Soave, just a little over an hour from Venice, is the center of the Soave wine region and home to some wonderful refreshing white wines.
By Kathy Bechtel
I arrived at Venice just before 11am, for our June 2011 Chefs on Bikes trip with Master Chef Susan Regis. I have a few ‘free’ days before the trip; so-called ‘free’, but actually packed with plans for visits to various restaurants and wineries.
My first stop is Soave, just a little over an hour from Venice, the center of the Soave wine region and home to some wonderful refreshing white wines, made from the Gargenega grape, either alone, or blended with Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or most traditionally, the indigenous Trebbiano di Soave.
Protected over the centuries by the medieval military structure the Castle of Soave, the city changed hands repeatedly throughout history. Beginning as a Roman outpost on the trade route between Aquileia to the east and Genoa to the west, to being ruled by Milan, Padua, and Venice on multiple occasions, and even the French for short period of time. The Scaligeri family, rulers in the 1300’s, are responsible for the building of the walls that surround this picturesque city today, as well as several of the lovely palaces that are still standing, including the Palazzo di Giustizia and the Scaligeri Palace.
I entered the city just as the outdoor market was closing up for the day. A friendly fruit vendor sliced off a big chuck of watermelon and handed it to me; a perfect welcome after a hot car ride. I recalled a pizza place up the street that was too crowded last time I visited to accommodate me (or so they claimed, although it looked half-empty to me) so I figured I see what all the fuss was about.
No worries about getting in today – only one other couple was dining there. An overwhelming number of choices for both pasta and pizzas at Trattoria Pizzeria Alla Rocca. A very traditional local place, but I am concerned when I see a large menu – if you are doing all of these dishes, you probably aren’t doing them well. I had bigoli with tonno, bottarga, and pomodoro, a tomato sauce with tuna and bottarga. It was average, the bottarga was not the best, and the bigoli was not cooked to order, and therefore overcooked. No options for tasting various Soaves by the glass either.
Around the corner from this I passed by two enotecas, basically wine bars with a small menu. I should have kept walking past the pizza place and stopped at Il Drago. A nice menu, and a local wine is recommended with each. A lovely covered outdoor venue.
Just down the way is the Enoteca del Soave, where I had dined previously. Again, you have ample opportunity to sample various local wines with your meal. I enjoyed a bigoli con anatra there last year, a classic local dish of the thick hollow noodles that are a local specialty, with a duck ragu.
On my previous visit here, I dined one evening at Osteria La Scala. This also offers a menu stocked with very traditional Veneto dishes – bigoli, fegato (liver), and polenta. My meal here started with focacce calde, a hot panini stuffed with grilled vegetables, mozzerella and tomatoes. Some of the best bread I’ve had in the Veneto. My second course was their ‘piccante’ version of bigoli con anatra, with pancetta, olives and capers. The piccante totally overwhelmed the duck, unfortunately.
The wine list at La Scala was a great opportunity to try the local wines. I enjoyed a Soave Classico by Balestri Valda, as well as an Amarone Malo Villa Rinaldi. Other Soaves available by the glass included Coffele and Pieropan.
The Soave DOC zone surrounds the city itself to the west, north and east. Soave wines were quite popular in the US just after WWII. The original Soave DOC zone was confined to the hills that are just north and east of this town, but was rapidly expanded in size to include the flatter plains along the Adige river. These plains were planted with new vineyards to meet the high demand for the wine, resulting in a number of bulk producers flooding the market with lesser quality products, and the reputation of Soave wines suffered enormously. This is quite a shame, as a well-made Soave is a wonderful white, with full fruity wines produced from the limestone soil of the fields nearest Soave itself, to more minerally wines from the eastern vineyards with volcanic soil near Monteforte d’Alpone. Look for producers whose vineyards lie in the hillier areas; the vineyards from the original DOC area. The term “Classico” is usually reserved for these vineyards, but in the initial haste to expand the DOC region, this was not followed strictly. As a result, you can find some wonderful producers, such as Roberto Anselmi, producing their wines as IGT in protest.
As for tasting in Soave itself, the large, award-winning and highly regarded Pieropan winery has a cantina here. They have been at the top of Soave winemakers for four decades. You will find these wines in the US fairly easily. Try the Calvarino, from the original vineyards at the heart of the family estate, or the La Rocca, from the Monte Rocchetta hill vineyards, just below the castle built by the Scaligeri family, both Soave Classico wines. They have recently purchased land in the Valpolicella region, and are moving into those as well. I tasted their Ruberpan Valpolicella recently in New York, an elegant, medium-bodied red, rich in red berries.
Coffele is another Soave producer, much smaller than Pieropan and hard to locate in the US, but well worth a taste if you find one of their wines. They’ve received awards from both Vini d’Italia and Wine Spectator. Their vineyard is located north of Soave, in the hills of Castelcerino, but their very beautiful cantina lies just a few steps away from the two enotecas I visited. We’ve enjoyed tasting at their cantina on our bike tours, which always seem to end up with a taste of their grappa. Try the Classico, a wonderful Soave from 100% Garganega, the Ca’ Visco, a blend of their best Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave grapes, and the sweet dried-grape wine, the Le Sponde Recioto di Soave Classico DOCG. They are also expanding into reds, with vineyards just purchased in the adjoining Valpolicella region.