I’ve just returned from a hard-working, very enjoyable week of visiting wine producers in two Italian zones that deserve every wino’s serious attention: Soave and Scansano. Most of you, hearing “Soave” and “serious attention” in the same sentence, will probably respond, “Is he kidding?” And I think a good number of you will respond to “Scansano” with “What’s that?” But let me give you a quick update on the good things that have been happening in both areas, right now while my impressions are still fresh (I got back less than 24 hours before I started this post). In the usual serving order, white wine comes first, so let’s begin with Soave: I’ll hold Scansano for the next posting.
Halfway through the last century, Soave was the iconic Italian white wine – light, floral, inexpensive, refreshing, and available almost everywhere. It was destroyed by its great popularity. Demand for Soave outstripped the capacity of its traditional home base, the rolling, castellated hills around the medieval walled city that gives it its name. Vineyards sprouted down in the plains, yields were increased, and the wine became blah – at its worst, acidic water: dull, almost flavorless, uninteresting, and eventually superceded by Pinot Grigio, which has already begun its similar cycle of decay. Soave entered decades of obscurity. I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers have never even heard its name before. But Soave once was a good wine – and my happy discovery of last week is not only that it’s good once again, but that it’s better than ever.
Two things make Soave special: its grape variety and its site. Vinified primarily from Garganega, a variety related to, if not identical with, Grecanico (that helped you a lot, didn’t it?), Soave grows on Italy’s northernmost volcanic soils – the latter a definite plus for most wines, but especially for whites. From the marriage of the two, Soave becomes a medium-bodied, intensely floral wine with enlivening acidity and distinctive mineral inflections, chalky or flinty depending on the particular producer or vineyard.
The whole package is immediately pleasing and immediately attention-grabbing: Even wine beginners recognize that they have something substantial on their palates. The congenial and knowledgeable group of wine journalists I had the pleasure of traveling with frequently made comparisons to Chablis with regard to Soave’s body, acid liveliness, and mineral notes. That seems right to me, with the addendum that because of that marvelous Garganega floral quality in the aroma and flavor, Soave seems even more welcoming and easy to enjoy than the sometimes austere Chablis.
Soave’s growers and their very active Consorzio have been working intensely for years, maybe decades, to restore the prestige of their appellation. They have laboriously preserved very old, naturally low-yielding vineyards – in some parts of the Soave Classico zone (the heart of the traditional growing area, on the slopes of those extinct volcanoes), vines average 50 years and more in age. They take pains to get the grapes to the cellars and into low-temperature fermenters as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation and preserve their freshness and delicate aromatics. They use or don’t use the permitted small percentage of Trebbiano di Soave, the other traditional grape variety, according to their individual sense of whether their vineyards and wine need a little boost of acidity or not.
That means that while I can safely talk about the general characteristics of modern Soave, there certainly are differences and nuances that distinguish grower from grower – which is exactly as it should be in any serious wine zone. I will give a list of the producers whose wines impressed me most. It won’t be exhaustive, because my group was privileged to taste many, many wines, but I hope it will get you pointed in the right direction to discover or re-discover a truly pleasurable white wine.
I’m not going to give tasting notes for any of these wines. I hate tasting notes: they are the soft-core porn of wine journalism. And they’re useless, unless by some miracle your palate should be identical to mine. I may taste blueberries where you would taste asparagus, and there goes that note. Even for me, tasting notes are only valid for the moment I wrote them. Wine changes all the time, and tasters change even more, so the implication that there is any objective truth in any tasting note is at best disingenuous, and at worst – when the writer believes that to be so – fatuous.
So what should the poor harried consumer look for when shopping for Soave without the crutch of tasting notes or scores? First of all, the designation Soave Classico DOC: That means the wine comes from the very best part of the growing area. Simple Soave DOC – no Classico in the name – probably indicates a wine from the plains. Some of them can be good, but many are undistinguished. Forget about DOCG or Superiore as indicators of quality: Mostly they just guarantee higher alcohol and greater concentration, which often – for my palate – coarsens the wine. And don’t be afraid of a two- or three-year-old Soave: With great acidity and a mineral skeleton, Soave can take bottle age without harm, and often with quite interesting development.
Cantina del Castello
Vicentini Agostino (not Classico, but fine)
Any of these makers should provide an enjoyable and quite typical basic Soave Classico DOC. All are capable of much more, particularly with their special selection wines and especially with their cru bottlings. Explore and enjoy!