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Something has happened to Soave in the last decade. It seems to have gone from being one of the most uninspiring names in wine to one of the most spectacularly under valued whites around. The secret, it seems, lies in a new generation of winemakers that focus on freshness, balance and the relentless pursuit of expressing the mineral rich hillsides of the appellation's historic 'classico' zone.
As one of Italy’s most iconic white wines, there are few enthusiasts that have not come across these delicate, floral wines before. Yet far less are familiar with Soave’s new and improved authentic personality, lovingly crafted from single vineyards, complex soils and with renewed focus on the area’s key grape variety - Garganega.
Located just to the east of Verona, the pretty medieval town of Soave marks the start of a growing area that extends both north and east in a series of gentle undulating hillsides. Soils here are predominantly volcanic, although there are expanses of heavy limestone where ancient sea beds have left their distinctive geological legacy.
Volcanic soils couldn't be trendier in the wine world at the moment and for good reason. When producers seek to express their soils through low intervention winemaking there is often a characterful mineral element that pushes itself to the fore. There is ongoing debate about what causes such nuance, and indeed what the science is behind these feelings, but forging this fresher, earthier slant is undoubdly the current aspiration for the area's producers and it's one that is serving Soave's reputation well.
The real story is perhaps another though. Soave is not only making a new impression, it is demonstrating it both stays the course, and is also capable of ageing with grace and dignity. Well made wines can be delicious in their youth - think racy acidity alongside succulent citrus and stone fruit. The more expressive show a light dusting of floral fragrance. With time though good Soave seems to develop notes of hazelnut, almond and brioche, while simultaneously maintaining its shimmering streak of acidity. A decade on from the vintage can reveal Soave to be complex, fresh and making louder claims for additional cellar space.
A recent plunder of cellars in the region revealed a veritable treasure of finds. A sublime 2004 Soave Classico Superiore 'Foscarino Slavinus' from Monte Tondo partnered juicy notes of dried apricot and the savoury appeal of crushed almonds. Meanwhile, an even older vintage of Gini's 'La Frosca' showed similar traits. Delving deeper into the terroir, showed Gini's 'Contrada Salvarezza' which originates from an even smaller sub plot of La Froscà, to stand out as one of the appellation's great age-worthy wines. The 1999 delivered concentrated, almost syrupy notes of peach and the moorish aromas of toasted hazelnut; crucially though, there was little hint of its twenty years in bottle.
Such insight puts a new slant on Italy's reputation as a serious white wine producing country. The independent producers of Soave have well and truly announced the arrival of Garganega as a noble variety and alongside Piedmont's Timorasso, Etna's Carricante and Le Marche's Verdicchio, Italy is finally starting to to flex its white grape muscle. These small volume, artisan style wines are now consistently delivering fruit, freshness, personality and the kind of uniqueness inherent to great wine.
But, there is an issue somewhere...... if old Soave is so good, why has everyone been calling the wines of the past bland? Why has so much of the literature on Soave focussed on the dark production arts of the 1970s and 80s? Have these supposedly bland wines suddenly and unexpectedly flowered? Have we witnessed some sort of Kafkaesque reverse metamorphoses? Has the cockroach turned suddenly into Gregory? Can we bring Soave back out of its room and show it off proudly to the world again?
The 1970s and 1980s saw a very different commercial approach to the one holding court at the moment. Soave's 'thin' wines were almost always the result of excessive yields. Garganega's natural vigour compounded the Italian grower's historic propensity to pursue volume over and above what seems to work in the glass. The subsequent solution to the problem arguably made things worse. Chardonnay was planted, in part with a view to producing sparkling Soave, but also to add body and flavour whenever and wherever it went missing.
Few producers talk about this period with enthusiasm and those that did plant Chardonnay vines have either ripped them out or grafted them over to either Garganega or Trebbiano di Soave. Only a handful still use the variety - the most notable perhaps is Cantina Franchetto's small amount of Chardonnay used to smooth out their Recorbian bottling.
The reality is that great Soave has been made for decades. The pioneering vineyard work of wineries such as Gini, Pieropan and Inama has produced wines that have quietly found their audience. Their long pursued philosophy of quality over quantity has ultimately shown the way. In recent years though, there has been a steady increase in the number of growers who have decided to bottle under their own name. This is fabulous news for Soave and its admirers.
Yield control has inevitably created better wines. Garganega in particular is one of the most vigourous vines around, so curbing its enthusiasm has allowed a concentration of fruit to balance out the high levels of acidity required for decent cellaring. In addition, the gradual replacement of the traditional Pergola Veronese trellising system for guyot training has delivered a slightly riper crop.
Yet, Giulia Stocchetti Caravaggi believes Soave's potential for growing old with grace lies in the use of Trebbiano di Soave. A biotype of Verdicchio (a variety we're acknowledging ages well in Matellca), Trebbiano di Soave can add both acidity and a more polished phenolic texture. "In my opinion, Trebbiano di Soave is one of the key components for longevity in unoaked Soave wines. It adds acidity and thus freshness; it gives a nice body and mouthfeel and completes the delicate and elegant aromas and flavours of the gentle Garganega".
This focus on both grape and terroir has started to reveal some of the characteristics of the denomination's complex formations of volcanic soil. Combined with this, the hilly areas in the 'Classico' heartland of the DOC are providing the conditions for attractive aromatic profiles, a notion that previous Soave producers could only dream of. At Cantina del Castello the Stocchetti Caravaggi family practice sustainable viticulture to bring the best out of the soils. "The site where the vineyards are located plays a key role. The vines spread their roots deep into the basaltic soils in our 'Pressoni' vineyard, located in the heart of the hills of the Classico area. The altitude is between 220 and 250 mts above sea level and faces South and South- East.
She goes on. "Here we encourage biodiversity and work hard on canopy management. The work requires skilled labour because mechanization is neither possible or desirable. Working in conjunction with nature, respecting its pace and enhancing what it can give us is fundamental to obtaining genuinely expressive wines. Sometimes they can surprise with an unexpected longevity".
For Laura Rizzotto at Balestri Valda facilitating a partnership between healthy soils and the right grape variety is what counts. "We have a beautiful mix of soils that helps with long aging: generally they are basaltic, black volcanic rock; we also have some limestone, white rocks, which gives the wine a more vertical acidity. With low yields per hectare, and this amazing soil, attractive aging is just a matter of patience".