One of my earliest memories as a wine drinker is buying 1.5 liter bottles of Bolla Soave, a wine that was wildly popular in the U.S. ...for a while. In retrospect, this is an experience I am glad I had, and I am even more glad it is in the past. Looking back, I recall Bolla Soave as an innocuous white wine that pleased, mainly, by not offending. Of course, it bore no resemblance to wines that truly reflect varietal character and terroir, but it did further my wine education because the best education in wine (aside from joining me for a WSET Course!) is to keep tasting.
It was a few years before I discovered there was another, much more intriguing, style of Soave available, a style I had a chance to celebrate recently at lunch with winemaker Dario Pieropan. Dario's family has been leading the quality conscience in the Soave region since 1880, and when he speaks about upholding the traditions (and traditional quality), he speaks of two things: terroir and his predecessors - his father, his great-grandfather and his ancestors who established the winery in 1871. Spending a couple of hours with Dario is to take an armchair tour of this beautiful, hilly countryside accented not so much with pictures as with images conjured by sips of pale gold wine from three glasses. (The Pieropans also make red Veneto wine as well, including beautiful examples of Amarone and Valpolicella, but that is a story for another day.)
"Soave and Chianti were the first regions of Italy to have a DOC," Dario says (DOC means Denominazione di origine controllata or "Controlled Designation of Origin," and is a quality assurance designation applied to Italian wine and several types of food). "The Soave DOC was created in 1968, though Soave was already a well defined region." In fact, Soave and Chianti were the first regions identified by royal decree as fine wine zones in 1931 and the area of the decree pretty much laid out the zone that today is the most prized, called Soave Classico. Dario adds with a sly smile, "Before the DOC formalized all the designations the area was referred to by many as 'Petite Chablis' and we have some old bottles labeled just Chablis!"
It may strike some as strange to learn that Soave was so highly valued (even if it were called "Chablis") long before whites from Piedmont or Tuscany were prized. Looking at sales statistics, I see that in the 1970s, no doubt powered in part by the success of Bolla's big bottles, Soave was the best-selling Italian DOC wine (red or white) in the U.S., outstripping even Chianti in popularity.
As is often the case, popularity had a downside, and the name Soave became closely linked with the most widely available, heavily marketed versions of the wine, often insipid wines that drew fruit from high production areas that produced wine with little flavor or varietal character (including the wine I once bought in large bottles). Typecast as an innocuous ingénue of a wine, Soave's ascent reversed course. Whether by backlash or better marketing from other regions, within a decade Soave had fallen in popularity to the point that even now many consumers are entirely unaware of its existence. This is a real shame because good Soave is one of Italy's greatest white wine joys.
Soave is all about the garganega grape, which according to the DOC regulations must constitute at least 70% of the wine. The remaining maximum of 30% is traditionally trebbiano di Soave (a genetically close relation to garganega), but the law allows producers to use chardonnay as well.
"We believe in garganega," says Dario. "Trebbiano can bring some bright acidity to the wine but garganega is its soul." Pieropan never uses chardonnay in its Soave, believing it is not only untraditional, it is also unnecessary. Garganega was the grape planted by Dario's great-grandfather Leonildo, who was also the first soave producer to market his wine in bottles - before then, it was sold in barrels (as was most wine in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
Leonildo also moved many of his vine holdings from the flat valley floor to the hilly heart of Soave where grape yields are lower but the flavors are much finer. Dario's father is an innovator as well having been the first producer in Soave to promote a "green harvest," pruning some bunches from the vines during the summer to force the vine's energy to increase intensity of a smaller number of remaining bunches.
"The green harvest was crucial for us in 2014," Dario says. "It was a tough vintage, probably the most difficult of the last 20 years. We did a double green harvest, so our yield was small but with a good September for last minute ripening, we got wonderful fruit." How wonderful? I had a chance to try Dario's three Soaves, including the first of his 2014 wines to be released:
Pieropan 2014 Soave Classico ($20)
The blend is 90% garganega and 10% trebbiano di Soave from 20 vineyards in the Soave Classico area.
Pale gold, clear and bright. This has all the lovely, lemony citrus one expects in a classic Soave, but greater nuance than most - elderflower, orange blossom, and a hint of honey all weave in their tendrils of aroma and flavor that extend on a long finish.
Pieropan 2013 Soave Classico Calvarino ($30)
The Calvarino vineyard was purchased by the Pieropans in 1901, and in 1971 it was one of the first Italian wines bottled as a single-vineyard expression. Calvarino continues to be one of the Pieropan flagship wines. The name, which means "Little Calvary," comes from the vineyard's rocky slopes that are so difficult to work. The wine is usually 70% garganega and 30% trebbiano di Soave, and it gains its character from a slow, cool fermentation and a long period of aging on its lees (the dead yeast cells and grape solids that slowly fall out of suspension in a wine). This lees-aging, carried out in glass-lined concrete tanks, not in barrels, gives the wine wonderful complexity and the silky texture I love. My notes:
Straw yellow color with a flash of deeper gold. Beautiful floral aromas (the elderflower note is particularly evident) back up a palate impression of a wine that is rich without being heavy. Beautiful texture carries the wine across the palate with some citrus notes. Quite dry, elegant and long on the finish.
Pieropan 2013 Soave Classico La Rocca ($40)
Situated on Monte Roccheto overlooking the town of Soave, La Rocca vineyard has a well-defined microclimate of its own including unique chalk and clay soils (as opposed to Calvarino's volcanic rock). Always 100% garganega, La Rocca is also the only one of the Pieropan Soaves that is made with oak - fermented three days in concrete to control temperature then finished in barrels. Aged a year in a combination of barrels of different sizes (500-2000 liters) and ages: a third of the barrels are new and the remainder are 1, 2, 3 and 4 years old.
This is an enchanting wine beginning with the bright pale gold color that shimmers with vinous energy. The wine has very complex aromas of nuts and stone fruit. Lots of depth here - and with its cream texture and long finish this is a wonderful wine for contemplation. All that complexity and the firm, but not overpowering, acidity yields a wine that is a versatile partner for food. Dario and I had it with lobster rolls and French fries (and it was wonderful), and I'm look forward to making a porcini risotto or roast chicken with truffles to pair with these wines.
What's the takeaway from this tasting? I had several impressions, the first being just how good a well made Soave can be. Another impression is how good the wines are with food though the entry level Soave Classico is a terrific white by the glass as an aperitif. And I was very impressed with the pricing - ranging from US$20 to US$40, Pieropan Soave delivers a huge amount of quality for the price. In short, this is a white wine that should be on every wine lover's radar. As a wine retailer friend who joined Dario and me for lunch said, "I can sell this to anyone who loves white Burgundy for a fraction of the price." Pieropan Soaves have it all - flavor, texture, complexity and that elusive quality of deliciousness. That's probably not a real wine term but it sure works for me.