Soave was trendy for a time, particularly when for some pocket change you could purchase a relatively bland, perfectly drinkable dry white wine. There was no need for tasting notes or serious critiquing. These supermarket wines were designed for serious economy drinking. I bought them too. Served from jugs so cold and consumed so quickly that we needed plenty of bottles to keep the action going. But there is a serious side to Soave too, making some of the most refreshing and top value white wines in the world.
Growing Soave grapes
Soave is made from at least 70% Garganega with Chardonnay, Trebbiano and Pinot Blanc the other permitted varietals. Garganega unquestionably makes the best Soave. Traditionally grown on pergolas, the vines can also be Guyot trained. However, there is no doubt that the wine from Guyot trained vines is more dense and broad, and a stylistic departure from what’s best about Soave – delicacy.
Concentration is desirable in all fine wine, but in Soave the interplay of fruit, acidity and texture and the perfect balance of these components is vital to its enjoyment. Garganega is prone to high yields, vigour and disease. Pergolas encourage airflow, inhibiting disease, provide an ambient cooling effect and direct much of the plant’s energy into height, helping to limit abundant yields.
Soils, their vigour and water holding capacity, aspect and elevation are crucial to the making of fine Soave. The best wines are made from south facing hillside vineyards, with soils ranging from the basalt rich volcanic, to limestone.The most fertile soils are to be found at lower altitudes. Firstly, are those derived mainly from decomposed volcanic rock or basalt (non-calcareous alluvial plains). Secondly, the limestone plains or calcareous plains.
Limestone soils are to be found in the western reaches of Soave. Here, the vineyards are cooler, the topsoil shallow and rainfall is par for the region. Vines must work hard, and dry years may be problematic as the vines roots are unable to plunge deeper than the substrate, often no more than 50cms below the surface.
These are also the least vigorous vineyards (lower yields and higher concentration) and add to that the coolness of the site, you have an uncommon scenario to the production of very fine wine. Intense, floral, delineated flavours, complex texture, excellent structure, delicate and yet with the most perfectly pitched weight – here you have the epitome of Soave. Critrus, grapefruit, white and yellow flowers, savoury spices and honey.
The volcanic soils are to be found in the east and tend to have more precipitous gradients than their limestone counterparts. The topsoil is shallow, particularly on higher, steeper vineyards and root penetration is limited by the unbroken nature of the bedrock. Add to that the drainage qualities of a steep gradient and you can see the potential for water stress (water of course runs along the bedrock, rather than being absorbed by it).
The sites are, however, warmer, the soils being richer in mineral content are able to absorb and emit heat. Potentially the most complex of all Soave wines come from these soils, but also the richest and most obviously structured. Flavours can range from citrus, through to yellow and red fruits, with sweet spices and notes of violets.
Volcanic plains (non-calcerous)
The volcanic plains represent the most fertile land in Soave and most commentators would argue that they tend to make the least interesting wines. However, if yields are kept to a minimum, there are many excellent wines to be had. Fertility and water holding capacity due to the high clay content and deep soils ensure that in even the hottest years, the vines are able to draw on the water they need. Old vines are best here, as anywhere, producing more complex wines, particularity in drier years. It’s cooler than average too, ensuring freshness and vitality. Red and yellow fruits, roses, Daphne, lavender and sweet spices.
Limestone plains (Calcerous)
Rockier than the volcanic plain, less fertile and warmer here. Many interesting wines are made from these soils due to the greater variability in the soil and greater temperature variation. The wines are, however, more delicate than their volcanic counterparts, lighter in body with white flowers, citrus and savoury spice.
There are 33 Crus, 28 of which lie within the DOC of Soave Classico. It can be dangerous to generalise even individual crus as they are huge. The Foscarino cru, for example, made famous by the producer Inama is 149 hectares. Secondly, viticultural and winemaking methods vary from producer to producer and the use of wood, particularly smaller format oak, can mask a vineyards characteristics.
Cru Soave is considered the finest expression from any producer’s stable. More often than not, the style of wine is quite different from the rest of the range, as the producer attempts to express the individual characteristics of a site. There is no doubt that the classification of crus provides the region with immense possibilities and many grand wines, but it also brings to bear some difficult questions too.
Challenges for Soave
All wine regions represent themselves from the twin vantage points of quality and uniqueness. Whether by traditions or official or unofficial classifications, individual wine regions shape and express themselves. No doubt with the immense success of Burgundy and thereafter Barolo and Barbaresco, Soave has chosen to forge a path where quality and vineyard expression are synonymous with one another.
But what makes great Soave? Earlier I mentioned the belief that Soave is delicate and complex, with the interplay of acidity and texture crucial to the wine’s enjoyment. I would also add that though the wine may be light in body, there is enough flesh for genuine presence. Linear in shape, with a direct palate, pretty in flavour, layered with great clarity and a structure that is threaded rather than stamped. But does my ideal Soave tally many producer’s interpretation of cru Soave, supposedly the finest expression of all?
Soave in all its guises
Cru Soave by definition should be different. The best cru Soaves tend to have a breadth, density, fleshiness and focus not otherwise found in the more general wines. Lower yields and, producer depending, the use of oak, will naturally alter the flavour, shape and focus of the wine. Such hedonism works well with richer foods such as Serrano, top quality Prosciutto and a wedge of Grano Padano, roast chicken and pork.
Perhaps the key to understanding Soave is not to rely on rigid classifications or the generalities of flavour associated with genealogy. Soave is incredibly versatile with food and as a region produces wine for any occasion. I stated earlier my enjoyment of cheap, “jug” Soave. And to be sure, my ideal Soave is a delicate, complex aromatic white.
Cru Soave is best enjoyed with richer dishes and grand produce, and I love the fact that for all its potential weight and power, Soave does not have the opulence or luxury of a fine Loire Chenin Blanc or top quality white Burgundy. And there in lies its advantage. There is an ease and flexibility expressed by Soave wines that cannot be matched by what would usually be considered greater wines. Sometimes wines can be too concentrated and too expressive. Too much! For grand, classic and casual drinking, Soave should be at the top of your list.