They call him Rico… Rico Suave.
If I didn’t just give you a serious 1990 video flashback to the super-cheesy Ecuadorian rapper Gerardo Mejia, then you’re lucky. Every time I hear the northeastern Italian wine region Soave mentioned, I’m mentally assaulted by blazing images of the bare-chested Gerardo dancing in step, curly-headed mullet hair flying. It’s a curse. (Care to see the gyrations and experience the same thing? You were warned).
So maybe that’s why I haven’t tasted many Soave white wines from Italy — these impossible-to-purge memories have proven torrid. But it’s also because Italy isn’t particularly known for high quality white wine. When you think Italian wine, Chianti, Barolo and Super Tuscans pop into your head, right? Maybe Pinot Grigios? But so many of these popular, light-bodied whites exported to the U.S. feign quality disguised in pretty bottles. Pinot Grigios aren’t white wines Italy really boasts about yet. But Soave [so-AH-vay — same way it’s pronounced in the video, by the way] just might be the next big thing out of Italy since the Super Tuscan was born (what’s a Super Tuscan?).
This is the second U.S. coming for Soave. In the mid to early 1970’s, when Americans finally awakened to the beauty of wine, gigantic Italian wine producer Bolla popularized Soave and people drank it like water. However, Pinot Grigios, cheaper and less regulated, eclipsed Soave’s growth and took over the hearts of Americans. Pinot Grigio hasn’t left that comfortable spot since. In fact, an industry wonk recently shared with me how Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio leads American sales for imported white wine. That wine, although decent, is frankly over-priced at $18 and under-delivers on quality. [I will mention, however, that there are some exceptional Pinot Grigios exported today, especially those from the Alto Adige region in far northeastern Italy. Note that in your iPhone for next time you’re wine shopping — you’ll thank me.]
Soave, however, can kick Pinot Grigio’s butt any day… for food friendliness, depth of flavor and lip-smacking acidity.
The Soave DOC wine region, due west of the city of Verona (as in Romeo and Juliet), only permits white wine production. The official DOC designation was earned in 1968, defining the wines as made from at least 70% Garganega [gahr GAHN negga] grape, and blended with up to 30% Trebbiano di Soave (aka Verdicchio) as well as a few lesser-known white varietals. The entire region recently underwent a regulatory facelift, in an effort to help producers compete on the world stage. With savvier wine consumers growing in numbers, it’s getting harder to pawn off vinous schlock. So the “Soave Consorzio” laid down more strenuous growing restrictions, limiting grape yields to improve fruit quality and loosened up alcohol minimums (now 12% — these are not alcoholic bombs, folks). The changes have apparently worked — the wines I’ve tasted recently have reignited my passion for Italian whites — especially since most fall under $20.
In addition to the Soave Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) labeling on bottles, you’ll see Soave Classico DOC, Soave Superiore DOCG and, if you’re lucky, a late harvest version called Recioto di Soave DOCG. In general, you’ll want to consume the DOC versions within two years after release but the heartier DOCGs can age several years. (To read more about the different DOCs, see the Soave website)
Soave’s soils are made up of ancient lava flows, adding a characteristic minerality tasted in many other parts of Italy, including Chianti. The loose-bunched Garganega grape thrives in the verdant hills and temperate climes of Soave, whose winemaking history dates back to Roman times. This wine has some historical cred — I picture the warring hoards slaking thirst by guzzling Soave from packs made of animal skins.
Although you might think high acidity only pairs well with food, this Italian-white-wine-that-could can hold its own as an aperitif. Medium-bodied, supple and refreshing, it’s floral, honeyed and has a finish of straw or hay. In most Soaves, I taste flavors of earthy chamomile tea and ripe apricots. Try it with raw oysters, fresh goat cheeses, roast chicken, seafood and spicy ethnic foods like Indian and Thai. Need more ideas? Check these out on ilSoave.com.
I herald this new Soave revolution. Italy finally has a high quality, consistent white wine that I can recommend without question. Now if I could only make Rico Suave disappear from my head.
Pieropan Soave, $20
Rocca Sveva Soave Classico, $15
Fattori Danieli Soave, $17
Vicentini Agostino Soave, $18
Cantina di Monteforte Soave Superior, $15