“Arguably, more than any other Italian wine, Soave is characterized by a pyramid-shaped production philosophy that puts a rigorously limited number of family producers at the apex and large, commercially driven cooperatives at the base. Depending on your point of view, Soave’s class-versus-mass dynamic is either its strongest selling point or its biggest weakness.” (Wine Enthusiast)
It’s hard to explain the realities of “Soave” to a newcomer. I don’t entirely agree with the quote above because it rather over-simplifies the situation. We’ve (fortunately) moved far away from the days of Soave Bolla and of insipid white wines costing next to nothing.
The Soave landscape of today is a complex mosaic of backward growers, established families and a dabbling of small, independent wineries, all of whom co-exist under a pervasive blanket of fog, which is the cantina sociale.
Within the Soave DOC (I’m taking the flatlands together with Soave Classico and Colli Scaligeri) there are close to 3,000 people who own vineyards (yep, three thousand growers).
Of these, 190 are what you would consider winemakers (in the sense that they make wine) and only between 50 and 60 actually bottle and commercialise their production.
That means that over 2500 local villagers (contadini) sell their grapes directly to the cantina sociale. (For the sake of strict accuracy, there are actually several active co-operatives in the area but for sake of this post, I’m only referring to the cantina sociale as a single, abstract entity.)
In 2016, the cantina sociale of Soave set a new record: they vinified over one million quintals of grapes. To put that into layman’s English, this means they turned one hundred million kilos of grapes into wine.
As easy as it is to poo-poo the cantina sociale, they provide a regular livelihood for many in this area. Without it, the region’s key industry would be wiped out overnight.
However, making such an absurd quantity of wine means they sell with very low margins. There is no denying that this extremely competitive price point has directly led to Soave’s reputation as a cheap wine. Personally, I point the finger of blame at their many labels, on which there is not enough transparency for the consumer to easily identify a co-operative wine from independent family wine.
Screenshot of the Cantina Sociale portfolio. n.b. a large proportion of their production is also red wines.
Speaking of the families…. don’t be fooled by attempts from the established families to convince you that they are small producers. They may bottle their own wines but they’re far from being small.
Pieropan, for example, makes 700,000 bottles per year. Gini has 55 hectares (135 acres) of vineyards. Their wines are some of the most prestigious in Soave but don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. It’s a commercial operation.
There’s an ugly side to some of these established families too. The head of the Zonin family was, for 20 years, the president of the Banca Popolare di Vicenza and is now under investigation for fraud after allegedly mishandling over a billion euros and swindling four thousand account holders.
It’s not all bad news. There are true, small, independent wineries in Soave, much as those you find commonly in France. Because they don’t have the same resources as the cantina sociale or “the families”, they are not so easy to find… but watch this space, over the coming weeks, I’m going to identify them.
The more I think about it, once you look beyond the picturesque hills of Soave and their endless trellises, the image that the Wine Enthusiast should have used is not one of a pyramid but actually one of two triangles: one inverted over the other, showing the smaller producers being squeezed by the giants and the cantina sociale.
Part Two: The Terroir of Soave (coming soon!)
(All information contained in this article is to the best of my knowledge and in good faith. My sources include: Il Soave, local winemakers and employees of the Cantina Sociale. If there are any errors, please bring them to my attention by email or in the comments below.)