For years, the image of Italian white wine held by many Americans, if they thought at all of Italian white wine, was Soave. Simple and fruity, Soave was the chilled white wine refresher that went down easily and wasn’t encumbered with oak. What could be better?
A lot, as it turns out. Like other wine consumers, I was a Soave drinker, but when the wines began to taste bland and simple, I moved on to something else. What had happened to Soave? I put that question and a few others to Giovanni Ponchia of the Soave and Recioto Soave Consorzio. But first a little background on the evolution and ups and downs of Soave.
Soave has been around for decades. In the 1990s, Soave sales in America skyrocketed, mainly on the gentle suggestion of Franco Bolla, the suave elderly spokesman for Bolla Soave, who in a series of low-key but persuasive television and print ads, told Americans that it was OK to drink Soave and, while they were at it, make it Bolla Soave. Other Soave producers soon grabbed hold of the soaring skyrocket and Soave quickly became the key word for Italian white wine, as Chianti was for Italian red wine. However, it turned out that such success was a textbook example of the old proverb: Be careful what you wish for.
Soave production in the Veneto region of northeast Italy, eventually outstripped quality and when the Soave skyrocket fizzled out, the whole sales effort fell back to earth. Some say the problem began with the creation of the Soave DOC in 1968, allowing for a huge expansion of the zone. Ponchia stresses the point that in 1968, there were “about 4,800 hectares (11,856 acres), 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of these in hilly areas, outside the Soave Classico zone, often at higher altitudes. The other 2,300 hectares (5,700 acres) were planted in the plains.” He adds that the soil composition in the hillside vineyards is calcareous and basaltic rocks, while soils in the plains vineyards are mainly limestone, factors that define the stylistic differences between hillside (Classico) Soave and wines made from grapes grown on the plains.
Vineyard expansion, though, was not the only thing that grew Soave. Ponchia points out that “the huge changes that we saw in the last 20 years are, above all, the growing number of wineries producing and bottling Soave; 15 to 20 producers in the 1980s to more than 150, mostly small wineries.” And he credits better winemaking technologies such as stainless steel tanks, temperature controlled fermentation, and in the vineyard, a big change with the importance of the correct ripening of the Garganega grape and the improvement in the management of the typical “Pergola Veronese” vine training system.
The disagreement over what nearly killed Soave and how it should be defined today is complicated, involving bureaucratic layering on many levels. In general, though, the fight was and still is between Soave growers and wineries in the hillside Classico zone and the larger producers on the Adige plains. Perhaps the most public flashpoint of the disagreement was the defection of Roberto Anselmi and a few other Soave Classico producers, protesting the new DOC and DOCG laws, while opting instead to bottle their wines as IGT Veneto rather than to have them identified with a group of DOC Soave wines that they didn’t think best represented the traditional wine.
Beside the major expansion of vineyards away from the traditional hilly classic zone, those who objected to the changes in the DOC also cited the introduction of the Trebbiano Toscano grape, which is more prolific but deemed to be of lower quality in Soave, than the preferred Trebbiano Soave. The approved blend for Soave Classico is now 70% Garganega with smaller percentages of Trebbiano Soave and Chardonnay, with many producers preferring Trebbiano over Chardonnay for its crisp acidity. Trebbiano di Toscano was dropped for DOCG wines, although it is a major component in Soaves produced on the plains.
In a further move that speaks directly to the sometimes confusing beauracracy of the Italian government and wine community, a controversy soon swirled around the approval of the designation Soave Superiore. You may have to read the following explanation a few times before it makes sense, but understanding the differences will make shopping for Soave a more pleasurable experience. DOCG was approved in 2002 for Soave Superiore, with the designation limited to grapes grown on the hills previously approved for Recioto di Soave DOCG. If the vineyard source lies inside the classic zone, then the wine can be designated as Soave Classico Superiore DOCG. If the vineyards are in the hills, but outside the Classico Zone, then the wine will be designated Soave Colli Scaligeri Superiore DOCG. One more wrinkle: If a wine made from hillside grapes doesn’t reach 12% alcohol, then the wine cannot be designated DOCG.
Sheesh. No wonder that, to date, few producers have chosen to use the Superiore category.
Ponchia notes, however, that 10-15 years ago, the trend in Soave leaned toward concentrated, full bodied wines, both red and white, higher in alcohol and with a touch of oak. “The DOCG Soave Superiore was the answer of the Soave system to this trend.” Soave producers who do use French or Slovonian oak are usually making “cru” or single vineyard wines. Ponchia says that the majority of these wines are Classico, noting that some Soaves are barrel fermented with the aging in stainless steel tanks. “The barrique was widely used in Soave until five or six years ago.” He says that now the preference is for larger oak containers that are less invasive.
In a mild rebuke of other regions that seemed to be straying from tradition, Ponchia says, “In that period many areas in Italy, specializing in white wine production, betrayed their vocation and identity, allowing the planting of red varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet (Sauvignon) and others.” He added that by 2002, the Soave Classico DOC was re-established as the appellation’s flag, “matching the new consumer trend for more fresh and fruity white wines.
Ponchia also commented on bottle shapes and colors and the use of screw caps for Soave wines. “Until the 1980s, the normal shape for the Soave bottle was the ‘renana classica,’ the same bottle as that used in Alsace and the Mosel. Then, mainly to meet the requirements of the different export markets (Soave is exported to 70 countries), the Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles were adopted.” Unfortunately, he says, settling on one bottle shape and color for all of Soave is difficult, noting that the use of screw caps on Soave wines is increasing. “There are at least 10 producers using screw caps on their Soaves.” But he says that a national law does not allow the use of screw caps on Soave Classico and Soave Classico Superiore. To do so, the producers of classic wines would have to declassify to Soave DOC. “We expect this rule to be cancelled by the end of this year (2012).”
The Soave DOC/DOCG differences ultimately mean more to Soave growers and producers than consumers, who are more likely to find the differences in the finished wines. I recently tasted a small group of Soaves, both Soave DOC and Soave Classico, but no Soave Classico Superiore. Most of them are made from 100% Garganega and priced at about $10. Frankly, I didn’t detect any distinguishable differences between the wines, so my suggestion is to select a Soave that best fits your budget and taste. And then just relax and enjoy it.