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Returning to Soave
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 13, 2009
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Reputations change slowly in the wine business.  Many of my wine drinking friends have not touched a glass of Soave wine for years, some perhaps for decades.  True, Soave had become one of the many Italian wines from the 1950s through the 1970s and 1980s whose reputation suffered greatly--along with Verdicchio, Valpolicella, Bardolino, Chianti, Frascati, and Lambrusco--due to overproduction, vines being planted in unsuitable areas, and so forth.  It all began because wines had to be rushed to market to meet the demands of newly developing wine drinking countries, such as the USA.
 
That was then--but this is now.  Most of the wines I have just mentioned have improved greatly in the past two decades.  My recent trip to the charming, medieval, walled town of Soave, near Verona in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, confirmed my belief that excellent Soave wines--indeed, better than ever--are being produced today.  In fact, the best Soave producers are now making some of the best white wines in Italy, and the wines are selling at very attractive prices, because many consumers have not yet discovered how good they are.

Knowing how to find a good Soave starts with examining the bottle’s label.  Just as almost all of the best Chianti wines are made with grapes from the Chianti Classico region, invariably the best Soaves hail from the Soave Classico region, a hilly area between the two wine towns of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone (15 miles east of Soave), but mainly north of these two towns.  The hillside Soave Classico areas are made up mainly of volcanic soil, which reputedly contributes to the minerality present in these wines.

Actually, Soave wines have five different appellations:

Soave D.O.C.
Soave Colli Scaligeri D.O.C.
Soave Classico D.O.C.
Soave Superiore D.O.C.G.
Il Recioto Soave D.O.C.G.

The Il Recioto Soave is a sweet wine, and has practically no presence in the U.S. market.  The largest number of Soave wines carry the Soave DOC appellation.  Most of these wines are inexpensive, and are made from grapes in the plains area, a region delineated for Soave production after World War II, when the big producers of Soave perceived that the delimited Soave Classico zone could not meet their production needs. 

Soave Colli Scaligeri D.O.C. is a hillside zone outside of the Soave Classico zone.  Because it is a hillside area, Soave wines made from grapes in this D.O.C. zone are typically finer than Soave D.O.C. wines, but are usually not of the same quality as Soave Classico wines.  The appellation of Soave Superiore DOCG takes in both the Classico zone and the Soave Colli Scaligeri D.O.C.  Because it includes both areas, most of the best producers of Soave Classico avoid using the Soave Superiore appellation.  But you might find a few producers using the term Soave Superiore with the word Classico on the label, indicating that the wine indeed was made from Classico zone grapes. 

The bottom line--almost all of the finest Soave wines have the term “Classico” on the label.

About 50 million bottles of Soave DOC wines are produced each year, while 15 million bottles of Soave Classico are made annually.  The other three appellations contribute far fewer Soaves, each with only a few hundred thousand bottles annually.  Approximately 80% of all Soave wines are produced in co-ops, the largest of which is the very fine Cantina di Soave, which accounts for almost half of all Soave wines produced each year.  Right now, Cantina di Soave wines are practically non-existent in the U.S., but the Cantina’s Export Sales Director, Luca Sabatini, identified the U.S. as Cantina di Soave’s “next target,” and so we can look forward to some well-made, inexpensive Soaves from Cantina di Soave in the near future.

Most Soave wines are vinified in stainless steel tanks.  The few Soaves that are aged in wood, such as some Classico wines, use older wood to avoid any flavors of oak.

The main grape variety in all Soave wines is the Garganega, an indigenous white variety growing in the Veneto region, primarily around Verona and Vicenza.  The Garganega grape is related to (and might well be the same variety as) the Grecanico variety of Sicily and Southern Italy.  Garganega is a vigorous variety, and thus can easily over-produce, as it often does in the fertlile plains area around Soave.  This is one of the main reasons that Soave acquired a poor reputation in the 1950s through1980s time frame: excessively high yields led to the production of thin, neutral wines.

The best producers of Soave Classico wines today keep the yields seriously in check, and are making delicately-flavored Soaves with aromas and flavors of lemon, almond, and spice, and with lively acidity.  Because of their clean flavors, liveliness, and minerality, Soave wines, especially the Classicos, are ideal to have at the dinner table.

All Soave wines must contain a minimum of 70% Garganega; many Soave Classico wines are in fact 100 percent Garganega.  Trebbiano di Soave--considered far superior to the ubiquitous Trebbiano Toscano--is the variety most often blended with Garganega in today’s Soaves, because it adds acidity to the wine.  Typically, only about 10% of Trebbiano di Soave is added, when it is used.  Chardonnay  and Pinot Bianco (Blanc) are also permissible blending grapes in Soave, but are seldom used.

Just as in the Chianti region, where the humblest and least expensive wine is simply called Sangiovese, the Soave region’s simplest white wine is known as “Garganega.”

The Garganega variety is late-ripening, usually ripening in October--unusual for a white grape.  One annoying tendency that I noticed among a few producers is to produce Soave wines with excessively ripened grapes.  These wines usually exhibit a deep yellow, almost golden color and are invariably 14% or higher in alcohol (most Soave wines are in the 12.5 to 13.5% range).  I did not enjoy any of the super-ripened, higher-alcohol Soaves.  Doesn’t the world have enough of these wines on steroids already?  Fortunately, none of the finer Soave producers have adopted this method--so far.

Many Soave Classico producers make two or three Soave wines: their standard Soave Classico, which usually retails in the $15 to $20 price range, and at least one single-vineyard or “Special Selection” Soave, which can retail anywhere in the $25 to $50 price range.  The three most-renowned single-vineyards in the region are La Rocca (just north of the town of Soave), Foscarino and La Froscà (both of which are in the hillsides; Foscarino is north of Soave, and La Froscà northwest of Monteforte d’Alpone).

I tasted as many Soaves as I could during a week in early September, 2009.  Most of the wines were Classicos from the 2008, 2007, and 2006 vintages.  I particularly loved the freshness, crispness, and richness of the 2008 Soaves.  Many Soave producers maintain that Soave can age well, especially those made from old vines--and there are many old vines, up to 70 years old, in the Classico hillsides.  One producer poured his 1982, which I found to have too much oxidation, although a few other tasters enjoyed it.  Another producer, Gini, provided a vertical tasting of his best single-vineyard Soave, La Froscà, back to 1990.  I was particularly impressed with the Gini 1999 and 1997 La Froscà, both truly great wines, especially the 1997.  And so I do believe that the best Soave wines can age well for at least 12 years.  But most Soave wines, I think, are at their best in their first three years--with the potential exception of the more expensive single-vineyard Soaves.

Based on my tastings, I have compiled a list of my six favorite Soave producers, along with a larger group I place in my second tier.  One of my six favorites, Pieropan, I did not taste on this trip, but I have enjoyed Pieropan’s Soaves often enough in the past to realize that this producer is definitely in the top group of any Soave listing.  My six top Soave Classico producers, in alphabetical order, along with their top wines, are the following:

Coffele--Soave Classico Cà Visco
Gini--Soave Classico La Froscà
Inama--Soave Classico Vigneti di Foscarino
Pieropan--Soave Classico La Rocca
Pra--Soave Classico “Monte Grande”
Suavia--Soave Classico Monte Carbonare

These six wineries are all family-owned.  An interesting fact about Suavia is that it is being run by the three daughters of the proprietors.

Other fine Soave producers, mainly Classico, along with their top wines, include the following:

Cà Rugate--Soave Classico Monte Fiorentine
La Cappuccina--Soave “San Brizio”
Le Battistelle--Soave Classico “Montesei”
Le Mandolare--Soave Classico Il Roccolo or Monte Sella
Marcato--Soave Classico “Le Barche”
Nardello--Soave Classico Monte Zoppega
Portinari--Soave Classico Ronchetto
Tamellini--Soave Classico “Le Bine de Costiola”
T.e.s.s.a.r.i--Soave Classico “Le Bine Longhe di Costalta”
Vicentini Agostino--Soave Superiore DOCG Il Casale
Visco & Filippi--Soave Colli Scaligeri “Vigne della Brà”

I tasted quite a few other Soaves whose wines are not presently in the U.S., and so I did not list them.  One such producer, however, named Pagani, had such impressive Soave wines that he deserves a mention, in the chance that his wines do appear in the U.S. in the near future.

My conclusion, after my visit to the Soave region, is that these wines have never been better and that they are presently excellent values, considering their quality.