There I was in one of my favorite wine stores doing my usual thing, looking at all the different labels and reminding myself to make certain that 25% of my purchases have to be of wines I've never tried before. It's a good way to keep your mind open to new discoveries and expand your knowledge of wine. Lately I've been on a Bordeaux buying binge as there are an astounding number of good quality wines from the 2009 and 2010 vintage on the market.
That's when I spied it, stacked on the floor at the end of the shelves in the far left corner at the back of the store. Momentarily I reflected on standard grocery store marketing 101. Remember how the staples that everyone buys, eggs dairy and meats are typically located at the back of the store. Conventional wisdom being that when you come in to get those items you have to pass by all the slower moving items to do your shopping. Ironically small retail wine shops rarely use that ploy and are more apt to use loss leader programs to get more eyeballs in their store. Many retailers bait the consumer by prominently displaying the most well known wine brands at the front of the store and the lesser known producers, which are more of a hand sell toward the back of the store. One of the great things about wine is that at any moment it can take you back to another place in time. When I saw the Pieropan Soave in its distinctive elongated bottle shape that is the calling card of aromatic white wines, I instantly took a trip down memory lane to my earlier wine drinking days. Of course back then Soave was more likely to be found in a magnum format and with a screwcap.
You see Soave has had and still suffers from a reputation, well deserved in many cases of being a thin, watery, undistinguishable, innocuous white wine from Italy. After World War II Soave not unlike Lambrusco and Chianti captivated the U.S. wine consumer. A combination of returning GI 's having been exposed to European wines and broad based and successful advertising campaigns by the likes of Bolla and Folonari pushed Soave sales in the U. S. past those of Italy's most famous red wine Chianti.
The problem was the original grape growing zone , which was primarily east and north of the town of Soave did not possess the acreage to support all of the demand for the wine. In steps the politicians who simply rezoned and expanded the original zone to include the flatter fertile plains to the south towards the Adige river ,where you could now by law grow grapes to make Soave. The end result was the Soave brand was diluted and its name sullied for two generations as growers took full advantage of the fertile plains and over cropped to get the maximum tonnage of grapes. A market flooded with cheap plonk, the emergence of super brand Santa Margherita's Pinot Grigio and all its knock offs, and it's easy to see why Soave can't get any love lately.
My running joke with wine merchants was " I'm putting together a Soave tasting, please show me what you have". The puzzled looks I got from them was priceless. With perseverance I was able to put together a good panel of wines, both entry level and single vineyard styles. There has been a big push lately by the Soave Consorzio www.ilsoave.com to reacquaint consumers with Soave. It seems the Consorzio still has lots of work to do as I didn't find any wine shops in the San Francisco bay area that stocked more than one producer, if any of Soave. When I did find a few selections they were typically the wineries entry level wines. This time we had to cast a wider net to get a good representative group of wines and we ordered several of the wines for this tasting from New York and Southern California. The weather was mild and all of the wines had a good journey and were allowed to rest in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks before we sampled them.
Our rediscovery of Soave conveniently coincided with the Soave Consorzio's Soave Master Class which was conducted at Verbena in San Francisco with Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein and Giovanni Ponchia. The first flight of ten wines were tasted blind and the final six wines were paired with some wonderfully creative and delicious dishes. The execution and pacing for the class was on point and the background stories told by Giovanni and Evan helped acuminate my knowledge of the Soave region and its wines. Big thanks to the Consorzio, Evan and his group, Giovanni, and the staff at Verbena for hosting this amazingly enriching event.
What is Soave? Soave is the name of a town, a wine, and a vineyard region in north eastern Italy, in the Veneto region, roughly twelve miles east of Verona. The original Soave Classico zone, whose producers we focused on for this tasting, is centered around Monte Foscarino which is due north of the towns of Soave and Monteforte d'Apone. The hills outside the Soave Classico zone have been given the name " Colli Scaligeri" in reference to a family of Nobles who were at one time Lords of Verona. The grand landmark for the town of Soave sitting above it in the hills is its medieval castle. Erected in the tenth century it's on our bucket list of places to visit. The Soave region covers over 16,000 acres and is divided into three areas, Soave DOC, Soave Classico DOC, and Soave Colli Scaligeri DOC. The volcanic soils of the region, rich in iron, with dark basalt, tufa and calcareous clays contribute to the distinctive terroir of Soave. The recipe for Soave DOC and Soave Classico DOC is a minimum of 70% Garganega (gar-Gah-neh gah), up to 30% can be Trebbiano di Soave and/or Chardonnay and a 5% maximum of local varieties. The latter having stricter rules on yields and minimum ageing. The minimum alcohol requirement is 11% for Soave and 11.5% for Soave Classico. There is also a Soave Superiore DOCG designation which calls for a higher minimum alcohol content of 12% and excludes Chardonnay entirely from the blend. Superiore wines are made only from grapes grown in the hills of Classico and Colli Scaligeri. Stricter maximum yields 70 hl/hectare, guyot only training 4,00vines per/hectare, and a minimum twelve month ageing regimen before release onto the market help make Superiore wines a rare find. It seem the growers haven't caught up with the regulations yet. There aren't any red wines made in the Soave wine region but there is some Soave Spumante DOC and Recioto di Soave DOCG produced in the area.
What's a DOC, IGT, DOP or DOCG? These are all acronyms for Italian wine law hierarchy. Italian wine laws always seem to be in a state of flux. Recently in an attempt to keep all the members of the European Union on the same footing the EU took control of agriculture in Italy. All future changes now go through Brussels. With this new wrinkle I think it's fair to say that the only thing that won't change with Italian wine laws is the continued changing of the laws. An example of the changing laws: it is now permitted for bottlers of Soave Classico to use stelvin closures (screwcaps). In the past if you made a Soave Classico wine but chose to use a stelvin closure instead of a cork you had to declassify your wine to the lower level Soave DOC. That rule has been amended and now producers can use screwcap closures without having to yoke their wine to a lower classification. That said, if you practice summarily dismissing any bottles of Soave as inferior because they don't have a cork closure; you could be missing out on some wonderful wines. Also Pinot Bianco and Trebbiano di Toscana previously allowed have been banned for use in Soave blends because of their perceived inferiority. For the sake of brevity we've given you a general overview of the wine laws for Soave wines. For those feeling compelled to geek out on Italian wine laws check out http://italianwinecentral.com/tag/laws/. Regular folks that just want to be able to find good quality representations of Soave, listen to our podcast and you'll be armed with enough information to find the quality producers.
The Soave marketing gurus are still trying to pinpoint what consumers want in an Italian white wine, which leaves the producers of shall we say of "Real Soave" in a quandary. Eighty-five percent of the Soave you see on the market is of industrial quality and is produced at a cooperative. That's not to say that cooperatives can't produce good quality wines, but on a scale of one million cases per year, odds are the quality does get compromised. The other fifteen percent of the market is composed of traditional and maverick Soave winemakers. Both insist on low yields in the vineyard in an effort to get more flavorful wines. The traditionalist stay with the Garganega/Trebbiano blends while the new wave group sometimes include Chardonnay in the blend . Many producers try to cover all the bases, so it's not unusual to find cantine that offer three tiers of wine. The first level being their entry level wine that typically sees a short period of ageing and no wood contact. Dismissing these entry level wines in some cases would be a mistake as the quality bar is quite high with several noteworthy producers. The second and third levels can be a mix of single vineyard designation wines, with none or some wood ageing or full on heavily influenced winemaking efforts that involve barrel fermenting, generous amounts of Chardonnay, extended lees contact with battonage and longer bottle ageing before release onto the market.
What does Soave taste like and what style should you try first? Our tasting clearly showed that there is a good case to be made for many of the styles you'll see in the marketplace. In the glass it displays a straw-golden color which a lot of producers like to show off by bottling with clear glass. Soave is not a wine with a high aromatic profile. Blending other grapes with Garganega can add texture, body and complexity to the wine but usually at the cost of blunting the delicate aromas of the finished product. The aromas won't jump out of the glass and bust you in the nose like the more aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Rieslings will. With Soave its more about nuance of aroma, minerality and crisp acidity. If you're looking for the purist expression of Soave try a wine by a traditional producer that uses only Garganega grapes grown in the Classico region and eschews wood contact. In these wines you'll find straw colors, intriguing minerality (think wet stones and earth) accompanied by aromas and flavors of white flowers, green and yellow apples, pear, white peach, honeydew melon, stone fruits, yellow citrus and lime with a crisp finish and mouthwatering acidity. If you would like to try Soaves with fuller body, more depth of flavors and complexity on the palate try some of the producers we highlight in the podcast. Although these type of wines weren't made traditionally in Soave their new wave flair and quality cannot be overlooked. Most Soaves clock in around 12.5 % alcohol by volume which makes them easy to drink and suitable as aperitifs or accompaniments with appetizers first courses and a variety of main dishes. From delicate flavored Brie, Chevre, and Mozzarella to more assertive Asiago, Beemster or Taleggio Soave pairs nicely with many cheeses. It great with Sushi, and for that matter anything that comes out of the water. It's a seafood lovers wine. Chicken, pork and veal pair well with richer styles of Soave as do pastas with butter and cream sauces. With Soave it's best to pick producer first vintage second. Find a producers style you enjoy and there's a good chance you'll be pleased with the results from year to year.
The good thing about Garganega is that it grows in loose clusters with sparse berries which helps with mold and rot resistance and affords growers the option to leave the grapes on the vines well into October to get more complexity. The bad thing is, Garganega is a late ripener and inclement weather can be a bigger factor on quality than with earlier developing varieties. 2013 and 2014 were years that witnessed a number of hail events impacting yields for many growers in the Soave area. We'll have to wait and see what comes to market before we can make any quality judgments though. The vast majority of Soave currently on the market is from the 2012 vintage. In general they seem generous and delicious having more tang and zip than the more fruit forward 2011's.
How much does it cost? Good Soave retails in the twelve to eighteen dollar range. More ambitious efforts and single vineyard designated wines can typically start around nineteen and can reach into the low thirty dollar range. That said the quality to price ratio is ridiculously favorable to consumers that takes a liking to good quality Soave. This is what happens when you have producers working diligently and succeeding at making a good wine, but not getting the recognition in the market place yet.
There's boat loads of Soave swill in the marketplace, how do you find the good stuff? If you're willing to search around and ask your favorite retailer to bring some quality producers into their program you will be rewarded with very good wines that speak well and clearly of the Soave Classico zone. In general the phrase Soave Classico on a wine label is an indicator of a good quality wine. The adjective Classico denotes that the grapes used to make the wine are from the original historic production zone and are considered to represent the best growing conditions for wines of this type. Another indicator of quality is the symbol of the Vignaioli Indipendenti on the capsule of the bottle. Members must ensure that Soave is their main product and can't buy grapes or wine except for extreme winemaking needs. Members of this small group of producers adhere to managing the entire production process from grape growing to bottling. The principle mission of the Vignaioli del Soave Association is to give Soave wine back its dignity in the eyes of the consumer by being transparent and providing information.
We hope you enjoy the podcast and learn a little too. Tell us what you think about the wines of Soave and if you make a new discovery don't keep it a secret: let us know. Bill and I thank you all for listening and until next time - Cheers!