After dodging hailstones the size of conkers during a storm in Italy, Christine Austin revisits a wine just waiting to be found

The sky turned from blue to black in just a few minutes and as we headed down the mountain, huge hailstones, the size of conkers, rained down on the car. We sheltered under a large tree, although this was not perhaps the most sensible thing to do since there was lightening streaking across the sky. Then, within minutes it was all over. The ground was littered with ice, water streamed through the vineyards and thankfully the grapes, almost ready to harvest, seemed to have survived the attack.

Hail is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a grape harvest. It cuts the leaves, damages the fruit and can lead to an almost total loss of crop.

Storm clouds gather over Soave

My guide for the day in this part of Soave was Chiara from the Consorzio of Soave, and although she was very concerned that there was no damage to her boss’s car from those huge hailstones, she was pleased that the vineyards in question were trained on the pergola system.

‘You see, the leaves on the top of the pergolas protect the fruit.’

 

 

Soave has not been on my radar for many years. It is one of those wines that used to be on restaurant wine lists but seems to have lost out to the popularity of wines from New Zealand, South Africa and Chile.

This is a mistake. In those intervening years Soave has re-discovered its terroir, its quality and individuality of style. It goes with so many foods, settling around the dish, rather than dominating and it is still amazingly affordable. This is a wine just waiting to be found.

First the name – So – ahh – vay, apparently comes from the name of some ancient marauding tribe from the north. The region is in the north of Italy, close to Verona and it spreads across the slopes of three valleys and some of the surrounding flatlands.

Soil types vary across this small region. Once covered by a sea, there is fossil-rich limestone in the west, and then over time various volcanic eruptions caused a massive heave of the land and dumped layers of basalt in the east. This variation of soil gives complexity to the wine.

There are various classifications of the wines, starting with Soave DOC; the definitely better quality Soave Classico DOC from the heartland of the region; Soave Superiore DOCG which needs an almost negligible 0.5% more alcohol and Soave Colli Scaligeri DOC. There is also the recent development of Crus, specific plots of vines that, from historic times have always produced the best fruit. These 47 vineyard names are an attempt to pull quality up and provide definition for the region.

The town of Soave is perfectly beautiful. Dominated by a 10th century castle that climbs majestically up a hill, it barely seems to have changed since medieval days. There are still some wineries and cellars within the city walls, so this is not just a tourist trap but a working wine town.

The main grape is Garganega, a late-ripening, thick-skinned white grape that produces yellow plum, citrus and almond flavours. So long as yields are kept in check then it produces excellent elegant wines. The region also allows limited quantities of Trebbiano di Soave in a blend. As for the method of training there are two schools of thought. The flatlands suit long rows of vines trained like hedges while the hillsides are suited to the pergola system. It was the pergola system that survived the hailstones remarkably well, but these overhead vines must be worked by hand so costs are high.

Garganega grapes grow on overhead pergolas

With 7000 hectares of vines and 3000 growers, it is clear that many growers need to rely on the co-operative to make their wines. I visited the largest co-operative in the region, Cantina di Soave, and was impressed by their determination to make the best quality available. They use GPS monitoring in the vineyards, grape analysis and careful separation of specific parcels to drive quality up. They produce many of the own-label Soave and Soave Classico wines that you will see in Waitrose, Morrisons and Tesco. Try the light, fresh-tasting Soave at Waitrose, just £4.99.

The real quality of the region comes from small producers who have total control of vineyards, yields and winemaking. Here are some of the best.

 

Coffele

Giuseppe Coffele is 73 but he still turns up for work at his winery in the heart of Soave town every day. With 27 hectares of vines at around 260 metres above sea level based on limestone, he is definitely in favour of pergola training for Garganega grapes. His wines have a distinct concentration, vivacity and depth. Try Castel Cerino 2016, Soave Classico DOC, £9.50 The Wine Society (01438 741177).

Giuseppe Coffee, still in charge at his family’s winery at the age of 73

 

Gini

This family has been growing grapes in the Montefort part of Soave since the 16th century and they make simply stunning wines. The hailstorm prevented us visiting their pre-phylloxera vineyard, but the fact that they still cultivate that vineyard demonstrates that this family works in the old-style way. Old vines, low yields and perfect attention to detail produces herb-sprinkled, stone fruit flavours with lime freshness and a crunchy, minerally finish. I very rarely carry bottles of wine home with me, but I made an exception in this case. Try Gini Soave Classico 2016, £14.95 www.winedirect.co.uk or Justerini and Brooks.

 

Claudio Gini, maker of fabulous Soave wines

Inama

A third-generation family company that is now pushing the boundaries of viticulture for red grapes by planting Carmenère in the Veneto. But they make stunning Soave too. Grown on black basalt slopes in the east of the region, the wines have light, floral aromatics with apricot notes and a distinct minerally streak. Try Soave Classico 2016, £13.99 Majestic.

Pieropan

Housed in the town centre in Soave, Pieropan has been making wine for over a century. Calvarino is a single vineyard wine, grown on basalt soils and the style is fresh and floral, with citrus, herbs and almond notes. Perfect with a creamy, herb-spiked pasta dish. Try Calvarino Soave Classico 2015 Roberts and Speight, £19.99

Vicenti Agostino

A family-owned property producing bitingly fresh, mineral-charged wines with character and length. Try Soave Classico, Terre Lunghe, £11.25, Philglass and Swiggot, London, £11.25

Vicentini Agostino with his wife (right) Teresa and daughter (centre) Francesca

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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