Wine notes

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

SOAVE BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT


Alessandro and Filippo Filippi challenge the meaning and value of the Soave appellation

Soave, the wine at which most wine lovers would turn up their noses, has suffered for years under a self-inflicted inferiority complex, having allowed the production of bland and cheap wines under its appellation. Although the Consorzio, the controlling body of Soave, recently embarked on an ambitious project to describe and map single vineyards in an effort to restore the wine’s ancient, but largely forgotten, reputation (of which more later), it has yet to restore the reputation of Garganega, the white grape responsible for wines that are often described as ‘flowery, elegant and with finesse’, but could easily mean ‘dull’.

Garganega, Soave’s main ingredient, is not generally considered a great grape variety, although this view is almost always based on the mediocre wines described above rather than on true efforts to find out what it is capable of. Of course, a handful of producers, notably Pieropan, have been stubbornly producing wines of concentration and complexity, but recently this very select camp has been joined by two brothers, whose wines seem to add a completely new dimension to Garganega. They provoke the question: is Garganega light and flowery or full bodied and multi-layered? Their wines also do away with the age-old myth that Garganega’s yields should never be too low as this would compromise the wine’s ‘elegance’, which, according to the brothers Filippi, is nothing other than dilution and a direct result of unreasonably high yields.

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi determinedly cling to old vines trained on the maligned pergola training system and, with one exception, have turned their back on the much more modern Guyot system. They refuse to green harvest and use exclusively organic and biodynamic methods. They scorn any other grape in their Soave except for Garganega, and their highly original wines, all single-vineyard bottlings, show purity, concentration of fruit and minerality in such abundance that they have found it difficult to get the official approval for their wines because the Consorzio struggles to recognise them as ‘traditional and genuine’. Part of the Filippi range can therefore be marketed only under the meaningless classification IGT Veneto Bianco, signifying another lost opportunity for Soave to spruce up its battered reputation.

Although the estate seems to have appeared out of the blue, the family has since the 14th century been firmly rooted in Castelcerino, one of the highest and oldest parts of the Soave hills, and they have an enviable monopoly in two of the very best crus, Vigne della Bra and Monteseroni, and 1.5 hectares in the über cru Castelcerino. The estate was one of the first to vinify its own grapes, but estate bottling wasn’t introduced until 2003, when the Filippi brothers took over the reins from their parents.

The soils in this part of the Soave hills are extremely varied and complex with basalts of volcanic origin and layers of ancient, prehistoric limestone (the Filippi office is full of stones with fossile imprints found in their vineyards). The soils of the Castelcerino vineyard, with-50 year-old vines, are volcanic with black basalt stones, whereas Monteseroni, only a stone’s throw away, consists mainly of limestone. A perfect south exposition makes it the warmest of the three vineyards, and although the vines are pergola trained, yields are very low thanks to vines 60 years old.

Vigne della Bra has sandy clay soils with a skeleton of basalt rock. The vineyard is surrounded by a forest, shielding it from cooler winds, with a marked difference between day and night temperatures. A row of trees neatly divides this vineyard into two separate plots, which is duly recognised by their separate vinification and bottling.

Although Castelcerino is one of the oldest vineyards in the region, only part of it falls within the superior (at least on paper) Soave Classico designation, while the highest and smallest part is confined to the nondescript Soave Colli Scaligeri designation. The Filippis can literally see the border of Soave Classico run past their front door, making a bow around their vineyards, thus raising doubts over the seriousness of a legal designation which doesn’t recognise some of its finest terroirs.

As Soave Colli Scaligeri doesn’t mean anything to anyone, and Soave Classico is not a guarantee for quality, the brothers are considering taking all their wines out of the Soave denomination. The name Soave, according to Alessandro, hinders a proper return on investments, and prevents producers from focusing on quality instead of quantity. While Soave continues to be synonymous with the cheapest of wines, lower yields, a prerequisite for showing Garganega’s greatness, are not really an option, which makes the Filippi efforts even more laudable. For the moment, the vineyard names feature prominently on the labels, with the word Soave in very small print and relegated to the back label, as it could prevent wine lovers beating a path to their door.

The aforementioned pergola, which has traditionally been considered the main culprit for higher yields because it accommodates Garganega’s extreme vigour while giving support to an enormous number of loose-hanging, heavy bunches of grapes, has been lovingly embraced by Filippo and Alessandro. Although the modern Guyot trellis system has been adopted by one and all, it cannot automatically be read as a commitment to quality. Alessandro explains that in Soave, especially on the plains, it allows for a high level of mechanisation, impossible in a pergola vineyard. With the modern trellis system came the introduction of high-yielding Garganega clones, as well as the now so familiar international intruders, with Chardonnay playing the leading part. Although it has no affinity with the volcanic soils in the hills, and doesn’t produce anything of much character on the fertile plains, Chardonnay can fill out the mid palate of high-yielding, dilute Garganega and, more importantly, boost alcohol levels.

For Alessandro, the advantages of the ancient pergola system far outweigh the disadvantages, but even he admits that clones and the age of the vines play a key role. The Filippi vines are almost all 50 to 60 years old, all descendants of an ancient biotype, and not of selected clones from the beginning of the 1960s that were developed for quantity only. Unsurprisingly, clonal selection represents another bone of contention for the brothers. Pergola, especially in combination with old vines and low yields, produces loose bunches of grapes (Guyot, at least in Filippo’s experience, giving much more compact bunches) which are more resistant to rot. The high position of the bunches on the pergola, up to two metres above the ground, allow for ventilation, provided the vigour of the plant is kept in check. Old vines are naturally less vigorous, and the organic approach seems to restrict profusion even more. Another very important side effect is that quality is not improved by green harvesting, which the brothers describe as an artificial correction of an intentionally unbalanced situation.

The cellar, as you would expect, is an extremely simple affair, consisting of a couple of stainless steel tanks. Minimal intervention seems to come naturally here. As the building is set against a slope, gravity flow is the norm, while temperature control during fermentation is mostly left to the season, with perforated walls allowing streams of cool air into the cellar.

The grapes are handled as little as possible, with destemming and pressing only. Pre-fermentation maceration, which nowadays is almost standard practice, is not used – the brothers consider this a ‘trick’ to coax more out of a grape than it has brought with it in the first place. The wines, vinified and bottled strictly by vineyard, are fermented with indigenous yeast in stainless steel. The wines stay on the fine lees for six months, and often much longer, only to be disturbed by the occasional bâtonnage. In addition to adding complexity, this results in a natural clarification without the need for fining agents. Malolactic doesn’t occur, nor is it desired.

All wines get an additional year in bottle before they are released, as the high mineral content seems to inhibit the normally swift development of Garganega, and even the entry-level Soave Colli Scaligeri Castelcerino needs decanting, something the brothers advise for the entire range.

As if that were not enough, the Filippis produce in minuscule quantities (sometimes no more than 100 bottles) a range of wines called ‘Vini di Ricerca’ – research wines – which are in-depth investigations into late-harvested Garganega, fermented on the skins and given prolonged lees contact.

Their counterpart to the classically sweet Recioto di Soave is a deliberately dry wine made from dried Garganega grapes. This wine is called Scapa, dialect for ‘escape’, suggesting that the sweetness has escaped from the wine. The Filippis call this wine the white equivalent of Amarone, which, incidently, they also produce from a tiny patch of pergola-trained vines in Valpolicella, using Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara.

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Castelcerino 2006 Soave Colli Scaligero 16 Drink 2009-12
Quite deep yellow. Intense spicy fruit and camomile with lots of minerals. Serious stuff. Mineral fruit on the palate, restrained and elegant. Bitter almond finish. Still a touch yeasty and will benefit from another year in bottle. Needs decanting. 12.5%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Monteseroni 2006 Soave Colli Scaligeri 16.5 Drink 2009-14
Restrained, very fine stony nose. Salty and minerally on the palate. Again tight, and complex. Great potential and length. 13%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Vigne della Bra 2006 Soave Colli Scaligeri 17 Drink 2010-16
The most open of them all with soft fruit with depth and stony notes. Camomile and garden herbs. Much more restrained and closed on the palate. Mineral theme again, and soft sweet fruit, matched by marked but fine acidic structure. Will need more time, and has lots of potential. 13%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Vigne delle Bra 20 mesi sui lieviti 2006 Soave Colli Scaligeri 16.5 Drink 2009-16
From the upper part of the Bra vineyard. Twenty months on the fine lees, hence the name. Perfumed nose of sweet white fruit, earthy and with touch of fresh dough. Fascinating. Closed at first, then shows more and more soft fruit, with minerality. Very elegant and persistent. 13.5%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi Trebbiano 2006 IGT Bianco Veronese 17 Drink 2009-16
Vinification without sulphites and 6 months on the lees, with regular bâtonnage. Pale golden. Intensely sweet nose of honey and candied fruit, apricots and brioche, apple. Aromatic fruit but completely dry palate. Almost a touch phenolic. Genuine, but for a select few only. 12.5%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Puro Garganega 2007 IGT Bianco Veronese 17 Drink 2009-16
Only stainless steel, skin contact for 4 days, no sulphides at any stage. Light golden amber. Intense, sweet nose of apricot marmelade, honey, cooked apple and nutmeg, caramel notes. Closed on the palate, minerals, bread crust. Marked but very fine acidic structure. Intense finish. Will develop over the years. 12%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Tardiva 2004 Soave Colli Scaligeri 17.5 Drink 2009-16
Exceptionally late harvest. The fermentation is so slow - it takes three months to complete. The wine stays at least an extra year on the fine lees, and a year or so in bottle. There is virtually no residual sugar. The appearance of a dessert wine – brilliant golden. Beautiful, powerful, intense and pure sweet nose, apricot, bready and savoury notes too, camomile and green tea. Similar to the Puro, but finer, more refined. Minerally fruit palate is still compact and closed. 13%

Alessandro and Filippo Filippi, Secco 2002 Soave Colli Scaligeri 18 Drink 2009-16
Made of apassito (dried) grapes which were attacked by botrytis during the drying process. Bright amber. Opulent sweet complex opening. Apricot juice and notes of croquant. Beautifully balanced with focused, sweet fruit. Ends dry but there is great balance and pure fruit flavours, creamy notes, and lovely acidity. 14.5%

This article has been published previously on www.jancisrobinson.com