Underrated Wines: Soave
Soave & Sophisticated
I run the wine courses at one of the UK’s leading culinary academies and recently let slip to the chefs that I’d matched a herb crusted trout recipe with Soave in a recent magazine article. Their pan faces and deafening silence said it all! To be honest, I wasn’t surprised as this dry Italian doesn’t have a very good image on English wine shelves. I replied with my usual “PTEQ” (‘Pay The Extra Quid’) and after that they were open to offers but it was a hard sell. Their description of Soave as a “light, neutral, simple, boring” white was evidently etched on their Italian wine memories.
I was recently at the 2015 Vintage Preview tasting in Soave, the cobbled, castle-topped town a swift 30 kilometres from Verona in the Venetian hills, and tasted dozens of 2015 Soaves. The chefs’ tasting note often came to mind as some of the wines were light, neutral and frankly disappointing but, on the other hand, there were some lovely fresh, fruit balanced crackers. OK, these were not cheap but were well worth paying the extra dollar or two for; producers Pieropan, Gini and Stefanini took my eye during my Soave Soiree.
The Soave hills are stunning, rising majestically from the vineyard plains their contours are dramatically defined by high pergolas, the vine training system of choice for the Soave winemakers. Some vineyards have lower trained vines (guyot) but pergolas dominate the scene, “pergolas are better for Garganega, the star grape variety of Soave”, is the message. Soave is often 100% Gargenega but Italian law does allow for 30% of other varieties, namely Trebbiano di Soave, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco, although it’s Trebbiano that’s generally the blenders’ choice.
The region covers about 7000 hectares and for dry white wine is divided into the Soave D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) vineyards, Soave Classico D.O.C. which are vineyards in the hilly heart of the region and, Soave Superiore D.O.C.G vineyards which are ‘superior’ high altitude vineyards. If the Superiore vineyard lies within the Classico area, the wine logically takes on the title Soave Superiore Classico D.O.C.G …. are you still with me? The Italians don’t make it easy but as you can guess, the better the vineyard, the better the grapes, the better the wine; PTEQ (‘Pay The Extra Quid’) and all that, or for my US readers, PTED!
The Soave winemakers are very proud of their soils, the two main types being limestone and volcanic basalt. If you mention volcanic rock to them their faces light up; they can talk for hours on the subject so be warned!
The Top Johnny Superiore wines are governed by the D.O.C.G. laws which include 6 months minimum ageing, 12% minimum alcohol by volume and a maximum grape yield of 70 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha). For my anorak readers, Soave Classico D.O.C. needs 4 months ageing, 11% alcohol and a maximum yield of 98 hl/ha. whilst Soave D.O.C. requires 2 months ageing, 10.5% alcohol with a maximum yield of 105 hl/ha.
After tasting Soave for two days the yield specifications took on a new significance; ‘imho’ here lies the soul of Soave’s image problem. These yield allowances are high. As you can guess, the higher the grape yield from a single hectare, the less concentration in the grapes and therefore in the wine. Bet your bottom dollar, most of the light, neutral wines etched on the chefs’ memories would, in all probability, have been made from high yield grapes. These wines do this proud region of Soave no favours at all. Within the 2015 Tasting Preview Soave’s potential was plain to see; it wasn’t surprising that the best wines I tasted in all the D.O.C./D.O.C.G. categories were generally made from lower vineyard yields.
Pieropan’s Soave Classico 2014, is made from hand picked, low yield Gargenaga (85%) and Trebbiano di Soave (15%) grown on volcanic soils at about 250 metres above sea level in the Classico region on pergola and guyot trained vines; it’s fresh and lively with bright citrus aromas and flavours. Monte Tondo’s lemon lime Soave Superiore Classico Marta DOCG 2012 (£20, $30) was picked at 45 hl/ha. as opposed to the maximum allowed of 70 hl/ha. on their high altitude basalt volcanic soils. I rest my case.