Potential of aged Soave

This week we visit Soave where a conference of journalists and producers heard about Soave’s potential for ageing. For publication in week starting 20 May 2019.

Soave is one of Italy’s best-known wine regions. Soave is also one of the country’s best whites for cellaring. A conference called Soave Stories this week celebrated this quality wine and noted its potential for ageing.

Soave vines.jpgThe conference was held in the majestic Palazzo del Capitano, a palace in the old town of Soave. A six-metre wall surrounds the old town and separates it from the vineyards that seem to flow in all directions. Soave sits at the foot of the Lessini mountains. From a distance the palace dominates the town, which looks like a classic medieval walled city.

The Soave region only produces whites. It is in north-east Italy, about 30km east of the city of Verona, and stretches to the foothills of the Lessini Mountains. Soave became a DOC in 1968. It also has a DOCG designation known as Soave Superiore. Both are sub-divided into general and “Classico” designations, the latter applying to wines produced in the heartland of the Soave region.

The conference began with a tasting of wines from 25 local producers. Wines were grouped into those grown on limestone or volcanic soils. The influence of the latter will be discussed in next week’s column.

Each producer offered a current and older vintage. The latter was typically from somewhere between 2008 and 2011 or 2012.

Later Kerin O’Keefe, Italian editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, and Sandro Gini, chairperson of Consorzio Soave (the group that represents winemakers from the region), discussed the potential of Soave wines for ageing.

Garganega is Soave’s main grape and can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend, though it is common to find 100 per cent Garganega. For Soave DOC up to 30 per cent of the blend can be Chardonnay or Trebbiano di Soave, also known locally as Nestrano. 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 up to 30 per cent can include Trebbiano di Soave. In France Trebbiano di Soave is known as Ugni Blanc, where it is used to make cognac.

An earlier column discussed ageing potential in Italy’s Marche region, where locals have advocated for the beauty of aged Verdicchio, the main white grape from the region.

Interestingly, both regions embrace the same grape. Research dating from 1929 showed that Trebbiano di Soave and Verdicchio in the Marche are the same grape.

Dr Ian D’Agata, author of the seminal book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, wrote that the only white varieties in Italy that could match Verdicchio’s versatility and potential for great wines were Veneto’s Garganega and Campania’s Fiano.

Trebbiano di Soave is different from the Trebbiano Toscano variety grown in Tuscany in northern Italy. The latter was originally allowed to be part of the blend, but experience showed that it made inferior wines and eventually the Toscano variety was banned, Kerin O’Keefe said.

“In the 1970s Soave’s reputation was tarnished because producers relied more on Trebbiano Toscano and less on Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave to increase production.”

From the early 2000s producers chose quality over quantity and focused on the blend of Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave. “By 2009 a full-blown renaissance was underway as producers sought to make quality wines that express the terroir and have ageing potential,” O’Keefe said.

The tasting proved that Soave can be wonderful when the wines are cellared well. But the same question arises in both regions. Do local providers have enough old bottles in their cellars? My research showed that it is generally not the case in the Marche, nor in Soave, apart possibly from the large co-operatives.

Soave DOC consists of about 7,000 hectares. The region has the highest viticulture density in Italy, with almost 3,000 small family-owned estates. Each has an average of about two hectares. Many small estates make fewer than 50,000 bottles a year. They run as small businesses that do not have the cash flow to keep museum stock.

The question must be asked: Who will cellar young Soave for up to a decade so that people can enjoy these majestic aged wines? The most likely candidates are restaurants and individuals.

Restaurants mark up the cost of wine on their lists, often savagely. A column from Croatia in April noted that restaurants in Dubrovnik charged up to 400 per cent on what they paid for the wine, and that was for recent vintages — from 4 Euro to more than 55.

In the UK a wine that a medium-range restaurant purchased for Euro 4 will be sold for 30-50 Euro / pounds. Why such a high mark-up? Traditionally restaurants have argued it was because they had to be responsible for cellaring and also cope with the occasional corked bottle. That was justification for high charges.

Other factors like high rents in London also come into play, plus the reality that some restaurants lose money on food and so need to make up the difference with wine.

Most wine suppliers will compensate restaurants for dud bottles, so the argument that prices have to be high to allow for faults is easily dismissed. And modern closures like screwcaps and diam corks eliminate many wine faults.

So the only justification is storage costs. Given the already high costs some restaurants impose on wine, imagine what wine will cost in London if restaurants start selling decade-old Soave, given the mark-ups they impose for recent vintages?

What then is the answer if, like me, you love old Soaves? Individuals need to cellar these fine whites. One option is to cellar half bottles, because wine in 375ml bottles tends to age more quickly than in 750ml containers. It is the consumer’s choice. My choice is to spend the 40 Euros or pounds that restaurants charge to buy a high-quality wine in a bottle shop to drink at home.

map Soave.pngThe Soave region is shown at the right of the map, with Lake Garda at left. It exports more still whites than any of Italy’s regions. The Soave region produces more than 50 million bottles a year and about four in five of those are sold abroad in more than 80 countries. Only about 16 per cent of Soave is consumed in Italy. Main export markets include the UK, the US, Japan and Germany.

If you would like to know more about the 33 Soave cru, see this link.

In his 2016 book Volcanic Wines, Canadian master sommelier John Szabo notes that the oldest civilisations of the Mediterranean developed around volcanoes. Volcanoes could be creative as well as destructive, Szabo wrote. They could be a “huge plough which nature uses to overturn the bowels of the earth”.

Volcanoes create a variety of soils. These in turn produce a range of intricate wines, which will be discussed next week.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consortio Soave, who provided flights, meals and accommodation.

Words: 1,111

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