In Soave Country

The importance of terroir: distinguishing between the commodity wines of the plain and those from the Classico areas in the hills.

On the road south out of Prosecco we headed once again to the plains, keeping the snow-topped hills and mountains on our right. We were making for the pretty walled town of Soave and the Coffele family from whom we have been buying for a good many years.

Antonio Fattori: a font of knowledge

Antonio Fattori: a font of knowledge Antonio Fattori: a font of knowledge

On the way, we stopped off to visit Antonio Fattori, a producer at Roncá in Soave country. Antonio is an inspired winemaker - he has 12 hectares of his own vines but makes wines for other people too. There were a couple of other visiting buyers while we were there and Antonio flitted between us, switching languages with ease and inspiring all of us with his infectious enthusiasm.

Sebastian says that Antonio is a great source of knowledge and is always interesting to visit to find out what he has been up to. One of Antonio's pet projects is to make sparkling wine from the local durella grape. A bit like glera from Prosecco, durella is naturally quite sharp and acidic and therefore perfect for making the base wine for sparkling production. Antonio pointed out that the soils in this area are volcanic too, helping to increase this character further. The other key grapes are garganega and pinot grigio and in the past we have bought Antonio's garganega-based IGT wines and his excellent everyday Palladium Soave. We tasted through a whole range of Antonio's wines, including the 2015 vintage of Palladium, which Sebastian and I both liked very much, 'this ticks all the boxes for me - it's clean, healthy and with good weight.' Sebastian put in his notes.

Antonio told us that the effects of global warming had resulted in the best grapes now coming from vineyards above 500m, '20 years ago, these sites were too cold to be any good, now you have to go higher and higher,' he told us. A keen skier, Antonio was also alarmed by the disappearance of the local glaciers that 30 years ago he used to ski down, 'In 1978 we could ski at 500 metres, now you have to go up to 1,500 and stay on the north-facing slopes.'

Despite global warming and a more extensive tasting than planned, we still felt the chill as we left Fattori's cantina and headed on to Coffele's.

Coffele - producers of top-quality Soave Classico

Alberto Coffele proudly shows around the family vineyards Alberto Coffele proudly shows around the family vineyards

The Coffele family are neighbours of the Pieropans, the other top-quality producers of Soave Classico from whom we buy. They are based in the heart of the historic walled town and live above the shop in a 16th-century town house within the walls. Guiseppe (Beppino), the father comes out to meet us, while daughter Chiara appears at an upstairs window in true Romeo and Juliet fashion! She shouts out that she has been cooking for us and that we'll see her later. While it is still light, the plan is to drive out to the vineyards and meet Chiara's brother Alberto, the winemaker.

The comparisons with Prosecco country are immediately apparent. Here, once again, we have a wine that is incredibly popular in the UK, but there is a world of difference between the commodity wines grown on the plains and made by the cantina sociale and the Soave Classico wines hand-crafted from great growers with access to the best fruit in prime hilly locations behind the town itself.

We wonder whether the message about the Classico wines being from a different area from the standard DOC wines has really hit home with wine drinkers.

'Garganega is one of the great Italian classic white grapes - there's no other wine quite like it, but if it is grown on the plain it is too productive and makes neutral wines.'

Sebastian Payne MW

The answer's in the soil

The key to the Coffele vineyards is their location. They have 25 hectares in the hills of Castelcerino on south-westerly facing slopes at altitudes of between 120-400 metres above sea level. The soils here are unique, formed some 30 million years ago when the land was uplifted to form the Alps. Fossils of ancient sea creatures tell of its past and the soil is a strange mix of black basalt and white marine limestone.

Coffele calcareous white stone vineyards_their most southerly Coffele calcareous white stone vineyards_their most southerly
Dark volcanic black basalt soils_Coffele highest vineyards Dark volcanic black basalt soils - Coffele highest vineyards

Coffele have one of the largest continuous vineyard holdings in this area and are one of the few to vinify the grapes themselves. The son, Alberto has taken over the winemaking here from his father since 1994. He lives on the estate and is quiet, thoughtful but energetic. He gets really excited showing us around the work he has been doing on the estate and taking us to meet two of his beloved horses (11 altogether work the land).

Alberto and his beloved horses which he uses in the vines Alberto and his beloved horses which he uses in the vines

The specially designed drying room for the appassimento method of drying fruit in the traditional Veronese way The specially designed drying room for the appassimento method of drying fruit in the traditional Veronese way

From the state-of-the-art computerised drying room (used for making the sweet Recioto di Soave), which uses software that Alberto has invented, to the use of environmentally friendly pest control, which works by releasing pheromones to sexually confuse the pesky bugs, Alberto leaps about with great enthusiasm. We scramble around the back of the stables to inspect the worm-rich dung heap and slide down a muddy bank to view newly grafted vines.

You can tell that Alberto is happy living up here among his vines and the fact that he calls himself a 'young traditionalist', makes perfect sense. Since the 2014 vintage, the Coffeles have achieved organic certification - the first in the Soave Classico DOC; but the endeavour to work with nature not against it is matched by a desire to innovate and make the most of new technologies too. Alberto talked of getting the software for the drying room linked to his smartphone, 'because man's input is important too.'

With the light fading quickly, we headed back down the hill to the town to taste with Alberto and sample the fruits of his sister Chiara's day-long labours in the kitchen.

The elaborate aperitivo lovingly prepared by Chiara Coffele The elaborate aperitivo lovingly prepared by Chiara Coffele

The 2015 vintage

Soave Classico Castel Cerino 2015 - the label carries the 'cru' name for the first time Alberto said that this was the first vintage that he could remember picking all the garganega grapes in September (this is 100% garganega). It was an advantage having the grapes trained high on pergolas - in such a hot year it meant that the air could circulate and it also meant the wild boar couldn't reach the grapes! I thought the wine had a great edge to the flavour, with depth and length despite it still being young at this stage. Alberto says he prefers the cooler vintages which are more of a challenge, 'anyone can make a good wine in a good year!'

Next we tried the 2015 Ca' Visco Soave Classico - 80% garganega and 20% trebbiano di Soave - this wine is named after Alberto's mother, Giovanna Visco and the vineyard is situated lower down the slope on basalt soil. The grapes are trained differently here too, this time using the guyot method which gives more exposition to the sunlight. The wine gets a bit of a lime-lick to it as a consequence, or some describe it as having a touch of lychee flavour. Sebastian talked of buying some in magnum to offer to members later in the year. Watch this space!

The measure of quality for all wines - even those not destined to be aged, is their ability to stay the distance, so just as Primo Franco had pulled out an old bottle of Prosecco for us, so too did Alberto, producing a 1999 Ca'Visco from his cellar. The wine was a revelation - still perfumed, fresh and creamy, with a buttery, smoky flavour that went on and on - 'essence of the Coffele style - eat your heart out Chablis!' Sebastian wrote.

Dinner with the famiglia

Climbing up the stairs to the family's living quarters we were met by the father Beppino and mother Giovanna in their rather crumbling 16th-century palazzo. We were shown into the drawing room and confronted with a table covered with lots of tiny, beautifully prepared starters. Now we understood what Chiara had meant when she said that she had been cooking all day for us! She also said that she had hassled every fishmonger in Soave to get hold of all the fresh shellfish she could lay her hands on for our supper.

Guiseppe Coffele talking about the fossils found in their vineyards - proof that this land was once under the sea! Guiseppe Coffele talking about the fossils found in their vineyards - proof that this land was once under the sea!

After our aperitivo, we went into the family dining room for more fish dishes, both raw sushi-style with hints of ginger (quite the trendy thing it seems) and cooked, culminating in a large Branzino (sea bass) and salad then fresh strawberries with 2014 recioto (which also goes well with rhubarb crumble we are reliably informed!). With one of the courses we tried a 2015 Valpolicella from newly acquired vineyards, which I thought was delicious.

Over dinner we heard the touching story of how the father and mother met. Both were teachers, Beppino a professor of Italian literature and classics and Giovanna a primary-school teacher; Giovanna's family were the Viscos, well known for producing wine from the best vineyards since the mid-nineteenth century. Together their love for wine and for the land led them to split their time between teaching, raising a family and regaining control of the family vineyard plots. It has been the work of a lifetime involving enormous effort and financial sacrifice to get to where they are today. The affection between the parents is still joyous to behold and now their children have taken over at the helm, Alberto making the wine and the dynamic Chiara looking after the commercial side of the business. Having spent time with the family, we could see that the passion for the land and the vines was being carried on by the next generation.

For us it was time to walk the few streets to our hotel, ready for an early start the next day.

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