Growing up, I wanted to be like James Bond — well-dressed, tough and a hit with the ladies. The word was suave, which was considered a positive quality at the time. So when a friend mentioned to me that I should check out an Italian white wine called Soave (swah-vey), I thought to myself, “That wine is calling my name!” The last time I went wine shopping with my wife, she insisted on picking out a bottle because of the pretty label — admittedly not a very scientific way to choose a wine. It was the 2020 A to Z Rose, and it turned out to be a great choice — also making an attractive centerpiece on our table after we placed a flower in it. If that worked, I figured that I could be suave and learn to drink Soave.
The first step in a wine journey is tasting, so I had to find some selections. I prefer to shop at smaller wine stores with knowledgeable staff available to assist me — but my favorite places didn’t have Soave in stock. I had no choice but to search the online inventory at two big box stores. Each had several selections at various locations, so I traveled to Rochester, Nashua and Salem, N.H., along with Burlington, Mass., to collect my samples.
Soave DOC (controlled designation of origin) is a region in northeast Italy near the city of Verona where the primary cultivar of white grape is garganega, the sixth most cultivated grape in Italy and popular in the U.S. in the post-World War II era. Those were the times when huge amounts of cheap bulk wine were being imported from Italy in fancy bottles wrapped like wicker baskets. This must have appealed to folks who needed table decorations. As time passed, people began to realize that the fancy bottles were the best part, and Soave’s popularity died on the vine. Wineries had to change production from high-yield farming to cultivation methods that produced the highest quality grape. With help from the Soave Consortium, the region is now producing a world-class product that is aggressively marketed in Europe but still suffers in the U.S. from its sordid reputation.
Despite Soave’s lack of popularity here, it is worth the effort to locate. We tasted six different bottles, and even the cheap stuff was acceptable. In fact, the least expensive bottle I found, Inama Soave ($12.50) was a favorite at our neighborhood tasting. This bargain Soave is made with 100% garganega grapes even though the DOC allows up to a 30% blend of trebbiano and chardonnay. This is the key to its appeal. The quality Soave wines that would normally be available in the area are produced by the Pieropan winemaking family. Getting containers of wine shipped from Italy, or anywhere else right now, is a serious challenge. I spoke to Sabrina Reming, who manages the connoisseur division at Martignetti Companies, the leading distributor of wines and spirits in New England, and she explained that the best Italian wine choices are coming from Gallo’s Lux portfolio. The portfolio includes the best wines from each region and, because Gallo is such a huge wine conglomerate, they have plenty of inventory stateside. Gallo has exclusive distribution rights in the U.S. for Pieropan.
The easiest one to find is the Pieropan Soave Classico at about $20. Made with 85% garganega and 15% trebbiano, the flowery nose, bright acidity and ample finish make this a great food wine at a price everyone can afford. The other standouts in their portfolio are the single vineyard selections Calvarino and La Rocca. Pieropan Calvarino is only 70% garganega and 30% trebbiano. This surprised me, but the quality of this wine speaks for itself regardless of the blend. My favorite, though, was the Pieropan La Rocca made with 100% garganega. The nose has an elegant blossom perfume with a hint of almond. Exotic fruit flavors follow with a hint of vanilla and a light mineral finish. La Rocca is aged in 130-gallon to 500-gallon oak barrels, which helps amplifies the vanilla notes. I generally prefer white wine that is aged in a neutral containers like the glass-lined cement tanks used for their other selections, but in this case, the treatment is not overpowering. Unfortunately, La Rocca is difficult to find. I purchased a few bottles in Rochester from the clearance section. At $31, this is an excellent choice to bring to your next dinner party. As Soave goes well with seafood and vegetable dishes, I paired the La Rocca with a salad of arugula, beets, roasted peppers, blue cheese and blueberry vinaigrette. It also complemented the chicken cordon bleu that followed.
If you don’t find Soave on the shelf, ask your favorite wine store to order some. Your friends will think you are suave for serving this Italian favorite.