Wine: Soave, haunted by its pitiful past

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I have been trying to spread the good word on Soave Classico lately, and reactions divide squarely along generational lines.

Most people under 35 give me blank stares. "Soave?" they ask. "Like Rico Suave?" Meanwhile, when I mention it to those of my parents' generation, Soave brings a distinctly negative response. Baby boomers remember the cheap, pitiful product that flooded our shores in the 1970s. When I told my father I would be tasting Soave for my next assignment, he looked at me like I was crazy. "Soave Bolla?" he said. "Good luck with that. Isn't that on the same shelf as Blue Nun and Mateus?"

I fall in the middle of this generational divide. I was a kid during the era when Orson Welles hawked Paul Masson with the claim that "We will sell no wine before its time" and when Riunite suggested "On Ice? That's Nice." I remember those Soave Bolla television ads (perhaps when the babysitter let us stay up to watch "CHiPs" or "Fantasy Island") with the convoluted slogan "There are almost as many people in love with Soave Bolla as there are people in love."

Well, that love affair ended a long time ago.

It's high time to start a new relationship with Soave, which over the past few years has become one of Italy's most interesting whites. "People need to understand there is a new deal in Soave," says Meri Tessari, part of the new generation, who with her three sisters runs Suavia winery. "I'm so tired of this history from the '70s. Stop! It's in the past. It's a heavy burden for us."

The new deal for wine drinkers is to move away from the large cooperatives that control 80 percent of Soave's vast production and focus instead on the handful of smaller, high-quality winemakers in the Soave Classico zone. "In Soave, there are two different realities. The wines share the same name, but we don't share the same philosophy," Tessari says.

The real differences, as with all Italian wines, involve utterly confusing nomenclature and geography. Soave is a lovely little town, complete with a medieval castle, in Italy's Veneto region, near Verona. Soave is also the name of a large DOC with more than 16,000 acres of vineyards. The best wines come from Soave Classico DOC, a hilly 4,200-acre zone with volcanic soil that is the oldest and original growing area. To make things even more puzzling, last year Soave was granted a new designation, Superiore DOCG, Italy's top wine demarcation, but almost all Soave Classico producers have spurned the designation because, among other reasons, non-Classico producers were allowed to use it.

All Soave must be made with at least 70 percent Garganega grapes, though most of the wines I tasted were 90 to 100 percent Garganega. Garganega demands a later harvest to achieve maximum ripeness, which is what the high-quality producers have been keen to do, avoiding the wimpy Soaves of the past. The grape that's most often blended in is Trebbiano di Soave, which is a much different variety from the bland Trebbiano grown in other parts of Italy. Some producers, such as Suavia and Pieropan, have increased the use of Trebbiano di Soave in their blends, which I think will create even more complex whites.

At the wine shop, here's all you really need to know: Look for Soave Classico DOC on the label, and stick with a handful of producers such as Suavia, Inama, Pra, La Cappucina and Pieropan. The Soave Classicos I've been tasting are vibrant, but also more complex, more flavorful and a better value than most insipid, characterless, overpriced pinot grigios, and they're a far better complement to food, especially grilled fish, pork, cheese, fresh vegetables and risotto dishes with seafood or mushrooms. Soave Classico is perfect for a long, sunny lunch.

Wines from the producers I recommend are idiosyncratic, and it's difficult to speak of them as a whole, which might be expected of a winemaking region in transition. As I tasted through 15 or so, I found it difficult to pinpoint common traits. There were a few gimmicks, including a strange, curved $9 bottle of Si Soave, which I do not recommend even though a big U.S. marketing push is being made on its behalf as a cheap alternative to pinot grigio.

Overall, the best Soave Classicos balance minerality or steeliness with a slight acidity, quite often with complex notes of almond or flowers. They feel more richly textured than most whites, and they achieve a long, pleasant finish. It's a white wine that all generations can agree to love.

Wilson is pinch-hitting for Dave McIntyre, whose Wine column will return next week.

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