Give Peas (and Soave) a Chance
In which Soave Classico becomes part of my life again.
This week, I’ve been thinking about peas. I’d noticed the little spring peas in their pods at the farmers markets over the past few weeks. I had planned to buy and shuck them, and to cook them with a little pancetta and mint, and to toss them with fresh pasta or risotto. Then, I planned to regale you with a story about how it reminded me of these special, delicate Lumignano peas that you get during springtime in the Veneto and talk about how amazing they are, tossed with tagliatelle or with Vialone Nano rice (the classic risi e bisi). Above all, I wanted to tell you what an amazing pairing these peas are with a certain type of mineral-driven white wine from the volcanic soils of Soave Classico.
Then I kept forgetting to buy the damn peas, and when I finally remembered, I couldn’t find fresh peas anywhere. Their brief season around here had passed. Instead, I made a completely unmemorable dish of frozen peas and standard American bacon, tossed with a dry pasta that was way too thick.
But more than just peas, I guess I’ve really been pondering how quickly the seasons change, how small things can make a big difference, and how I can be a fickle friend. When I remember those amazing Lumignano peas — the peas revered for a thousand years by the medieval Doges of Venice — I inevitably think about the weird era when I first ate them.
That was several years ago, when I’d stepped away from journalism for a short time, to work for Inama, a winery run by wonderfully crazy family that makes Soave Classico and also red wines in the Colli Berici, south of Vicenza, a strange appellation where carménère is grown (as well as Lumignano peas). In fact, it was through carménère that I met winemaker Stefano Inama, because I’d done a huge tasting report on carménère and — to the chagrin of the Chileans — declared his Oratorio San Lorenzo bottling to be the best in the world.
What was my actual job for the Inamas? It’s hard to say. In the loosest sense, I suppose I was the family’s so-called “brand ambassador” in the U.S. I organized some media dinners and lunches. I did some copywriting. I helped them navigate the draconian state liquor monopoly of Pennsylvania. I mentored their youngest son, Alessio, on the American wine market as he transitioned from being a DJ in London back to a job in the family business. Along the way, I found out that I was gloriously terrible at wine sales and marketing (see also: anti-influencer).
I remember one sweltering day in July, lugging a case of wine around Manhattan (in subway cars with broken AC) along with a rep from their distributor, pouring samples in plastic cups for disinterested wine-shop managers. When I expressed my surprise at how dimissive most of the buyers were, the rep replied: “Well, not to be rude, why should they care about this Soave? There are 10,000 other wines with great stories, too.”
This, of course, is totally untrue. If you like wine, you should care a lot about good Soave. It’s one of the great-value whites of Italy. Though, to be fair, it’s something I’d forgetten myself until recently — just like I forgot about picking up the spring peas while they were still in season.
Less than a decade ago, I wrote a lot about Soave Classico, positioning it as a serious food wine that could prove Italian whites are not just insipid pinot grigio. Producers like Pieropan, Prá, Gini — and, of course, Inama — were a regular stops on my travels in Italy. Eventually (and I don’t know why) I moved on to telling other stories about other wines. Years later, I still see plenty of pinot grigio on store shelves and at parties I go to, but I rarely see people drinking Soave Classico. When I started thinking about those peas, I realized to my surprise I hadn’t actually drank a Soave Classico in several years. So, I tasted a handful of what I could find at my local retailers.
Now, the most important thing to understand about Soave is there are two different realities: Soave and Soave Classico. (Starting with the 2019 vintage, Soave has designated 33 special vineyard sites, or crus, which will surely add to the confusion). Soave is a lovely little town near Verona, complete with a medieval castle. The two appellations here may share the same name, but they don't share the same philosophy. The difference, as with all Italian wines, involves confusing geography and classification. Soave is the name of the larger DOC with more than 16,000 acres of vineyards. The basic Soave DOC is controlled by large cooperatives with vast production that make mostly characterless, inoffensive wines. Let’s think of Soave DOC as frozen peas — serviceable, but paling in comparison to the special, fresh Lumignano peas of memory.
Best bet is to seek out smaller producers in the Soave Classico DOC. The more complex and flavorful wines come from the hills of volcanic soil in the original growing area, dating back hundreds of years and first designated in 1931. All Soave must be made with at least 70 percent garganega grapes, but most of the wines from Classico are more like 90-100 percent garganega. Garganega demands a later harvest to achieve maximum ripeness, which is what the high-quality producers do.
In my impromptu tasting, I was happy to find that Soave Classico still consistently delivered wines that balanced minerality and steeliness with a fresh acidity, showing unique floral notes and often hints of almond along with citrus and stone fruit. They feel more richly textured than many whites, and are an example of white wines that can age. Don't be afraid to buy one that’s three to five years old, or older.
I’m so happy to reconnect with my old friend Soave Classico. I look forward to rekindling our friendship and pairing it with many pastas and risotto dishes, throughout the year. Hopefully next time spring rolls around, I will also make sure to grab the fresh spring peas.
From 40-year-old vines, full-bodied and steely, with wildflowers, honeysuckle, and almond, but also a deep minerality and pleasant earthy finish.
Organic, from 30-to-60-year-old vines, energetic, bright, and linear, with jasmine, lemon, apricot, and a crisp mineral finish.
From 30-to-70-year-old vines, with bright lemon, fresh cut flowers, and wet stone on the nose and rich peach and plum on the palate and a