Bordeaux VS Soave: a white wine odyssey through French and Italian style – Live from Vinitaly

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Back to Vinitaly 2024: this session was truly one to watch and the line of eager attendees made it clear that a Bordeaux VS Soave showdown was a masterclass not to be missed. Andrea Lonardi, tireless masterclass presenter that he is (we have already talked about his seminar on contemporary wines from old grape varieties with Professor Scienza), was ready to light up the room with his introduction. “We are here to compare classics – two important regions from two important countries with two producers who have a clear idea of how they want to express the identity of their place.”  He explained that we would examine the ageability of these two wine styles and take a good look at the recent move away from easy drinking to serious white wines, and how to raise the prices accordingly.

Claire Dawson, Marketing and Communications Director for Vignobles André Lurton, began the session with a brief discussion of French white wines in the southwest.  Originally from Scotland, but sporting 14 years experience as an executive in the fine wine industry in Bordeaux and in key international markets (UK, Europe, Asia & USA), Dawson spoke about Bordeaux, known for its reds, but with 10% of production in the region based on whites, primarily Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Dawson recounted that the Entre Deux Mers area has been known for crisp, easy drinking and aromatic whites, while Pessac Leognan, on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, produces more complex white wines. Graves, within the Pessac Leognan zone, is the smallest Cru Classéè with 5.5 hectares of vines grown on sand, limestone and clay soils.

Andrea Pieropan, viticulturist and enologist at his family’s eponymous award-winning winery in Soave, Veneto, talked about creating a terroir-driven vision for their wines. As the 4th generation, he works with his brother Dario on the volcanic soils of the Soave Classico zone. He told of his father Leonildo’s dedication to the wines made with Garganega grapes, the purchases of the Calvarino cru vineyard, where he was the first to make an Italian white single vineyard wine in 1971, using concrete tanks for vinification. In 1978 the family purchased La Rocca, another cru vineyard and began using oak for their white wines, something no one else in Italy was doing at the time. The wines achieved global recognition and the family has recently completed the building of a totally sustainable new winery within sight of the famous Soave Castle.

The tasting began with Dawson presenting Château Couhins-Lurton Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves 2020.  The use of oak was an intentional move away from the sharp acidity previously associated with Bordeaux whites, and toward a more crisp fruit character. 35% of the wine matures in new oak, 30% in amphorae, and 35% in old oak. The wine was 100% Sauvignon Blanc and gave aromas of quince, yellow apple medlar (“nespola” in Italian) and green notes including fresh dill. On the palate, there was a distinctly saline, fresh seawater element. Lonardi commented, “The salinity is what is bringing these two regions (of France and Italy) together. This salty character is a combination of acidity, phH and phenolics.” 

Pieropan presented the second wine, his Soave DOC Classico BiologicoLa Rocca2021, Garganega 100%, grown on calcareous soils with higher levels of potassium and calcium. The wine was medium gold in color and fruitier, with notes of citrus, green apple and green pear. Rounded and soft on the mid-palate, the wine had the distinctive saline quality we tasted in the Bordeaux, along with a good acidic spine, a phenolic grip and a pleasantly bitter green almond finish.

Wine number 3 was also “La Rocca,” this time the 2016 vintage, which showed very ripe fruit, with a richer and warmer nose full of grapefruit, mandarin, bitter zest and a fresh hint of sage. The wine showed less aggressive phenolics and a great balance of acidity.

Fourth was Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves 2016, in what Dawson referred to as “the old fashioned style,” with high acidity and lovely notes of apple peel and white apricot.  The wine was flinty but generous and soft, smooth and evolved, toasty with just enough suggestion of oak complementing the recurring saline and phenolic feel.

Pieropan returned for the 5th wine, “La Rocca2010, a beautiful wine with complex and intriguing notes of saffron and quinine, baked quince, dried mango and guava. Acidic and briney to be sure, but somehow softer and much smoother than the younger vintages. The deep gold color hinted at sweetness, but the wine was bone dry, warm and rich.  Pieropan said “It was a vintage that didn’t show much at harvest, so we needed to let it evolve over time.

The final wine of this Bordeaux VS Soave showdown was Dawson’s Pessac-Léognan Cru Classé de Graves 2008, which was bottled with a screw-cap closure.  The wine still showed a racy acidity with a flinty, almost chalky minerality, and very attractive notes of fresh sharp lime zest. The screw-cap was not what the market wanted in 2008, so the winery now shows and sells these remarkable well-preserved wines privately. 

Lonardi asked the presenters and the audience, “What is better? The classics or less and less oak?” With various shows of hands, it was difficult to pin down a conclusive reaction from the audience. Andrea Pieropan commented, “The best solution is in possibility. There are no more predictable seasons. You have to be flexible and quick now. We don’t use malolactic conversion, we are looking for a clean expression.” Dawson added, “Italy and France really have a duality. There’s a common history and heritage.”  Lonardi agreed, saying ”The reason for a tasting like this is showing the ‘not very fine wine’ regions like Soave can create great fine white wines and sit at the table with one of the best chateaux of Bordeaux.

Wine journalist Robert Joseph, who was present in the audience, summed up the session on Bordeaux VS Soave by remarking, “This was a fascinating tasting. What’s amazing is the texture, the sensation in the mouth is so interesting. I found the wine with a bit of age, that combination of oak and age, was positive. A tasting more full of questions than answers.

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