The wine trade has its favourite tropes, often clinging onto them far beyond their sell-by dates. German Riesling and Sherry are the unsung heroes that consumers “just don’t get” is a popular lament that nonetheless carries a positive spin – seemingly, no wine professional ever has a bad word to say about either.
In contrast, when the trade and wine media get their teeth into a region, it can get ugly. Italy’s most famous white wine, DOC Soave, has been more or less continuously derided as “industrial swill” (Robert Parker), “insipid” (Eric Asimov), or even as a “crap, peasant wine” (Nick Passmore, Forbes) for decades. Its cardinal sin? A rapid rise to global fame and market saturation in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Soave certainly set itself up for a fall.
The official classification of the DOC in 1968 recognised the 1,500ha hilly Classico region, but then bolted on an additional 5,500ha of underperforming flatlands which form the more basic Soave DOC area and produced the kind of wines which probably cooked its goose. Garganega’s generous yields, sometimes bulked out by Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and various Trebbiani, were pushed to the max while the good times rolled. Then, as consumers started to lust after better quality wines in the 1980s, enthusiasm faltered and prices atrophied.
The Soave Superiore DOCG, introduced for the 2002 vintage, represented another spectacular own goal. Not only did the consorzio fail to limit it to the Classico area, it also prioritised parameters such as higher alcohol and longer ageing – characteristics not generally considered representative of Soave, which is a light, fresh style – albeit one that can age impressively. Still, the regulatory bloopers are ancient history. Surely it’s time to move on?
No one is more frustrated about the continued negativity than consultant Sarah Abbott MW, who has been collaborating with the region since 2017 to try to improve its image. “The trade dismisses Soave because it’s commercially successful,” she says, “yet there are scores of interesting small producers making amazing wines.” Abbott MW feels that perception just hasn’t caught up with reality, citing the Consorzio di Tutela del Soave’s pioneering initiative to promote biodiversity, its research into the volcanic soils of the Classico area and the increasing number of high-end producers working with organic viticulture.
She adds that with rising prices for Garganega grapes (which must make up at least 70% of any Soave DOC or DOCG wine), and the gradual replacement of Garganega grown on the plains with the ever-more popular Pinot Grigio, “the days of rock-bottom Soave prices are well and truly gone”. The picture of a region elevating itself and proving that the bad old days are well and truly over is attractive. But is it true?
It’s still depressingly easy to find bargain-basement Soave – even Soave Classico. Almost all major supermarket brands in the EU list examples in the sub-€5 ($5.59) bracket. Tesco in the UK has an own-brand Soave DOC for just £4.35 ($5.51). Andy Howard MW, writing for jancisrobinson.com, noted that there was “nothing to recommend it”. Sainsbury’s has a similar offering for £4.40. The Netherlands’ largest multiple, Albert Heijn, offers Cadis Soave for just €3.99 and a Soave Classico for one euro more. Interspar in Austria plunges much lower, with a Soave DOC (2018 vintage) at just €1.99 and a DOC Classico at €2.74.
Perhaps these price levels are an inevitable consequence of such a huge DOC – and especially one where the largest cooperative, Cantina di Soave, remains responsible for almost half the region’s total production. The entire Soave DOC produced almost 500,000hl of wine in 2017 – a vintage not generally seen as especially bountiful. It has long since been overtaken in volume by Chianti, Prosecco and Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, but the quantities are nonetheless extremely sizeable. That said, the consorzio’s new president, Sandro Gini, draws attention to a policy to reduce yields, explaining: “In the last three years, the trend for Soave production volumes is downward, and deliberately so.”
Abbott MW also notes that Soave (along with many similar regions) has become a game of two halves – the budget wines beloved of multiple retailers (Gini confirms that the UK supermarket sector is “moving away from offering premium wine”), but also the increasingly visible and plentiful boutique and premium bottlings sold by independent wine merchants.
The higher offerings
The UK’s largest importer of organic and natural wines, Les Caves de Pyrene, works with a single Soave producer, Filippi, whose beautiful volcanic hillside vineyards are on the wrong side of the road to be in the Classico region. Les Caves’ sales director, Doug Wregg, says enthusiastically, “I think Soave got out of the rut that encompassed Orvieto and Frascati with the emergence of growers like Pieropan quite a few years ago. I see less and less of the mouthwash Soave on restaurant lists, and more of the vineyard-particular stuff.”
His views are echoed by UK fine wine merchant Jeroboams, whose wine director Peter Mitchell MW notes that: “Although basic examples are still around, it has been quite a while since Soave was widespread as one of the cheapest wines on the market, so it carries less baggage than it used to.” Jeroboams offers a range of Soave wines at both mid and premium prices and Mitchell confirms their positive performance, adding “sales are increasing year on year”.
Nonetheless, if there’s one nut that Soave has so far failed to crack, it’s the positioning as fine wine. Soave’s biggest export markets are now Germany (30%) and the UK (24%), yet it is almost invisible in the super-premium fine wine market. Merchants and brokers such as Berry Bros & Rudd or Fine & Rare Wines barely acknowledge its presence – BBR lists a single mid-priced example, and Fine & Rare has a mere half dozen listings covering Bolla, Anselmi and Pieropan. The fine wine benchmarking site www.wine-lister.com doesn’t include a single Soave in its ratings.
This compares unfavourably to other white-wine centric regions such as Friuli, where super premium wines from Gravner, Jermann and Vie di Romans are well established fine wine brands, or Alto Adige, where older vintages from Tramin or Terlan can command high prices.
Abbott MW believes that “the biggest problem is not the technical capability or the quality of the wines, it’s the way the region tells its story. They’re not very good at letting their finest wines be the ambassadors of the region.” She makes an apt comparison with Bordeaux – another large region with massive production volumes, which has nonetheless held onto its premium image since eternity, largely by letting its top wines take the central promotional role. “Soave hasn’t spoken in a loud enough voice about the very highest-quality wines that it produces,” Abbot MW concludes.
Sandro Gini is on a mission to change that. One of the region’s most lauded producers, Gini’s family introduced organic viticulture a generation ago. With enhanced fruit quality, he was able to stop working with any added sulphites during vinification from 1996 onwards. Gini’s election as president of the consorzio in 2018 has been enthusiastically received, and he’s already presided over an all-important change to regulations: all DOC and DOCG Soave must now be bottled within the denomination – previously, this was a notable loophole in the quality system.
Gini’s stated goal for the consorzio, to reduce yields and focus on higher-quality wines, seems to dovetail well with the rise and rise of Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, as many of the Cantina di Soave’s 2,200 grower members are replanting to focus on the lucrative Pinot Grigio market. The cantina itself is increasingly diversifying into neighbouring and overlapping classifications such as sparkling wines from Durello, Valpolicella, Amarone and international varieties bottled under IGP denominations. This trajectory should ensure a continued reduction in the volume of basic Soave, allowing the region to concentrate on more grown-up wines from the hill regions.
When it comes to marketability, Soave holds many trump cards. The Classico region, and the Colli Scaligeri (the additional hill sites that fall just outside the borders, such as Filippi’s vineyards) are stunningly beautiful, with the iconic castle of Soave presiding regally over the landscape. The increased popularity of the traditional pergola training methods, said to aid increased acidity and offer better protection from the sun, creates an attractive and romantic vineyard landscape. Soave’s research into, and promotion of its volcanic terroir, is extremely on-trend, considering the excitement surrounding regions such as Etna or Alto Piedmont. It’s almost a surprise that it’s not more hyped.
In a case of “it’s not me, it’s you”, Soave isn’t the one currently caught on the back foot. Rather, it’s the trade and press who need to catch up and modernise their view of the region’s wines and potential. The wine hack’s favourite Soave formula piece from any time in the past two decades – “It used to be terrible but it’s improving” – needs to be retired along with the annual missives that Riesling or Sherry will be this year’s new trend. At least no one will ever say that consumers don’t get Soave.