Posted December 20, 2017
Summary: Soave DOC is Veneto’s most prestigious denomination for still white wine, made primarily from Garganega. The wines produced in the hilly Classico subzone are the most highly regarded, while the collocated Soave Superiore DOCG is on its way out. A small amount of sweet dessert wine is produced in the collocated Recioto di Soave DOCG.
Location: Soave (pronounced SWAH-vay) is a small town of some 7,000 inhabitants about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Verona in the region of Veneto. It and the nearby, slightly larger town of Monteforte d’Alpone lie along a line that separates the flat plains of the Po River Valley to the south from the Alpine foothills to the north. The villages of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone are both on the flatlands, but between them and to the north is a large volcanic outcropping that rises 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the valley floor. It is here in the high ground, as well as a few other smaller hills in the vicinity, that vines have been grown for millennia, with most of the wine being made in the towns below.
The Soave DOC extends to the west, north, and south of its namesake commune. It is sort of rectangular with the top left corner missing, measuring 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) across its east–west base and 13 kilometers (8 miles) north to south. The missing top left corner belongs to the Valpolicella denominations, and the tiny Soave facsimile Gambellara is just to the east. A little-used, mainly red-wine denomination called Arcole is adjacent to the south.
Grape varieties: The wines of Soave DOC are primarily based on Garganega, a white variety that is one of the oldest in Italy (it seems to be the progenitor of many other native Italian grapes). Most of the top producers stick to Garganega alone, but the rules allow blending in up to 30% Trebbiano di Soave or, controversially, Chardonnay. Trebbiano di Soave, also called Turbiana, is a quality grape variety unrelated to the other generally mediocre grapes called Trebbiano (except Trebbiano di Lugana) and is actually a genetic match to the Marche’s Verdicchio. Of the 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of vines in Soave, 88% are Garganega and less than 5% are Chardonnay or Trebbiano di Soave.
Subzones and collocated denominations: The Soave area comprises three “Soave” denominations, but the main one, Soave DOC, accounts for 99.5% of production. It has two subzones: Classico, which is confined to the volcanic mount north and east of Soave town, and Colli Scaligeri (pronounced KOH-lee ska-LEE-jah-ree), which includes most of the other islands of higher terrain in the area. The other two denominations, Soave Superiore and Recioto di Soave, are both DOCGs. Their boundaries are defined by the combined Classico and Colli Scaligeri subzones, excluding the non-subzone lowland vineyards; neither of them allows more than 5% Chardonnay in the blend.
Styles of wine: Nearly all Soave wines are dry, still, white wines. Soave DOC does allow a sparkling version, but only a half dozen or so wineries make one. Recioto di Soave DOCG, of course, produces only sweet wines with a minimum of 70 grams per liter residual sugar; for lovers of the obscure, it also permits a sweet sparkling version. Garganega, the leading player in Soave wines, is characterized by aromas and flavors of white flowers, apricot, citrus, yellow apple, and hay, with a notable minerality.
Commercial aspects: The big kahuna of Soave is the Cantina di Soave cooperative, which produces almost half of the area’s wine, as well as a lot of Valpolicella and the majority of sparkling Lessini Durello DOC. Altogether, its current output is 2.5 million cases (not just of Soave) from five production facilities and 2,200 growers, and it has just announced an expansion to a potential capacity of 6.7 million cases. Like many of northern Italy’s cooperatives, however, this is a quality operation that shouldn’t be dismissed because of its size.
Soave is an export brand. Of the 4.4 million cases of Soave produced, only 16% of it is consumed in Italy. More than half of production is exported to Germany or the United Kingdom (6% to the United States). About three quarters of the area’s wine is dry, still, non-subzone Soave DOC. Most of the rest is Soave DOC from the Classico subzone. The amount of wine labeled as Colli Scaligeri is negligible, and the two DOCGs together produce only about 25,000 cases of wine.
Big changes are coming to Soave in an effort to simplify the brand name and improve the overall quality level. Revisions to the disciplinare expected to be proposed in 2018 will delete the largely ignored Colli Scaligeri subzone and probably the sparkling wine option for Soave. Bigger still would be the proposal to abolish the Soave Superiore DOCG—whose requirements for riper grapes and longer aging run counter to the preferred model of Soave as fresh and lively—which would be the first reduction in DOCG numbers in, well, ever. It is also likely that Chardonnay will lose its welcome in Soave DOC wines and (as Trebbiano Toscano was a few years ago) be relegated to the 5% “other grape varieties” category that is allowed in the blend. Finally, reversing the simplification trend, Soave is planning to introduce a list of 64 menzioni geografiche aggiuntive (MeGAs) or “crus” that can be included on a wine label to indicate an identified parcel within the denomination.