The man who changed the face of Soave

Saturday, 14. April 2018 - 12:15

Robert Joseph

Leonildo (‘Nino’) Pieropan has died. Those words will have huge resonance for wine lovers and wine professionals across the planet, and they will be at the heart of countless conversations in Verona, where I am writing this, and where anyone with an interest in Italian wine will gather over the next few days for OperaWine and Vinitaly.

Pieropan’s name was not only synonymous with the finest Soave, it also sits among those of the finest white wine producers in the world. And behind that fact, as David Gleave, Pieropan’s UK importer describes in an excellent online obituary he published yesterday, lies a lifetime of courage and commitment that has not only benefitted the estate that bears his name, but also the region in which it is made.

Today, it is of course still possible to buy fairly ordinary Soave, just as it is easy to find fairly ordinary examples of most wine appellations in Italy and elsewhere, but the countless professionals who will find their way to the Soave stand at Vinitaly know that this region is capable of producing fine wines with real complexity and individuality.

The Pieropan family’s contribution to the denomination dates back to 1932, when they began selling wine labelled as ‘Soave’, three dozen years before the region gained its official DOC recognition. In 1971, Nino broke ranks by releasing a single vineyard Soave Classico from a plot called Calvarino, followed in 1978 with a second, characterful, dfferent one from La Rocca.

Since those days, the idea of premium Italian wines from Soave, Valpolicella and elsewhere having vineyard designations has become quite commonplace, but when Nino Pieropan took that step he was following a fairly solitary path. Three decades after producing the first vintage of La Rocca, 2009, encouraged by Gleave and others, and the results of his own experiments, he made an even braver statement by releasing his Soave Classico under a Stelvin screwcap. Except that it wasn’t actually a Soave Classico in the eyes of stupid Italian wine laws that require any wine sold under the DOC to be sealed with a cork. 
Pieropan’s fans didn’t need persuading that the removal of the word ‘Classico’ from the label had no impact on the quality of the contents of the bottle. Quite to the contrary, the switch to screwcaps simply added to the potential longevity of Pieropan’s already famously long-lived wines.

In 2012, the lawmakers finally relented and legalised the bottling of Soave Classico DOC and Soave Superiore DOCG under screwcap (but idiotically maintained the requirement for Soave Classico Superiore).

Pieropan’s ‘Ruperpan’ Valpolicella, produced from previously uncultivated land 400 metres above sea level, was another personal statement, offering stylishness that is not often associated with this denomination. And so was the decision to move to organic certification for all of the Pieropan wines in 2015.

I didn’t know Nino Pieropan well, but I remember the times we met and talked, and his readiness to share his own knowledge and experience while also eager and curious about wines and winemaking elsewhere. All those memories people will be sharing at Vinitaly will be a fitting memorial.

Leonildo Pieropan died on 13 April 2018, aged 71. His estate remains in the safe hands of his sons, Andrea and Dario.
Robert Joseph