If you follow the Facebook page, you know that I’ve been tasting a lot of Italian wines lately. Even though my retirement plan includes an apartment in Florence or in the little town of Montalcino, I have been very reluctant to buy Italian wine in the US (for the record, the stuff you can get on the ground there is, in fact, outstanding and reputation worthy).
I know I’m not the only one who has noticed a problem. On their return from Italian vacations, people always ask why the wines they had while there are so much better than the same Italian wines they buy here. Sadly, there’s a good reason for it — they are usually different wines.
Trust Your Mouth: Imported Italian Wines Are Often Not Real Italian Wines
I first discovered this when MC Ice and I went to Italy on a wine boondoggle with the big hulking winery I used to work for. The facility, which happened to be in Montalcino (where they make Brunello) put on a big dog and pony show about the wines they made for export. It was all very polished, but I knew this wasn’t the whole story. So while the others were guzzling wine and taking pictures, we pulled aside one of the representatives and I asked him in my broken Italian (man, I’m rusty. Gotta get Rosetta Stone or something) if they used the same “formula” for stuff they sold locally. He laughed and said, very forcefully, “NO!” He confirmed what I already knew — they “sanitize” the wines for the US market. So disappointing. I made him sell me three bottles of the wines they sold in Italy. We’re still holding them to drink!
But I digress.
Stripping the earthiness, mouthdrying tannins, and flavor out of the grapes by letting them get over-ripe and then excessively filtering them, means the wines are often shadows of themselves. Also many producers, in their haste to make a buck and to meet demand, neglect the basics of agriculture and grow the grapes in crap places for winegrowing. The resulting wines are nothing but alcoholic lemon water in the case of whites or alcoholic cranberry juice in the case of reds. It’s really a pity because it winds up giving people a poor view of what these wines should taste like.
The Soave Case Study: How To Ruin A Great Wine with the Help of the Italian Government
Probably no case is more stark than that of Soave (SWAH-vey).
Soave is a region and a municipality in northeastern Italy, mostly in and around the famed home of Romeo and Juliet — Verona. Here, the native Garganega (gar-GAHN-ega) grape is the basis for all white wines, with a little Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), Verdicchio (verd-IK-eeyo, here also known as Trebbiano di Soave), and Chardonnay. The wines of Soave are all white — most are dry, some are sparkling, and a small quantity are made from sweet late harvest grapes and are called Recioto.
If you’ve heard of Soave, you may have a really bad impression of it, especially if you’re in the US. Because in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, this wine was mass produced in such a scale that it surpassed Chianti in popularity. The producers, lead by Bolla, transformed this medium-bodied, Chardonnay-like wine into a flavorless white. They made seas of it and people bought it up.
The demand was high, so in true Italian fashion, the government decided to expand the borders of the region to areas that weren’t suited to the Garganega grape. Here the plant could produce staggering quantities (fertile soils that did no favors for the flavor, but ensured there’d be plenty of grapes with which to make the crap wine). Instead of protecting the good stuff, the good old Italian government allowed the reputation of the area to get drowned in a sea of cheap swill.
The quality producers in the traditional areas of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone, which are hilly and have less fertile soils, were ripped about this new development. Growing Garganega in good vineyards allows the grapes to develop slowly and gather more fruit, acid, and mineral tastes. This overgrown, flavorless ick completely devalued the quality product and the regions in which it was developed. Even after the Italian government offered to give Soave Classico, which included Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone, its own DOCG (a restrictive regional designation which can be indicative of quality, this one is Soave Superiore Classico), the damage was done. Like most products, once you devalue wine and charge a low, low price for it, most people aren’t willing to spend a lot more for the good stuff. The reputational damage was nasty.
Things went from bad to worse. By the mid to late 1990s, cheap Pinot Grigio from Veneto had stolen the flavorless, cheap, alcoholic lemon water export market and Soave was left to pick up the pieces. No one wanted the cheap stuff and no one believed the “Classico” was worth the prices the producers needed to charge to cultivate their grapes for quality. What a cluster.
Soave Today: A (Limited) Return to Goodness
So fast forward two decades. Soave is still one of the most popular whites in Italy but demand elsewhere has slowed and even though it’s refreshing, has great acid, and relatively low alcohol, it’s not a wine one most people’s radar.
Given all the stuff I’ve told you, you can understand why. But, I gotta give a vote for the underdog here — Soave Superiore Classico is good. And it’s a good alternative to Chardonnay. It’s got kicking acidity, tastes like what a waterfall smells like, and has some light almond and lemon flavors. And it’ s generally not put in oak so it doesn’t have a heaviness to it. With summer coming in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a good one to have around for sipping with cheese and crackers outside.
Although I’m a fan, I’m issuing a pretty stern warning on this wine! You’ve got to be careful when shopping for Soave that you only buy the Superiore Classico (not the general DOC) and that you shop by producer. There are about 4 or 5 that are good, and the rest…blech.
Top Soave Producers: Caveat Emptor
Gini, Pieropan, and Inama (review below) are outstanding. And if you can get your hands on it, try the Anselmi Capitel Foscarino (this one isn’t a Soave Classico because the producer refuses to associate himself with a region of such ill repute — I’m not kidding about the producers being pissed at the Italian government for expanding the boundaries!) — it’s a Soave but doesn’t say so on the label.
2010 Inama Soave Classico
(A family operation, Inama has been around since the 1950s and has been focused on proving that Soave is awesome. They only use old vines, which creates more concentrated flavor. They monitor their vines really closely, making sure they aren’t overgrown so each grape gets the most flavor. I did a mini-review of this wine a few years ago and I think this vintage was even better!).
The Grape: 100% Garganega
Where it’s from: Soave, Veneto, Northeastern Italy
Color: The color of a brass horn, this wine was rich in color. It had a little spritzy bubble to it.
Smell: Ooo this was delicious. It smelled like a spa! Like mineral or hot springs, it was pungent in a good way. On second sniff it was like lemons, pineapple, and honey. I thought I caught a whiff of vanilla, which is normally from oak, but I can’t seem to find any notes from Inama to confirm or deny that the wine saw the inside of a barrel. Either way, it was a good smelling wine.
Taste: With a light spritz and little bitterness, this wine had a perfect combo of minerals, lemons, limes, and ACID. It was so lively and interesting. Great texture and a nice, medium wine, it was lighter than a Chardonnay but so different in that it was kind of nutty and more floral (I don’t eat flowers, but after the wine left my mouth the taste of what flowers smell like was hanging around. You get it.).
Pairing: The wine was great on its own but when I paired it with herbed chevre (goat cheese) on a baguette it rocked my world. The pairing created a totally new flavor for both the food and the wine, making everything taste creamy, herbal, and honeyed with mineral flavor (think waterfalls) that reminded me of why food and wine are best friends! SO fabulous.
Drink or sink?: Drink. With the exception of a few from southern Italy (Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, incidentally, related to Gargenega) I’m not a big advocate for Italian whites, but this Soave is a must have. It’s a delicious wine and should be in your rotation. For under $20, awesome. Inama is definitley doing its part to restore the reputation of Soave. Good on them!
Have you written off Soave or are you with me? What did you think? Please share your experience!