A heritage grape is one that is closely associated with a particular place and has built fame for how that grape expresses there (cabernet sauvignon in the Medoc, merlot in St. Emilion, chardonnay and pinot noir in Burgundy, riesling in Germany and sauvignon blanc in the Loire Valley and Marlborough, NZ).
All of the above named grapes are also international varieties, but there are dozens–no, hundreds–of other heritage grapes that make stunning wines in particular corners of the world but for various reasons were never elevated to “international” status.
This week we’ll look at the Italian grape garganega, which distinguishes the white wine Soave from just another dry Italian quaffing wine.
Soave is from the Verona region of northeastern Italy and is described by leading British wine writers Jancis Robinson MW and Hugh Johnson in their jointly written World Atlas of Wine (fifth edition) as “Italy’s most famous white wine”, although the qualitative difference between the high yielding vines grown in the valley where the lower-quality trebbiano grape dominates and the low-yielding high-quality vines of the Classico DOC is pretty obvious.
The Soave Classico DOC (appellation in Italy) is limited to the hillsides which, having much lower organic matter, are lower yielding, and the heritage garganega grape must constitute at least 70% of the blend.
Some quality-minded producers have chosen to de-classify their wines by opting out of the DOC for labeling, including the featured producer here, Menti.
Menti is located in the Soave Classico region in the town of Gambellara, and the firm has been in the family since it was founded in the 19th century. Menti is a small producer with about 16 acres of grapes, garganega and another local variety, durella.
Aside from being a small production winery specializing in estate heritage grapes, Menti also practices biodynamic vineyard management as well as using only natural yeasts and minimal intervention winemaking, in order to better maintain the features of the vineyards’ terroir.
Instead of labeling with Soave Classico DOC as they could, instead they began printing on their label “100% Gambellara terroir”. Although they had belonged to the Gambellara Producers Association and other Consortiums, they made the decision to leaving these associations and to reduce the price of the bottle for the consumer with money they save in paying due.
Menti is also concerned with its carbon footprint, so they use lighter weight glass bottles (390 grams) which reduces carbon both in bottle production and the cost of gas and C02 emissions in transport. Also, since March 2011 due to a photovoltaic system placed on the roof of the winery the entire winemaking process is carried out using clean self-produced energy.
Now, a look at the grape and the wines. Renowned wine taster and British wine writer Steven Spurrier has said that the increase in quality of Soave wines focused on the Classico DOC with limiting yields and increasing the level of garganega has led to Soave becoming possibly Italy’s best widely available white wine. Johnson and Robinson describe “real Soave” as having flavors of “almonds and lemon” which is a great description. The wine is lean and steely, but with subtle almond and lemon hints with a mineral edge of acidity, much as you’d expect from white Burgundy or Austria’s gruener veltliner.
Menti’s importer (Grand Cru Selections) and their agent in Italy sent me three wines, two still wines and a rustic sparkling wine, all 100% garganega from the volcanic soils of Gambellara.
My tasting companion (who we’ll call “wineosaurus”) and I both liked the style and the originality of the “Roncaie sui Lievi 2013.” This is a sparkling wine sealed with a simple crown cap and surprisingly showing the lees (dead yeast cells) and light cloudy sediment still in the bottle. On the nose, the wine was surprisingly, and pleasantly, cider-like, with yellow fruits (apple, lemon, and pear) with smoky mineral notes.
On the palate, the wine was crisp, nicely bubbly, dry and refreshing, with a slight but pleasing almond-like bitterness on the finish. This is a great summertime aperitif sparkler. A little over 1,000 cases produced; US retail $18. For you questing Millennials looking for really original terroir wines without a big carbon footprint, this is worth seeing out. Also bottled with no sulfites, so technically an organic wine.
The next favorite wine of the three was the Riva Arsiglia 2012, a single vineyard (old vine) still wine which was surprisingly different from the sparkling Roncaie sui Lievi. First, this was a 2012 vintage and still wine. Second, the first really had a rustic, subtle clean earthiness to it I associate with garganega, but this wine as “wineosaurus” pointed out, was much more like a Marlborough sauvignon blanc. On the nose, it also had smoky almond and lemon rind with hints of mineral. On the palate though, it was rich and round like pinot gris, with spicy edges, and the zesty lemon and mineral tones continued. The mid-palate combined the weight of pinot gris with the zestiness of pinot grigio and the finish was freshly bright and fruity. For a three year old white this was a very versatile wine that felt like it still had not reached its peak, and could match a variety of foods and purposes. US retail: $22.
Remember, both of these wines were native yeast products, and the sparkling wine had re-fermentation induced with garganega resin and natural yeasts and sugars; although they were from the same estate, different vintages and processes yielded different styles, but both were excellent expressions of the garganega heritage grape.