soils contain a high proportion of limestone that produce fuller, more fruit-forward wines.
Other vineyards such as those in the eastern area near Monteforte d’Alpone are on land formed from volcanic eruptions millennia ago. These soils produce what wine expert Jancis Robinson calls “steelier” wines.
John Szabo, a wine writer and Master Sommelier in Canada, recently published a book, Volcanic Wines, about wines around the world grown near volcanoes. He discussed the notion of “minerality” in Soave wines at a conference in Soave township, saying he associated the concept with rain on hot stones but asserted that “minerality is not an aroma”. “It’s a salty taste sensation noticeable in wines grown near the sea.” Acids also provoke salty sensations in wine, he said.
Alessandro Brizi, a noted Italian sommelier, said “minerality” was not mentioned in Emile Peynaud’s classic book The Taste of Wine, published 1983, and it did not appear in The Oxford Companion to Wine in 2006. He suggested the term had been “misused in marketing campaigns”. “Mineral wines have a romantic image that suggests they are handmade by artisans and able to reveal the mystery of the soil, with the winemaker as the magical mediator of this enchantment.”
Minerality probably means wines with high acidity and low terpenes (the floral flavours associated with Muscat), offering distinct saline aromas with hints of iodine or lemon and a zesty sensation in the mouth.
The wines of Coffele, Corte Moschina and Franchetto represent excellent examples of great Soave, with masses of white fruit aromas while young and pleasing roundness and balance in the mouth, yet able to mature into wines capable of greatness. Last month the 2015 Franchetto La Capelina was named the best white wine from the Veneto region at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards.
One of the key debates in Soave concerns the ideal trellis system for growing grapes. About 85 per cent of estates use the Pergola Veronese style. Professor Maurizio Gily said this style protected young fruit from frost and older fruit from sunburn, and was the best approach. “It works very well and can give us great wine,” he said.
The World Biodiversity Association has partnered with the Soave Consorzio to focus on a European Community goal of sustainable development. Soave is the only Italian consortium to use biodiversity as a measurement tool to assess the impact of grape growing on water and air quality. Biodiversity becomes a form of “bridge” that leads growers towards the goal of sustainability of the entire production system, the consortium said. “Sustainable viticulture must ensure acceptable levels of income while at the same time maintaining the environmental quality of the vineyard.”
Footnote: The Summer of Soave is being organised in many parts of the world from June to August, aimed at consumer education through tastings and promotions.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consortio Soave, who provided meals and accommodation.