Soave's two-speed economy

Wednesday, 4. October 2017 - 17:00

Soave castle

Is Soave a cheap, downmarket white of neutral character, inoffensive but unexciting, or Italy’s most stylish white wine, capable of complexity and nuance? 

The difficulty facing the region is that Soave is currently in both sectors of the market, with products priced at each end of the spectrum likely to be labelled Soave DOC. You can buy DOC Soave wines in supermarkets and discount stores in the three biggest European export markets – Germany, the UK, and Austria, all three of which import some wine in bulk – for under €5.00 ($5.86) a bottle. Germany’s second-biggest supermarket group, Rewe, has DOC Soave for just €2.99 a bottle.

But they are also having success in the UK on-trade, where, given the Garganega grape’s propensity to richness, texture, and refreshing acidity, the wines are well-suited to match with food. Among independent merchants too, Soave is appearing at prices well over £10.00 ($12.98) a bottle, while Morrisons supermarket has a Soave Classico at £15.00 a bottle (Monte Fiorentine Ca’ Rugate). At independent London merchant Philglas & Swiggot, former owners Karen and Mike Rogers introduced Agostino's Soave wines many years ago, says current director Justin Knock MW. They were marketed as “a stepping stone from premium NZ Sauvignon Blanc, but more delicate, complex, and subtle. Given that our average bottle is around £20.00 then £16.00 to £18.00 for their Il Casale single-vineyard wine sits right in the sweet spot for our core customer base. It was our second-best-selling wine in the year to the end of June,” says Knock.

At the recent Soave Review 2017, the tenth such annual event organised by the Soave Consorzio, it was exciting to see a new generation of mostly small, family-led producers emerging, keen to demonstrate the wide variety of styles that vineyards within the different sub-zones of Soave Classico can produce. These quality-minded producers are anxious to shed the tarnished image generic Soave has been saddled with in certain historic markets.

Boom, bust, and up again
As David Gleave MW at UK Italian specialist Liberty Wines says, “The problems in Soave date back to the late ’50s, early ’60s, when vines were planted on the flat fertile land, the other side of the railway line, to meet demand for more volume. If you get the Garganega grape ripe you get lots of interesting flavours, but on the fertile plains you really struggle to do this because yields there are so high.”

Soave Classico is one of just two delimited winegrowing zones recognised by the government back in 1931, along with Chianti Classico. In the ’60s, when Soave’s original 1,700 ha of vineyards couldn’t keep up with global demand, the vineyard area was expanded to 7,000 ha. With the bulk of Soave production in the hands of a few large co-ops and grape growers paid by the kilo, this led to a decline in overall quality. Things changed over the past two decades with the rise in popularity of Pinot Grigio – the fifth-most-widely planted variety in the Veneto with 9% of overall plantings after Glera (24%), Garganega (14%), Merlot (12%), and Corvina (10%). The demand for generic cheap Soave faltered.

There is a theoretical pyramid of quality starting with the basic DOC wines, which are largely produced from vineyards on the high-yielding, flat, fertile plains where vines were first planted in the ’50s and ’60s to keep pace with growing demand. Then there is the original, delineated Soave Classico production area in the hills bordered by the towns of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone in the south, and Castelcerino and Costalunga in the north. But the higher-level DOCG category has not been widely adopted by producers since it was granted in 2002. This is mainly, it seems, because its production is not restricted to the defined, historic Classico vineyard, as many small quality producers would prefer, but can, if the rules aimed at ensuring a more concentrated, longer-aged product are followed, be made on any of the hillside slopes in the much wider Colli Scaligeri area. “We expected it to be applied just to the Classico region. Many small quality producers have decided not to make DOCG wines as a result. There is no reason for us to join it, and the category is probably going to die,” says Chiara Coffele, commercial director of the organic-certified Azienda Agricola Coffele winery based in the Classico region in Castelcerino.

Most of the producers in the appellation now agree that the quality route is the way ahead, but this can only be done on the hillsides where yields are naturally lower. The Soave Consorzio is proactively involved in a campaign to draw attention to the higher echelons of Soave produced in the 60 historic vineyard sites they have identified. The majority, studied and mapped over a 20-year period, fall within the original Soave Classico area.

Looking at what the different crus offer, whether they are based on predominantly volcanic or limestone soils, was one of the central themes of the two-day Soave Preview programme organised by the Soave Consorzio and held in May. Principally aimed at the trade and international press, it was also open to consumers for the first time over the weekend. The consorzio also involved such leading producers as Pieropan and Ca’ Rugate, who are not currently members of the organisation.

One of the highlights was Sarah Abbott MW’s masterclass, where a dozen very different ‘grand crus’ Soaves were lined up. The object of the event was to “confront outdated perceptions of Soave,” explained Abbott MW. “The last couple of decades have seen great strides in the region in terms of quality and research into the terroir and grapes of the area.” A new generation of young winemakers are proud of their terroir and determined to show that in their wines. “There are not just half a dozen producers making elegant, top-quality, mineral, nervy Soave. There are scores of them. There have been glowing articles on Soave from influencers, but still awareness is low of this fine wine side to Soave, and of how established it now is.”

New bottling rules
It would be wrong to give the impression that everything is rosy. Exports are still dominated by the three European markets of Germany, the UK, and Austria; prices generally have been low and were down by 6% in 2016, falling to 38.57m from just over 41m bottles in 2015. These three markets account for the majority of 57,000 hL of bulk wine exported in 2016.

Aldo Lorenzoni, director of the consorzio, is, however, upbeat about the current situation. “Soave [quality] has never been so good, with so many wineries, some of which are very new, that believe in it. It’s the many small wineries making interesting wines that are helping to change perceptions about Soave.” There are almost 3,000 ‘estates’ in Soave with an average holding of just over two hectares each. While entry prices in Germany and the UK are lower, Soave is moving towards a higher price in new markets like Norway and Denmark, says Lorenzoni.

Efforts have been made to address the issue of operators shipping Soave in bulk to bottle elsewhere. Lorenzoni concedes this has been growing, with 36,000 hL shipped in 2014, rising to 57,000 hL in 2016 and forecast to rise again in 2017. “For this reason, the consorzio has recently modified the ‘production rules’ – disciplinare di produzione – and has made it obligatory to bottle Soave within the production area,” he says. This won’t stop those already involved in bulk shipping, but it will “halt any further possibility of bottling Soave [outside the production region] for those who have never done it before.”

Perhaps a bigger influence in reducing this side of the business will be individual grape growers and the large co-operatives choosing to bottle more of their own wines. The dominant Cantina di Soave co-operative, whose 1,400 grape growers in Soave own 3,000 ha, manages 48% of the entire DOC Soave and 43% of the DOC Soave Classico, producing the equivalent of 24.8m bottles in 2016. Out of this, some 52% (12.9m bottles) was bottled at source, with the other 48% shipped in bulk. While bottle sales are up 11% in volume and 6% in value, according to the co-operative’s last financial report, bulk shipments grew slightly faster, up 14% in volume and 12% in value. Asked if the co-op wanted to bottle more wine and sell less in bulk, Wolfgang Raifer, vice direttore generale, said, “Yes, this is the aim, but we have also to consider the market. Unfortunately, consumers look at Soave as not an expensive wine.”

Liberty Wines has been working with the large Cantina di Monteforte co-op since 2002. “With many of their vineyards located in the eastern part of the Classico zone, they were known as a good place for bottlers to source quality wine,” says Gleave. “We were their first customer. It’s amazing how quickly bottled sales have developed, and not at a low price. This year they are on track to sell 3m bottles.”

For small, family-run businesses trying to sell their wines at a higher price level, the presence of cheap Soave in major export markets is problematic. At Coffele winery in Castelcerino, which exports 80% of its 120,000-bottle production, it’s easier to sell at a good price in markets like Norway, says Chiara Coffele. She sees personal contact and getting people to visit the winery – which has a stunning hillside location – as the best way to change Soave’s image. “Now with social media it’s much easier than it was 20 or 30 years ago to communicate, but the competition [from other quality producing regions] is far greater too.”
Giulia Franchetto is one of the new generation of winemakers working in the family business Franchetto Società Agricola in Terrossa di Roncà, outside the Classico region but within one of the historic crus Monte Crocetta. They concentrated on the domestic market until 2012, so she had to build export markets from scratch. Now about 80% of their 300,000-bottle production goes abroad, but this includes some Pinot Grigio and interesting Metodo Classico sparklers made from Durello. Markets include the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as the US, Canada, and Japan, among others.

She’s delighted that Franchetto Soave La Capelina 2015 has just been given a Decanter 2017 platinum medal as ‘Best Vento White’. “This is great news for the Soave denomination. Maybe people will start to see Soave more readily as a high-quality wine.” As Liberty’s David Gleave says, “Soave is probably the best value white wine in Italy.” It may in time again be widely seen as Italy’s most stylish white wine.
Giles Fallowfield

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2017 of Meininger's Wine Business International.