The Return of Soave

David Perry

There was a time when if you dined at any Italian restaurant and asked for the “house” white, you would get a Soave. As well-regarded for its white wines as Tuscany is for its reds, the Soave commune, prosaically flung across the gently rolling eastern hills of Italy’s Verona province (of Two Gentlemen fame and part of the larger Veneto region), the Soave was in another age the bed of a shallow tropical sea. Throw in a little tectonic upthrust, a little prehistoric tufaceous volcanism and voila! The result is the terroir perfect for the commune’s native varietal wine grape, the Garganega. The starting point of the Soave’s complex and multifaceted white wines, each with a rich mineral quality and distinctively fresh, clean and fruit-forward flavor, the Garganega has for centuries produced noble, elegant and harmonious wines praised throughout Italian history and literature.

 

And then came that other white wine. Pinot Grigio became so popular so fast that Soave wines suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of fashion. There was nothing in the way of bad harvests, a drop-off in production, an opinion-turning corporate malfeasance on the part of the wineries. Soave wines were simply not in vogue.

 

But you can’t keep a good wine down. The Soave is now playing the wine equivalent of hardball, reinventing and revamping its stodgy image for a new era of wine consumption and wine consumers by playing up the area’s historic strengths and vintages. The Garganega of Soave produces wines with delicate flavors of pear, pineapple, and apricot that become fuller and more luscious with age. The following two wines are emblematic of the Soave’s new gung-ho attitude. And if some johnny-come-lately wants a fight, well, as another Italian once said: Carpe diem.

 

Il Casale Soave Classico DOC (12% average ABV)

Considered the heart of historic Soave, the Monteforte D’Alpone commune is home to La Albare, a small wine producer headed by Stefano Posenato.

 

“In my vineyards, I grow only Garganega grapes trained according to the ‘Pergola Veronese’ system; the vines grow first upwards and then outwards to meet the leaders of the vines in the parallel rows, forming a canopy,” Posenato explains. “This ensures that the bunches of mature grapes are kept high enough above the ground to escape the low mists that can encourage molding and rotting.” Indeed, Posenato takes several precautions to render a wine “that reflects the identity of a ‘true’ Soave, with its original historical characteristics.”

 

In the case of Soave Classico, made only with Garganega, those historical characteristics manifest in a lively, fresh and elegant dry white wine with a pleasant acidity. “For my Soave Classico DOC,” continues Posenato, “the most important technique that I use is called Doppia Maturazione Ragionata dell’Uva (“double well thought ripening of the grapes”). The process is as follows: 25-30 days before the beginning of the harvest, near the end of September, we go through the vineyards and cut off the vine shoots carrying the bunches – thus leaving the grape bunches to dry up in the vineyards. These steps provide grapes with higher sugar levels and low acid content.”

The resulting wine is a pale straw in color with green reflections. The delicate perfumes are reminiscent of honey from acacia and hawthorn, with a delicate note of sourness – an excellent accompaniment to pastas, fish, and meats. (And for those who aren’t die-hard enophiles, the “DOC” on the name stands for “Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata” (DOC).  Such wines are produced in specific well-defined regions, according to specific rules designed to preserve the traditional wine-making practices of the individual regions.)

 

Pianello Soave Excelsa (12.9% ABV)

Hailing from the family vineyards of Cantina Riondo, 2010 was a worrisome year,  not only for them, but the entire Soave: The general rule of thumb for wineries is that hot dry summers, and cool, wet winters produce the best vintages. Riondo got just the opposite. Frequent rain throughout spring, summer, and into fall was a cause of concern for grape-growers who feared that the health of their fruit would be compromised. But in one of those quirky “happy accidents,” winemakers across the Soave, and Verona and beyond, found that their harvests ended with superior quality. In fact, the 2010 harvest is now regarded for having produced harmonious, balanced and elegant wines, endowed with bright, vibrant acidity and measured alcohol content.

Pianello Soave Excelsa represents a new style of Soave wine, right down to the elegant sweep of the bottle. Heralded as a no-fuss wine, and straw-yellow in color, with a generous floral perfume and an elegant, zesty acidity and a lingering mineral finish, the vintage is hailed as having a “generous floral nose” with “honeyed fruity flavors typical of Soave,” hints of apricot and pear dance across the palate, creating a wine delicious with classic Italian and Asian dishes.

 

Respect the Cheese

The Soave (and the territory beyond) isn’t only known for its wines. Also ignominiously shoved into a Number 2 position, when it comes to the family of Italian cheeses, think of Grana Padano as the ignored sibling. It has a 1000-year-old history, an official designation as to where it can and cannot be made, and some of the most catastrophically bad PR of any food product.

 

“Grana Padano was primarily only known in the trade,” explains Lou Di Palo of New York’s venerable Di Palo’s of Little Italy, which manages to cram all of Italy’s storied culinary traditions into 400 square feet of space. “People were confusing it with its ‘first cousin,’ Parmigiano-Reggiano.”

And that miffed a few people. So, in 1998, a consortium of producers “re-logoed” the cheese: Whereas before it had a vaguely anonymous cloverleaf design just on one side, Grana Padano now marches over the entire rim. Good move, De Palo explains, because although similar, the two cheeses are not identical: Grana Padano, made from raw, partially skimmed milk (thus keeping a high amount of protein), comes from—and only from—north of the Po River in upper Italy, whose soil, with alluvial flows from the Alps, is markedly different from that south of the river, the native habitat of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Different soil ultimately leads to different cheese.

 

And then there are the classifications, and Grana Padano, once it passes muster with an inspector, has three, each determined by the amount of time the cheese is allowed to age: 12-14 months (mild, the most versatile with foods), 16-20 months (the most commonly sold), and over 20 months-plus (branded the “Riserva” stage). But it is unwise to approach the stages with a “good-better-best” mentality. The determiner is taste: The older the cheese, the sharper it gets.

 

Says Di Palo: “The 12-month Grana Padano is a little softer and is fantastic with sparkling wine as an aperitif. It’s fantastic if you shave it, make an omlette with it, or, if you wanted to take it and shave it on soup. The 16-18 month is the best age to have as a dessert cheese; not too dry or sharp or intense. When I get to the Riserva, I like it very much when I’m having it together with a nice, full-bodied red wine.”

 

And there is a whole tradition to Grana Padano, dubbed “respecting the cheese.” From creation, through storage and inspection and on to display, a ritualized care as exacting as that of wine is observed. To watch Di Palo, fourth of five generations behind the counter (he is 60, but likes to say he’s spent 61 years behind the counter…think about it), crack a wheel open (Grana Padano is a hard cheese, and is not cut so much as cracked) gives every impression that he is a proud part of a history that goes back to 1135 when Cistercian monks came up with an idea to store their excess milk.

 

Author Bio:

New York City-based writer David Perry once taught English in Japan and was a writer for NASA. His work has since appeared in The Advocate, Instinct, Trader Monthly, and Dealmaker magazines, plus publications for the American Foundation of Savoy Orders and the Huguenot Historical Society of New Paltz, NY.

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