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Soave, with its Scaliger Castle encompassing the town and the abruptly and spectacularly rising hills in the background, is perfectly situated for tourism on the A4, the autostrada between Verona and Padua. However, this has only a marginal effect on the booking frequency of the few hotels in the area. Instead of taking a short detour into the city, people tend to step on the accelerator. Looking at the old, Venetian-influenced buildings on Via Roma and tasting the bigoli all'anatra at the Trattoria dal Moro may still pass for a promising tourist tip, but the fact that you should stop in Soave primarily to drink your way through the great wines of the region is beyond the imagination of most passers-by.

Just how bad Soave's reputation really is was demonstrated to the few exhibiting vintners of the region at a tasting of Italian wines in Vienna at the beginning of the year. Even the most consistent tasters and, even worse, the most ironclad drinkers, to whom any wine, no matter how arbitrary, is worth a note and a sip, gave the white wines from the Veneto a wide berth. It didn't help that a German-speaking animator who had been specially brought along took the people by the hand to explain the advantages and diversity of Garganega. "Yes, yes, we know it, we always drink it at our Italian restaurant, thank you" was the answer, and they quickly fled to Tuscany.

"Yes, we know it too," says Marianna Carpene from the Inama winery. "Unfortunately, it's hardly any different in Italy. Here, too, Soave is associated with thin and inconsequential cheap wine into which you can also pour ice cubes or Aperol." Several factors are to blame. On the one hand, the large cooperatives, which - although the quality is rising discreetly - have relied on huge quantities for decades, no matter what the result. On the other hand, the thousands of Italians who left for Germany in the course of the recruitment agreement in the 1950s and covered the city and the country with pizzerias. And ultimately, of course, their consumers. The spaghetti and the Quattro Stagione had to be washed down as authentically as possible, with Soave, which had to be one thing above all: cheap.

Vineyards near Castelcerino (Photo: Balestri Valda)

From Garganega to Sauvignon Blanc

Even today, the wines are still produced at dumping prices, but a winegrowers' scene has developed that is gradually demonstrating the great qualities of the volcanic soils, the often steeply sloping terraces and the old Garganega vines. Of course, this was already known almost 100 years ago. At that time, Soave was compared to Chablis, probably rightly so, because of its elegance, minerality and tautness, and this is exactly the direction in which it has been heading again for some years.

At the top of Monte Foscarino, you can get a good overview of the region. Soave is to the right, in the southwest, a few metres above sea level, Monteforte d'Alpone to the left, barely five kilometres away. In between and a little to the north is the core zone, 1,700 hectares of Soave Classico, a sometimes gentle, sometimes steeply rising sea of vines of Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave. Planted almost entirely in pergola veronese, it appears dense and impenetrable, a green carpet that covers the landscape below in waves, broken only by olive trees and cypresses. Or else, but this is reserved for only a few winemakers, from international vines raised in Guyot, mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

"Sauvignon, amazingly, was the first wine we bottled ourselves. This was back in the 80s and at that time classic Soave was definitely at its lowest point," Marianna continues, visibly impressed herself by the scenic beauty surrounding her. "The days for top-quality Garganega seemed numbered at the time, but at least it left the opportunity to experiment."

Grapes for Soave (Photo: Az. Agr. Prà)

Trend towards steel and big wood

This is what Stefano Inama did. First with Sauvignon Blanc, which pays much more tribute to its volcanic subsoil than to the eternal Sauvignon aromas and comes up with strong pepper, pineapple and minerality, then later, somewhat distantly, in the Colli Berici, Soave's red wine enclave, with Carmenère (the largest Carmenère vineyard outside Chile) and Cabernet. Above all, with ever more meticulousness and knowledge, they tried to elicit from the soil its idiosyncratic nuances and from the Garganega its fine floral notes. To do this, however, a few fundamental decisions had to be made first. Instead of replacing the old Garganega vines, all planted in pergolas, they decided to perfect the pergolas and rely on the intensity of the old vines.

They are sometimes as thick as tree trunks and you can't imagine how deep the roots are in the basalt. Judging by the dense, elegant, but above all extremely mineral structure of the wines, some layers of rock have probably been blasted through. And this is already the case with the simple Classico, which also contains herbs, laurel and a few flowers. But even more so with the Vigneto du Lot and the Vigneto Foscarino, two of the 51 single vineyards in the Soavian region - both juicy, precise, elegant, with pressure and length, one with a little new wood, the other with a little used.

Garganega tolerates both quite well. However, the tendency is clearly towards steel and large barrels. Not so much because the grape could not also skilfully play out its baroque sides, but rather because the establishment of the single vineyard has essentially sharpened the awareness of a special terroir. This is why Inama, who went against the trend in the 80s and 90s and relied on barriques, radically reduced their use again.

Home of the "Divine Comedy

Vines and roses in the vineyard (Photo: Balestri Valda)

There are a few barriques in the cellar of Balestri Valda, but the Garganega from the Vigneto Sengialta "spent its youth in 20 hectolitre barrels of Slavonian oak," Laura Rizzotto says, adding that "the search for salvation went via California. At some point, everyone tried fat wines: "We just tried everything to get out of the misery." With wines like the Sengialta, this should succeed in the long run, even without wood. In the Veronese dialect, "Sengia" means "black stone", and "alta" refers to the altitude of the site. 150 metres above Soave, on just under three hectares, a single vineyard opens up where the vines are often more than 50 years old. The old ones form a classic pergola roof, over the young vines, raised in Guyot, you can see far to the south, to the plain of the Adige and the Pos. To a land where, legend has it, Dante wrote parts of the "Divine Comedy" and to which he is said to have given his name. Soave - sweet, mild, pleasant. Sweet in the here and now is above all the Recioto di Soave Spumante, a bubbly version of the still sweet wine. The grapes are dried from September to February, then briefly in barriques and for a long time in steel tanks, where they undergo a secondary fermentation. The result is a serious rival for any Moscato: almonds and dried apricots, fine vanilla undertones and tingling freshness.

"For the Sengialta, we don't go into the vineyard until October," Laura continues, "we want substance. However, no over-ripeness and certainly no botrytis." Clear aromas and structure is Balestri Valda's decided motto, and what presents itself in the glass is precisely floral and salty, fresh and intense, a ping-pong between nuts and lemons. But because Soave can be as diverse as Veltliner and as complex as Chardonnay, there is also a special selection. The 70 percent Garganega of the Luna Longa 2009 is in steel tanks, but because Soave is not only made of Garganega but also of Trebbiano di Soave, the remaining 30 percent of it goes into small used barrels and in combination delivers a dense, chalky wine that exposes layers of acacia and dried fruit, almonds and pepper.

Landscape in the Soave region (Photo: Az. Agr. Prà)

University of Milan as cooperation partner

Up in Fittá, a good 300 metres above Soave, countless rows of vines still stretch along. Just how spectacular the Soave wine landscape is becomes clear, especially up here. Aesthetically, there is hardly any need to hide from Tuscany, but not sensory either. "Over there are our Trebbiano vines," says Alessandra Tessari, one of four young sisters who run the Suavia winery, pointing to a steep terraced site. Together with the university in Milan, Valentina, her sister, has exposed old Trebbiano di Soave clones here. Trebbiano di Soave has little in common with the other Trebbianos found in Italy. It is, also unlike Garganega, tricky to grow, prone to fungal diseases and not particularly productive. This is one reason why it gradually disappeared from the region's vineyards. The Tessaris are now trying to revive it, not only by blending it with Garganega, but consistently as a single variety. Massi Fitti was first launched in 2008 and is a homage to regional traditions. At the same time, however, it is a commitment to the soil and terroir, a complex structure of orange zest and dark spice, long, creamy and dense. Above all, however, it is an attempt to revive hidden and long-forgotten qualities.

The fact that the university in Milan cooperated with the Tessaris undoubtedly also has to do with the sisters' two impressive Garganega crus. Again, the whole range of the variety is exhausted and while the Monte Carbonare (the coal mountain) already reveals its whole programme in its name, presenting itself mineral, bony and elegant, the Soave Le Rive with its 50-year-old vines is a lush companion, which is only released after three years, and which would certainly benefit from a few more years in the cellar.

Vineyards in autumn (Photo: Balestri Valda)

Organic versus mass-produced wine

"Garganega ripens perfectly," Filippo Filippi nods in confirmation, but before we verify that, he happily insists on taking a tractor ride past his vineyards. They are one Katzensprung away from Suavia, and a few metres higher up again. The vines stretch up to almost 500 metres over the hilltops, embedded in small woods and well ventilated by the wind that blows over the hills. It also brings rain and drives us into a limestone cave that has been knocked out by humans. The terraced walls of the vineyards are built of limestone, as is the 13th century house of the Filippis. The Vigneto Menteseroni is also built on limestone, one of the lesser white nuggets in the volcanic land - Filippo farms it biodynamically - stone-aged vines that stand in a meadow of flowers, as it were. Filippi is by no means the only one who works here in a decidedly organic way. Inama is also certified and Suavia works organically.

On the one hand, they rely on all the advantages of healthy and vital soils, but on the other hand, it is also a conscious counterpoint to the pesticide attacks down in the plain, where the imposing sea of vines is always broken by white clouds of steam and the wine is created that still shapes the German image of Soave. Una Pizza con funghi con un bicchiere di funghicidi, per favore. You can have fun with the winegrowers here and at the same time see how seriously they take their opponents - because they are the big cooperatives, the price pushers and the coining of the negative image. Litres go for 55 cents in the gastronomy, for 99 cents on the supermarket shelves. In order to be able to satisfy the demand for cheap wines, the borders of the classic Soave region were simply blown up in the times of wine industrialisation. "Back then, 8,000 hectares were simply added to the 1,700 hectares of terroir," says Filippo and pours. Up here, there are only single vineyards, the Vigne della Brà, Castelcerino and Turbiana, and their basic tendency is mineral, creamy (the wines stay on the lees for a long time), precise and finely nutty.

And Filippo, the steward of many traditions up here, also has his own Trebbiano di Soave. Also without uni, but 80 years old and full of fine floral notes. And then there is his Garganega Spätlese, which he simply leaves on the skins for three months and which surpasses everything that has gone before in terms of radicality and originality. Orange is not only the tone-setting fruit note but also the colour, a little honey is underlaid with salt and the length, acidity and elegance can still be felt on the drive down to the old Scaliger plant Soave.

Filippo Filippi and employee at the harvest (Photo: Filippo Filippi)

Scale Chablis

There, on just a few square metres, are as many historical references as elsewhere in metropolises. Between Scaliger and Venetian, Roman and Renaissance, there is also the villa of Leonildo Pieropan. In the adjoining shop, a few Dutchmen (the purpose of caravans suddenly becomes clear - storage space for wine boxes!) are tasting. Pieropan's La Rocca has opened the eyes of many in the last two decades and demonstrated where great Soave can lead - to the top of the world. No wine in Soave scratches as much against the great Grand Crus of Chablis as this little masterpiece. This is also due to the fact that the Garganega vines of La Rocca stand on the only dedicated limestone site in Soave. Directly above the Castello, they occupy five hectares, and if the wine that Dante drank came from this site, then his long stay in the castle and his enthusiasm for Soave are absolutely understandable. La Rocca has it all: the wine is more opulent than its compagnons, but without shedding its chalky bones; it is exotic and juicy, spicy and as long as the family's history.

In 1890, the first wine was produced in the Pieropan house, Leonildo the village doctor was responsible for it. Today, a Leonildo is still at the helm, his nephew, and underpins what Pieropan has long stood for - the winery is a pioneer for the whole region and its wines are also highly regarded among colleagues. Among them, too, there is something of a battle of faith as to which of Pieropan's two crus is number one. For many it is La Rocca, for just as many it is Calvarino. The second single vineyard of the Pieropans is not as spectacularly situated as La Rocca, but the substance of the Calvarino easily stands up to it. Vinified in steel tanks, it is basically leaner, tighter, more elegant - but at the same time it is also more mineral, more vital, fresher. The verdict should probably depend on the condition of the day. The Dutch are still in a good state of mind, they are currently enjoying the Recioto and are visibly taken with the dried fruit notes, the apricots, its softness and warmth.

View of Castelcerino (Photo: Filippo Filippi)

Independent winegrowers

On the other side of La Rocca, we descend over the hills to Monteforte d'Alpone, the eastern bastion of Soave Classico and home to many excellent winemakers. One of them is Graziano Prà, who, however, quickly disappears into the vineyards and leaves the rest to his German export manager Laura Meile. You are perfectly at ease sitting on the terrace, watching a lizard crossing a red-washed wall and the vines growing on Monte Staforte. "Graziano also has only hillside vineyards," Laura tells us, "all of them organic. However, the Garganega gardens are unfortunately not certified, as spraying is still going on like crazy around their own gardens."

The eternal dilemma also exists here in Monteforte. However, together with Pieropan, Inama and nine other winegrowers, the "vignaioli independenti", the independent winegrowers of Soave, have been founded and are trying - individually and yet together - to make a stronger impression. Principles are also followed and the balance of the ecosystem and the entire production cycle is at the forefront.

It has been a long time since Prà himself was one of the suppliers for the cooperatives. Since 1990 he has been bottling himself, initially together with his brother Sergio, who worked in the vineyard while Graciano was to be found in the cellar and in the world, in a constant effort to present Soave's true face. This is immediately found in the Monte Staforte, which is fragrant and creamy, tight and salty, a rather modern interpretation of Soave, which is then immediately opposed by the classic version, the Monte Grande. The eternal duality of Soave - it is fun and impressive in its diversity.

Graziano Prà (Photo: Az. Agr. Prà)

World-class wines at bargain prices

Monte Grande is a monument. There are 6,000 bottles of it, a whole two hectares, pure volcanic stone, old vines, densely planted. The grapes are not harvested before mid-October. The wine is fermented spontaneously and remains on the yeast for ten months. The result is exotic and floral, powerful and dense, elegant and so long-lived that it almost pains you to have to wait so long. A third star is added to Prà's two-star triumvirate, unlike most other winemakers. The Colli Sant'Angelo is a single small garden, the last to be harvested in the year, and is very discreetly oriented towards German Spätlesen. A touch more residual sugar, but the acidity is really crisp. In its entirety, it is a harmonious contemporary that has orange zest and marzipan in its repertoire and presents a bit of the Nouvelle Vague of Soave.

Unlike almost all other wineries - whose export markets are mainly overseas and in the far north of Europe - Prà does not give Germany a wide berth. Laura's father provided the first imports almost two decades ago and they have developed even further under her aegis.

The hope that other vintners will soon succeed in doing the same is alive, but it depends crucially on the German consumer, who often prefers cheap to good. The fact that here in Soave you can actually have both, world-class wines at sometimes absurdly low prices, should at least be an initial incentive for him.

To the article "BEST OF Soave" with ranking list

All recently tasted Soave DOC in the wine guide

All recently tasted Soave DOCG in the wine guide

All recently tasted Soave Classico DOC in the Wine Guide

All recently tasted Soave Classico DOCG in the Wine Guide

All recently tasted Soave Superiore DOCG in the Wine Guide

All recently tasted Recioto di Soave DOCG in the Wine Guide

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