John Szabo’s Soave Report

The Best of the Superb 2016s & Rewriting the Textbook on the Pergola

This past May Sara d’Amato and I attended the 2016 Soave Preview conference and tasting in the charming town of Soave just east of Verona. Over a couple of days we tasted through the 2016 vintage, one of the best I have tasted. I list my top picks in this report – wines you should track down for value, pleasure, and ageability. We also sat in on some presentations, including one I co-presented on “minerality” – more to come on that – as well as a fascinating  historical and technical look at the return of the pergola Veronese, the traditional trellising system of the Veneto (and most other regions in Italy). Read on to learn why this ancient system is back in favour.

Soave Preview

The Pergola: A Return to Ancient Tradition in Soave 

By John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

So, you’ve read that vineyards on pergola are best suited to cheap bulk wine? It’s time to rewrite the textbook. Once shunned, the pergola Veronese, so emblematic of Italian viticulture, is making a comeback. And it’s for quality, not quantity.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of vine training systems in use around the world, each with advantages and disadvantages. The pergola is among the most ancient. There are many variations, but imagine strolling under a shaded canopy, between rows of tall vines stretching overhead and hanging heavy with ripe grapes, and you’ve got the picture.

During this year’s Soave preview in May, Dr. Attilio Scienza, professor at the University of Milano’s faculty of agriculture, illustrated the historical development of the pergola system using a series of paintings, frescos and photographs to reveal that it’s a human adaptation of wild vines growing up trees. It dates at least to Ancient Egypt, he reveals.

Pergola Soave Preview Ancient - 1

(Although infrequent today, tree-trained vines can still be found in Italy – asprinio vines in the Aversa region of Campania, for example, are still trained several meters up trees, making for a rather perilous harvest.)

According to Scienza, Leonardo da Vinci was a proponent of the pergola system, using it in his own vineyard. Art buffs keen on viticultural history can visit da Vinci’s pergola plot of malvasia di candia aromatica in Milan, directly across from the Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica, replanted as it had been in the 15th century.

In any case the pergola has been in use in Italy and elsewhere since the beginning of wine. But towards the latter part of the 20th century, its very existence was threatened.

One of the pergola’s chief disadvantages is that most operations including harvest must be done by hand and are thus vineyards in pergola are more expensive to farm. During the period of ‘industrialization’ of Italian vineyards in the 1980s and especially 1990s, the EU even provided funding to convert vineyards from labour intensive pergola to mechanizable guyot in the name of efficiency and quality (picture a standard modern vineyard with neat rows of low-trained vines on wires). An unintended consequence of this shift was the loss of both indigenous varieties and of genetic diversity within varieties, as vineyards were ripped out and replanted. As wine writer and consultant Maurizio Gily stressed at the Soave preview, old pergola vineyards are a “treasure of biodiversity”, in addition to being part of local terroir.

Today only about 12% of Italy’s vineyards for wine production grow on pergola, though it has held steadfastly in regions like Trentino and Abruzzo, where 85% of vineyards are thus grown. 85% of Soave and 80% of Valpolicella, both in the Veneto region, are also pergola-trained.

The other main charge levied against the pergola is its potential to lead to overproduction and therefore, it was once (and still is) believed, inferior wines, with lower alcohol, higher acids and dilute flavours. For vineyards in the hands of greedy growers, this is undoubtedly true. But today’s intense commercial competition will inevitably sort them out and lead to their disappearance.

In the hands of quality conscious producers, however, pergola-trained vines have a number of advantages, particularly in an era of climate change when vineyards worldwide – including in Soave – are heating up. According to research presented at the Soave preview by Dr. Federica Gaiotti of the viticultural research centre in Conegliano (CREA), temperatures have risen dramatically in the last decade and the grape maturation cycle in Soave is 17 days shorter on average compared to the previous decade. This has led to changes in acid and aromatic structure, and the loss of “tipicity” in Soave wines.

Pergola Veronese-3637

Pruning and trellising are the most important tools to mitigate climate change, and the pergola, it turns out, is better suited to deal with rising temperatures, and especially heat stress, than guyot. In a study conducted in the Soave region from 2003-2011 on pergola vs. guyot trellising, Gaiotti revealed that the pergola outperformed guyot-trained vines on a number of important measures, especially in hot years. And hot vintages, it’s clear, are the becoming the new normal.

In the guyot system, for example, a greater percentage of bunches are exposed to direct sunlight, and are measurably hotter, 4-5º warmer than bunches grown using the pergola system, according to Gaiotti. Aromatic compounds are burned off and sugars rise rapidly, resulting in wines with higher average alcohol (up to 1% more), lower acid, and more phenolic compounds from sunburned skins (bitterness, astringency).

Pergolas by contrast provide more sunlight protection, as bunches mature under a shaded canopy. Constant airflow under the canopy also reduces disease pressure, and thus the need to spray against mold and mildew.

Grapes ripen at lower sugars and higher acids, resulting in lighter body, fresher, more refined wines. And on a more technical level, it was shown that pergola-grown grapes retain a greater concentration of aromatic compounds, in particular monoterpenes, benzenoids, and norisoprenoids. These are all-important components of the aromatic profile of garganega, the principal grape of Soave, making for more aromatically complex wines. And lastly, since garganega tends naturally to grow downward, it’s more comfortable on a pergola than a guyot system.

Regarding commercial considerations, the fact that pergolas are more expensive to plant and farm is offset by the higher potential yields, without necessarily sacrificing quality. “It’s a balance”, says Gaiotti.

It’s not surprising then that growers in the Veneto are embracing the pergola system once again. “If I replant, it will be on pergola”, Soave producer Filippo Filippi of Filippi-Villa Visco in Castelcerino tells me, a statement echoed by several others in the region. There’s also an effort to preserve old pergola plots, which will have the side benefit of maintaining a greater genetic databank of garganega vine material.

Filippo Filippi strolling in is old pergola vines-5220

Filippo Filippi strolling in is old pergola vines

Journalist Walter Speller, who writes for Jancis Ronbinson’s Purple Pages, puts forth one final argument in favour of the pergola: “It’s very Italian”, he says matter-of-factly. “It’s part of the viticultural tradition of Soave and thus part of terroir”.

An increase in quality, healthy biodiversity, and a more authentic terroir expression… These are strong arguments for a return to the pergola. Let’s rewrite that chapter.

Soave 2016: The Vintage

2016 is one of the best vintages I’ve tasted in the region, and should go down as a classic. In contrast to 2015, a vintage characterized by record high temperatures and lack of rain that produced plump, ripe, fruity wines, 2016 is a vintage of freshness. Cooler temperatures, welcome rain at critical points in the season, and low disease pressure led to a more ‘typical’ vintage, the way Soave used to be. I found the wines fresh and lively, more floral than fruity, delicious in youth but also likely highly age worthy thanks to vibrant acids and concentration. I’d happily drink the 2015s now while waiting for the 2016 to show their best in several years. Soave, if you weren’t aware, is a remarkable ageworthy white wine, among Italy’s best, and still one of the country’s smartest values.

Vineyards in Soave Classico-5199

Vineyards in Soave Classico-5199

Here are the 2016s to track down, as well as a few older wines not to miss.

John Szabo’s Buyer’s Guide: 2016 Soave

92-94 2016 Filippi Soave Monteseroni (tank sample)

A highly promising wine tasted from tank, Filippi’s Monteseroni cru is a marvel of saline freshness, perfectly pitched and balanced. It’s almost impossible not to return for a second sip. Harvest was timed perfectly, balancing fruit, herbs and acids on a high-tension wire. Exceptional length. Tasted May 2017.

92 2016 Corte Adami Soave Vigna della Corte

From pergola Veronese-trained, 40 year old vines on volcanic soils. Quite dark and brooding, closed for now, but big, rich, round on the palate, slightly bitter, very basaltic-driven. Ripe orchard fruit, roasted peach and apricot, hard acids but not shrill, dense and highly concentrated. A bruising wine, in need of time, very textural. This will head to petrol in time no doubt. Tasted May 2017.

92 2016 Coffele Soave Classico Castelcerino

Coffele’s Soave Classico Castelcerino has a subtle, less fruity, more mineral nose, with delicate citrus-lemon and white flowers, very attractive and classy. The palate has great lift, with some CO2 to help. Fine acid-alcohol-fruit balance is further reined in by a touch of phenolic bitterness. Excellent length; a refined and elegant wine. Tasted May 2017.

92 2016 Coffele Soave Classico Ca’ Visco

This is a darker and more visceral-reductive Soave Classico than the Castelcerino from Coffele, riper, more orchard fruit-driven, more terpenic, with a tendency to turn inward. The palate has searing acids, a tougher overall palate experience, but characterful and dense, with terrific ageing potential. Lots of depth, acid and mineral cut. Tasted May 2017.

91 2016 Gini Soave Classico

A touch of sulphur is noted off the top, but the palate reveals the true depth of this old vine (80+), entry-level cuvée from Gini, always one of the sharpest values in the appellation. There’s plenty of dark volcanic character, genuine depth and cut, lovely fresh ripe acids, and exceptional depth overall. This surely performs at the cru level of most other wineries. Tasted May 2017.

91 2016 Suavia Soave Classico

Dense and serious, dark and volcanic, without missing the lightness and fresh appeal of young Soave. This has great balance, fabulous crunchy acids and excellent length, especially in this price category. Top notch. Tasted May 2017.

91 2016 Le Batistelle Soave Classico Montesei

Here’s some depth and richness, dark stony minerality, full dense palate, terrific length. Fine wine. Tasted May 2017.

91 2016 Tamellini Soave Classico

With a fine balance between sweet and sour, citrus and orchard fruit, rocks and herbs, Tamellini’s Soave offers a complete package. Length and depth are above the mean, as is the saline, saliva-inducing aspect. Great length. Classy wine. Tasted May 2017.

91 2016 Prà Soave Classico ‘Otto’

From a blend of many parcels, though almost all in the hills (there’s just a small section of pergola vineyards in the plains). Lovely nose; these ’16s are quite fine, fresh, lively, with finely drawn lines, sapid, succulent. This is really fine, with a perfect balance of ripe citrus and dark basaltic fruit, green apple. Once of the best vintages in memory. Aged in large old botti. Tasted May 2017.

90 2016 Fattori Soave Danieli

Quite closed for the moment aromatically, though clearly a wine with richness and depth, not to mention dry extract on the palate. This mid-range wine from Fattori hits all of the right notes. Great length. Fresh and rich at once. Tasted May 2017.

90 2016 Inama Soave Classico ‘Vin Soave’

Dark, ripe and creamy, a very basalt-driven Soave I’d say, with roasted orchard fruit, and dark spice. Very good length. A great vintage for Inama, offering a little more thrust and freshness than the mean. Tasted May 2017.

90 2016 Villa Canestrari Soave Vigna di Sande

One of the fruitier styles of Soave, delivering a mix of citrus grapefruit, lime and floral components, with solid depth and length. This is good. Acids are a touch softer, and it’s creamy and scorching at once. Tasted May 2017.

90 2016 Pieropan Soave Classico Soave Fresh green apple, light almond and cherry blossom aromatics, crisp acids, ethereal and lithe, a true pleasure to sip in the aperitif style. Solid length. Tasted May 2017.

89 2016 Corte Moschina Soave Roncathe

This is inviting off the nose, at once lifted and floral-citrus, and sweet-herb inflected, young and fermentation-driven, ripe, almost sauvignon blanc-like. Lees occupy flavour space on the finish, though remain an adjunct rather than a headlining influence. Very good length. Nicely done, widely appealing. Tasted May 2017.

89 2016 I Stefanini Soave Superiore Monte di Fice (Costa Lunga cru)
Tuffaceous volcanic clay. Light and floral, perfumed, lightly sweet herb-tinged, surprisingly delicate. Crunchy and fresh, lightly leesy. I like the freshness and drinkability here. Fine length, too. Tasted May 2017.

88 2016 Balestri Valda Soave Classico

Clean, open, and perfumed if not overtly so, within the bounds of garganega, a semi-aromatic variety at best. Green apple, citrus, lemon lime lead. The palate is mid-weight, with a vaguely sweet impression and above average length. A fresh and easy-drinking, open and friendly style all around, ready to enjoy. Tasted May 2017.

88 2016 Fattori Soave Runcaris

An open, fragrant, immediately appealing Soave, the entry point into the Fattori range. Sweet green herbs and thiols lead off, while crunchy green apple acids and lime drive the palate. Fresh and crisp, lively and highly drinkable. Solid value. Tasted May 2017.

88 2016 Fornaro Soave Classico

There’s some mineral drive here over terpenes, more floral-botanical than fruity, with a vaguely sweet impression on the palate, fullish, lasting. Fine. Tasted May 2017.

John Szabo’s Buyer’s Guide: Soave Other Vintages

94 2013 Gini Soave Classico Salvarenza Vecchie Vigne

This is a stunning wine. Superb complexity on the nose, from fresh citrus to honey, with marvellous concentration and depth, and ageing potential. Terrific balance and weight without heaviness. One of the best in the region to be sure. Tasted May 2017.

93 2015 Vicentini Soave Superiore Il Casale

A classic limestone-based cru, tight and a touch reductive, offering white flowers and lemon citrus, and lovely crisp and fresh acids, alongside light lees influence, autolysis and white chocolate-tinged. I like the  freshness here, the liveliness and juicy acids and the depth of flavour. Great length. Classy. Tasted May 2017.

92 2014 Filippi Soave Vigna della Brà

Pergola 100%. An oxidative (very low sulphur), featuring barley and wet hay, bruised fruit. Yet the palate picks up the freshness considerably, with a saline quality, and long finish. A wine of tastes and texture, with excellent concentration and ultimately complexity, far outside of the typical Soave paradigm. Terrific acids – this really gains with air, and the palate tightens up. Tasted May 2017.

92 2015 Prà Soave Classico Staforte

A parcel selection that changes every year, given extra time on the lees, often until April or May depending on the year, then cleaned up and put back in tank until bottling. This was bottled last week. Full and rich, enlivened by some CO2 added at bottling, with plenty of ripe green apple fruit. Depth is very good to excellent – this is a fine product, with an extra bit of weight and depth than the “Otto” bottling from Prà. Tasted May 2017.

91 2011 Monte Grande Soave Classico

70% garganega, cut canes left to dry for a few weeks in the vineyard, with 30% fresh trebbiano from the top of the Monte Grande, south facing. Pergola Veronese for the garganega. Just beginning to come around, not overtly mature by any stretch, certainly very ripe. The palate is nicely developed, but the acids are sharp and tight, lees and wood are minor factors. Neither fat nor lean, good but not exceptional. Tasted May 2017.

91 2012 Prà Soave Classico Colle Sant’Antonio

Made only in top years, with a light appassimento on the vine (canes are cut, up to 15%-20% weight loss over 3-4 weeks), just a single 3000l barrel made, with 3 years on the lees. lie. Really quite pretty on the nose, perfumed, with ripe orchard fruit, peach, apricot, somewhere between riesling and chardonnay, fat and ripe but not heavy, lees noted, also some lightly honeyed, oxidative notes. A generous and widely appealing wine. Tasted May 2017.

91 2013 Sandro di Bruno Soave Colline di Roncà

A wood aged version, ageing gracefully now, quite tropical still, into honeydew melon and  dark, smoky-flinty-stony character. There’s some fantasy here, depth and length, evidently an ambitious wine made with care. I love the flinty back end, the palpable extract. Excellent length. Fine wine. Tasted May 2017.

91 2015 Fattori Soave Motto Piane

This wine hits all of the right spots, lots of generous fruit, mainly in the orchard spectrum – apricot and peach – with a rich and plush mouth feel thanks to a light appassimento/late harvest. I wouldn’t drink heaps of this, but it satisfies on a Friday or Saturday night. Lightly oxidative styling but still lots of fruit. Tasted May 2017.

90 2011 Cantina del Castello Soave Classico Carniga

A limestone-based cru south of Castelcerino. Very botanical, gin tonic like, with loads of resinous herbs. There’s a slightly sweet impression on the palate, caramelized citrus, and very good length with  lacy limestone character. Good length. I like this, fresh and sharp, fine grapefruit and pineapple, lime and bergamot-flavoured. Solid length. Tasted May 2017.

89 2013 Cantina di Monteforte Soave Classico Superiore  Castellaro

Fine and fresh, more of a limestone expression I find even if from volcanics, with lively citric acids, modest weight but perfectly pitched, highly drinkable. Tasted May 2017.

89 2013 Le Mandolare Soave Classico Monte Sella

Basalt bedrock, partially dried grapes, fermentation and 12 months ageing in oak barrels. This plays nicely on the nose, and on the palate in the thicker style, full and dense, with a bit of phenolic backbone that adds to the acid freshness. Solid. Tasted May 2017.

89 2015 Ca’ Rugate Soave Classico Monte Fiorentine

The volcanic cru of Ca’ Rugate, the 2015 Monte Fiorentine 2015 reflects the warm vintage, replete with perfectly ripe orchard fruit, also some sweet green herbs, fleshy white peach and more. Not particularly mineral, but very pleasant and inviting, with evident concentration and depth. I suspect this will improve significantly with time. Tasted May 2017.

Pergola Roncà Soave - 1