Special Report

Soave’s Volcanic Revival

Unless you’re a Baby Boomer, you’ve probably never seen the TV ad campaign run by Italy’s Bolla wine company in the 1970s and ’80s, but you can still catch it on YouTube. They show a nattily dressed Franco Bolla living la dolce vita and saying things like, “Why do so many people prefer my Soave Bolla? …Taste.” The ads may have elicited howls of hilarity from Spanish speakers, who had their own interpretation of suave bola, but the persistent pleas to enjoy Franco’s Soave Bolla met with considerable success and helped propel Soave into becoming America’s best-selling Italian DOC wine, surpassing even sales of Chianti.

From Franco Bolla’s pre-HD TV ad, preserved on YouTube From Franco Bolla’s pre-HD TV ad, preserved on YouTube
The Soave production zone lies about 15 miles east of Verona and was one of Italy’s earliest officially recognized wine zones, first mapped in 1927. The original zone occupied hillside vineyards around the towns of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone, and roughly corresponds to today’s Soave Classico subzone. But in 1968, when the Soave DOC was created, the hot export market prompted officials to expand far beyond those hillsides. They added thousands of acres on the flat, alluvial plains where yields could be pushed ever higher, giving precedence to quantity over quality. By the 1990s, Soave had become a victim of its own success, churning out too many thin, insipid wines and giving pinot grigio an opening to take over the top spot for Italian whites in the US market.

Now the tide may be turning again, as pinot grigio runs into resistance from sommeliers and adventurous consumers seeking out terroir-driven wines with compelling stories. Soave, which has undergone a quiet renaissance since those early ad campaigns, can offer both, and tremendous value to boot.

In 2000, the Soave consorzio initiated a vineyard zoning project that culminated last June with the release of a new map identifying 33 geographical units, unofficially referred to as ‘crus’ and officially called Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive, or UGAs. Producers using grapes grown within a particular UGA may include the name—as well as the name of an individual vineyard within it—on their bottles. All of the UGAs are located in hillside sites, including 29 in the Soave Classico subzone, the historical heart of Soave production.

Soils in the hillside vineyards are primarily dark basalt or tufa from volcanic origins, with some pockets of white, chalky limestone from the ancient lagoon that once covered the region. Those soil types can give wines with distinctly different characteristics, a phenomenon that John Szabo, MS, refers to as “Soave’s split geological personality” in his 2016 book, Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power. Although volcanic activity here ended some 25 million years ago, wines grown in volcanic soils are increasingly fashionable today, a fact that is helping to fuel renewed interest in Soave.

Producers like Pieropan, one of the region’s oldest family-owned estates, were paying attention to terroir differences long before publication of the new UGA map. During the years that many Soave producers were chasing quantity, Leonildo Pieropan remained firmly in the quality camp. In 1971 he released Calvarino, Soave Classico’s first single-vineyard wine, made with grapes grown on basaltic slopes. A few years later, Pieropan produced La Rocca from late-harvested grapes grown on chalky, calcareous soils on the hill below Soave’s medieval castle. La Rocca’s rich texture and honeyed flavors offer an extreme contrast to Calvarino’s firm austerity, demonstrating Soave’s split geographical personality and the range of wine styles that are possible in the hands of a quality-minded producer.

Gini’s vineyards in Monteforte Gini’s vineyards in Monteforte
The Gini family has been cultivating grapes around the town of Monteforte since the 17th century. They have the distinction of owning some of Soave’s oldest vines, rooted in Salvarenza, a vineyard with volcanic soils and veins of limestone in the Froscà UGA. The family first bottled Salvarenza as a single-vineyard wine in 1990, and it is their most intense Soave, gaining complexity during one year of aging in used French oak barrels and large casks.

The Tessari family is also in the Soave Classico zone, producing wines under the Suavia label. Rosetta Tessari and her daughters, Valentina, Meri and Alessandra, farm organically, tending 62 acres of vines, including their single-cru Monte Carbonare in the Carbonare UGA, grown in dark basaltic soils. Inama also produces a Soave Classico from Carbonare, and two Soaves from the Foscarino UGA.

The Filippi family is based just outside the Soave Classico zone, in Colli Scaligeri. They farm vines in the Castelcerino cru, which boasts the highest elevations (up to 1,250 feet) in the entire Soave zone. Windy conditions and a pronounced diurnal shift preserve acidity in the garganega grapes, and Filippo Filippi emphasizes that freshness by vinifying all of his wines in stainless steel, while adding textural richness and density through extended lees contact.

Castelcerino Castelcerino

Of the more than 4.2 million cases of Soave produced last year, much of it remains simple, swillable and forgettable. Buyers who want to experience characterful, terroir-driven Soaves should seek out producers who have established quality track records. In the face of competition from native Italian white wines like verdicchio, fiano, carricante and timorasso, which have begun to capture attention from wine drinkers looking for authenticity, Soave may be overlooked because of an outdated view of the wine. Yet the best Soaves have a great story to tell and plenty of authenticity to offer. They deserve a place at the table and on every well-curated Italian wine list.

Gini’s 2015 Soave Classico featured in our Wine of the Week Series

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This feature appears in the print edition of February 2020.
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Tags  W&S February 2020  Italy  Soave  Veneto  Garganega  Volcanic Wines  Stephanie Johnson