Soave and the Still White Wines of Veneto

BY IAN D'AGATA | JULY 11, 2019 

Located in Italy’s northeast, Veneto is bordered by Lombardy to the west, Friuli Venezia Giulia to the east, Trentino to the north and Emilia-Romagna to the south. At 18,345 square kilometers, Veneto is only the eighth-largest region of Italy, but it is the country’s biggest wine producer and exporter, boasting 28 DOCs and 14 DOCGs (eight of which share land with bordering regions). Some of these are Italy’s best-known wines, including Prosecco, Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella. Huge production volumes mean that quality is all over the board, something that is true of all Veneto wines, white or red, more so than with other Italian regions. Furthermore, simply picking wines labeled “Soave” (or “Prosecco” or “Valpolicella,” for that matter) is not enough to ensure vinous bliss, because many Veneto wines carrying important denomination names such as Soave deliver quality ranging from the sublime to the totally forgettable. At the same time, there are little-known Veneto wine denominations that offer delightfully delicious wine, often much better than what is delivered by famous appellations. The little guys deliver some real duds, too, so when it comes to Veneto wine, it’s all about knowing who the producers are, what they are potentially capable of, and what they are actually doing.

Unfortunately, choosing specific producers of high repute won’t always help; for example, many of the big-name estates of Valpolicella limit themselves to bottling a Soave wine, rather than making it on their own, and the quality in those bottles is not the same as bottles made by family-run estates whose livelihood is Soave. In fact, when it comes to Veneto wines, white or red, it is best to get out of your comfort zone: rather than reflexively reaching for a generic Soave or Veneto Pinot Grigio, even one carrying an important winery name on the label, you might want to look at what the better family-run estates are producing. Tracking down their wines isn’t always easy, because many of the more interesting still wines of Veneto are made in little-known denominations and in very small volumes, making them hard to find outside of Italy, but it’s worth the effort.

Views of the Soave vineyards.

The Veneto Numbers Game

According to 2018 data, the surface under vine in Veneto is 94,414 hectares, registering an increase of 8.27% compared to 2017 (4.78% with respect to 2016 and 8.27% compared to 2015). Most consumers associate Veneto with red wines because of the fame of Amarone and the charm of Valpolicella, but in fact it is white wine that has long ruled the region’s wine roost; in recent years, thanks to Prosecco, this has come to mean sparkling white wine in particular. For example, according to data from ISTAT (Italian National institute of Statistics), in 2005 Veneto produced 3.9 million hectoliters of white wine and 2.9 million hectoliters of red wine, most of it (4.025 million hectoliters) of IGT quality. By 2017, those numbers had changed considerably, with 6.6 million hectoliters and 1.8 million hectoliters of white and red wine, respectively, of which a whopping 6.2 million hectoliters was DOC wine. This trend toward much larger white wine production volumes began with the 2010 vintage, when Prosecco’s popularity started going through the roof. In fact, the most recent data shows that four of the five biggest Veneto wine denominations are devoted mostly to white grapes. In order, these are: generic Prosecco (Glera; 4,696,000 quintals of grapes, a 37.4% increase compared to 2017); Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie (Pinot Grigio: over 1.7 million quintals, or a 28.9% jump with respect to 2017); Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Glera again: 1.278 million quintals or a 31.0% increase); and Soave (591,000 quintals or a decrease of 12.8%). Of those Veneto production areas associated mostly with red wine, only Valpolicella cracks the top five. Much the same is true when looking at bottle figures. Veneto’s top three DOCG wines in terms of bottled volumes are (in decreasing order): Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (the best of all Proseccos, a DOCG wine), Amarone, and Asolo (which is the lesser-known and much smaller of the two Prosecco DOCGs). Again, two of the three top spots belong to white wine production. The song remains the same when DOC bottled volumes are analyzed: the top three places are occupied by Prosecco, Soave and Valpolicella Ripasso.

Veneto wine exports show the same trends as the region’s wine production. The most recent data from ISTAT, published in 2019 but reflecting 2018 figures, shows that no other Italian region exports more wine than Veneto (and exports are up 4%); again, it’s white wines, and Prosecco in particular, that are mostly responsible for this increase. The increase in DOC wine exports is paired with a fall in IGT wine exports (as borne out, for example, in a comparison of the 2016 and 2017 vintages: 6.2 million hectoliters of DOC wines and 1.9 million hectoliters of IGT wines in 2017 versus 5.7 million hectoliters and 3.5 million hectoliters in 2016), which, at first glance, ought to be a good thing. The problem is that, as mentioned above, not all of Veneto’s DOC white wines are worthy of the supposedly prestigious DOC category on the label. As the committees that grant DOC/DOCG certifications prefer to let sleeping dogs lie and often attribute DOC/DOCG “right of way” with considerable largesse (to put it charitably), wine lovers need to be aware that the quality in the bottle, though never horrible or downright flawed, often leaves a lot to be desired.

Graziano Prà and his dog Lapo El Can, successor of Otto who passed away in 2013 and after whom one of the estate's Soave is named.

Veneto’s Many Still White Wines

Looking at the numbers makes it clear that apart from Soave, no other Veneto still white wine boasts much in the way of production volume, and the result is a lack of fame and visibility for the wines. However, the region offers a large diversity of often lovely still white wines made from myriad native and international grape varieties and crossings, and things are starting to look up (this is especially true thanks to Lugana’s recent booming popularity). Of Veneto’s still white wines, clearly the best known is Soave. Located immediately southeast of the Valpolicella production zone and east of Verona, the area produces millions of bottles of white wine every year, making this one of Italy’s most familiar wine names (along with Chianti and Pinot Grigio). Soave is made mostly with the native Garganega variety, though producers have recently started using more Trebbiano di Soave, a local biotype of Verdicchio that was completely forgotten for 30 years or so while producers misguidedly planted the likes of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in its place (see my June 2017 article, “Harnessing the Potential of Soave,” for more information on Soave and its wines). Clearly, only those producers who still grow the authentic Trebbiano di Soave grapevines can expect much in return. (Others get by with the lowly Trebbiano Toscano, but that’s not at all the same thing.) A good Soave will be all about white flowers, lemon peel, green and yellow apple (and pear and honey too, when the grapes are very ripe), and almond. 

Celestino Gaspari of Zymé owns vines of the rare Rondinella Bianca.

Unfortunately, when the wine became incredibly popular in the 1970s, its production zone was vastly increased with little concern for logic, and so today Soave can be made in locations ranging from steep volcanic hillsides to the Adige River’s flatland alluvial banks, rich in clay, silt, sand and/or gravel. Yields are generally too high, and in that case Garganega – which can give humongous grape bunches, and a lot of them too – tends to produce very neutral, uninteresting wines. Wines labeled Soave, Soave Classico, Soave Superiore or Soave Colli Scaligeri are made with at least 70% Garganega and up to 30% Trebbiano di Soave and other grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco; many are 100% Garganega. As a general rule, Soave Classico and Soave Superiore offer a lot more depth, complexity, and structure than the entry-level Soave (but keep in mind that less than 25% of the roughly 6 million bottles produced annually are of Soave Classico designation). It’s worth knowing that there are four main styles of Soave wines, which depend not on the denomination but on those running the estates. These four styles are: fruit-forward, perfumed and light-bodied crisp wines made without any wood aging; oak-aged versions that are often (though happily less so than in the recent past) marred by strong vanilla, butter and sweet spice, oak-derived aromas and flavors (barriques easily overpower and camouflage Garganega’s delicate aromatics); wines with extended lees contact (usually up to 18 months), vinified and aged in either stainless steel or cement; and those wines made partly from late-harvested or air-dried grapes that are fermented dry, giving big, luscious wines that bear a distinct resemblance to white Burgundies and almost seem as if they had been put in contact with oak at some point in time.

Lugana, which is made around the shores of Lake Garda, Italy’s biggest lake, is by far the most popular and best-known of the other Veneto still white wine production zones. The Lugana DOC, established in 1967, is an area of rolling hills formed in the Tertiary period (roughly 66 million to 2.5 million years ago), located at the southeastern tip of the lake. Soils are mostly chalky limestone and clay, and the wines are made (in theory, at least) with Turbiana, a local variety of Trebbiano previously known as Trebbiano di Lugana. Like Trebbiano di Soave, Turbiana is also related to Verdicchio, but unlike Trebbiano di Soave it is considered to be a distinct variety and not a Veneto biotype of Verdicchio, at least at the present level of genetic knowledge. Most Lugana wines exhibit ripe, soft acidity and a delicate floral perfume enhanced by hints of herbs, minerals, green apple and white peach. Here too, excess oak can overpower Turbiana’s delciate aroma and flavor profile.

Just some of Veneto's many grapes and wines.

Lessini Durello is a Veneto sparkling wine made with the native and local Durella grape variety in 19 communes in Vicenza and six in Verona near the Lessini Mountains, on mainly volcanic soils. But there are non-sparkling white wines made with Durella as well, both dry and sweet: look for Veneto Durella or Monti Lessini Durella (the still dry wines) or Monti Lessini Passito or Monti Lessini Durella Passito (the sweet wines). These are extremely high-acid, lemony white wines that rarely offer more than 12% alcohol and are ideal for today’s modern, overcharged lifestyles. Unfortunately, production levels are low, so many consumers outside Italy never get to taste these wines, which is a real shame. And while the hills of Conegliano are most famous for their production of Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, in fact there are some really lovely still white wines being made there as well. The Colli di Conegliano and Marca Trevigiana denominations are where you will find 100% Verdiso wines (often made as frizzante, or lightly sparkling), but there are also absolutely delicious, steely, lemony still wines that pair beautifully with oysters or shellfish (think of Verdiso wines as alternatives to Albarino or Muscadet). Again, the problem is finding these wines outside of Italy, and it’s a real pity, for they pack in steely white peach and white flower nuances and very low alcohol levels (clocking in at only 10.5–11.5%). The volcanic Gambellara area is another heaven of Garganega and was for a long time just about as famous as Soave. These wines have fallen on hard times recently, but the flinty, smoke-accented whites deserve better. Don’t forget about the excellent sweet Recioto di Gambellara wines, either. Also characterized by mostly volcanic soils are the Colli Euganei, where Moscato Giallo (the wines are called Moscato Fior d’Arancio) gives some of Italy’s least-known but prettiest dry and sweet white wines (on average, richer and more honeyed than those made with Moscato Bianco, which is also present in the area; as a general rule, if the label says “moscato” without the “fior d’arancio,” the wine is likely made with Moscato Bianco). Custoza is a small production area established as a DOC in 1971, making  wines that are mostly blends of Garganega, Trebbiano Toscano, Cortese (locally called Bianca Fernanda), Welschriesling (Riesling Italico) and Manzoni Bianco. These wines generally have little staying potential or complexity, but offer early appeal and uncomplicated drinking, perfect for hot summer days. Valdadige is known mainly for its Pinot Grigio wines, which, though mostly thin and neutral at best, have proven remarkably successful the world over thanks to their food flexibility and easy-drinking qualities.

Soave and Lugana in many styles: classic, old vines and crus.

Recent Vintages

The 2018 vintage in Veneto was one of the largest on record; roughly 40% more grapes were harvested than in 2017, a low crop year, and 20% more than in 2016. The weather during the growing season was generally very favorable, with no late-season frosts; there was plenty of rainfall, and when it did not rain, days were mostly hot and well ventilated, leading to larger and heavier grape bunches. Malic acid concentrations in the white grapes were high and wines are characterized by good freshness. As elsewhere in Italy, 2017 will long be remembered as one of the most difficult vintages ever. The season got off to an early start due to unseasonable heat, only to be followed by a prolonged cold spell after budbreak had occurred, leading to crop reduction. The days became very hot soon thereafter, and turned downright torrid at the end of July and the beginning of August, putting the vines into heat stress. Because water reserves were good, 2017 is a vintage marked more by heat than drought. The white wines are characterized by ripe, mellow flavors, with lower-than-usual acidities, and though rich and showy, they will not be remembered as especially ageworthy.

The wines in this report were tasted during winery visits and in my office in Rome in May and June 2019.

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