Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Rediscovering Soave with Stefano Inama

Soave was once the most popular Italian white wine for American consumers. In the 1970s, Americans bought more Soave than they did Chianti. But, fueled by cheap bulk wines made from the less heralded vineyards in the region's fertile plain, Soave developed a bad reputation. When I first started studying Italian wines about a decade ago, I heard only negative things about Soave. It's thin, it's insipid, it's for old winos.

Then I started tasting some wines from Soave Classico (the respected heart of the region). I was impressed. These were dynamic, exciting and unique white wines.

One of those wines was an Inama Soave Classico. I recently met with winemaker Stefano Inama while he was visiting Washington, DC, and spent a wonderful evening sipping his wines and picking his brain about this historic region.

Inama vineyards in Soave Classico. Credit: Giò Martorana/Inama
Inama is premium Soave Classico. If this region is primed for rediscovery by a new generation of wine drinkers, Inama's wines are the perfect gateway drug.

Soave is made from the ancient Garganega grape, a relatively rare variety that pops up in only a few other areas of Italy. It imparts a vibrant sense of acidity, a mineral cleanliness and abundant floral characteristics. Its spiritual and historic home is Soave Classico, a zone that is full of volcanic basalt soil, the only example of its kind in Northern Italy. (Wines labeled simply Soave come from alluvial plains and are generally produced by cooperatives for the mass market.) The Romans knew the area that is now Soave Classico was good wine-growing soil, and wine has been made in this area for about 2,000 years.

Imagining what the Romans were looking for when they first planted vines in these soils, Stefano said, "We want a mineral wine to cleanse the palate, then some perfume." His wines have both of these elements, and then some.

Stefano Inama's father bought his first piece of land in Soave Classico in 1965. His wines found a permanent home at a new winery, which was completed in the early 1980s.

Stefano, who joined his father's winery in 1991, has expanded the company's portfolio significantly.
They make an entry-level Soave Classico and two single-vineyard wines. The Soave Classico "Foscarino" is selected from the best lots and oldest vines and fermented in older barrels. This wine has bold texture but it is incredibly bright and packed with mineral complexity.  The Soave Classico "Vigneto du Lot" is the opposite side of the spectrum, made in a more modern style. Stefano told me he wanted to make a Soave that he could pair with smoked salmon And, after tasting the Vigneto du Lot, I think that pairing would be fantastic. The grapes come from a single vineyard  known for its concentration, and the wine is fermented in new barrels with lees stirring. When the wine debuted in the mid-1990s, Stefano used 100% new oak. But as the 90s cult of new oak began to wane, Stefano dialed it back, and these days he uses about 30% new barrels. The Vigneto du Lot is a rich wine but the precision and freshness is impressive.

While Soave Classico is Inama's history (and bread and butter), Stefano is also something of an experimentalist. In 1991, the winery began bottling a Sauvignon Blanc, and they also bottle a varietal Chardonnay.

Inama's Colli Berici vineyard. Credit: Giò Martorana/Inama
Stefano is also a pioneer and lover of the Carmenere grape. Perhaps best known for its part in Chilean varietal and blended wines, this grape actually hails from Bordeaux. Carmenere had been growing in the region for at least 100 years (it was probably brought back by Italian workers returning from France). But for decades, nobody knew Carmenere was Carmenere — the vines were inter-planted with other varieties and likely mistaken for Cabernet Franc. In the 1990s, though, the Inamas chose an area of the Berici Hills with the goal of planting Carmenere and taking this grape variety seriously.

"Carmenere requires such an addiction," Stefano told me. It certainly seems like a lonely pursuit, but Stefano is putting his addiction to good use. His Carmenere "Piu" (which is blended with about 30% Merlot) is an inexpensive and accessible wine made for early consumption. It's absolutely delicious. The Oratorio di San Lorenzo (a 100% Carmenre) is perhaps the finest example of this grape I have ever tasted. It's an incredibly stunning wine. A tribute to its quality, this wine received its own DOCG appellation (Colli Berici D.O.C. Carmenere Riserva) in 2009.

With beautiful Soave Classico options, a range of other whites and reds, and some unique and thrilling Carmenere wines, the adventurous wine consumer good reason to get excited about Inama. And, considering the high quality, I think these wines are worth every dollar.

Here are my notes on the wines, which were all tasted around the dinner table.

2014 Inama Soave Classico Vigneti di Foscarino - Italy, Veneto, Soave Classico
Such bright aromas of minerals, chalk, sea salt and chamomile tea. Great texture on the palate, the richness is surprising considering the 12.5% alcohol, and the acidity keeps the wine vibrant. Limes and melon rind mix with an intense minerality. This is structured so well - I'd love to retaste it in a few years. A wonderfully pure expression of Soave Classico. From old vines planted on east-facing slopes. The wine is made from grapes grown on the east side of Monte Foscarino, and it's fermented in old oak barrels after the grapes receive overnight skin contact. (91 points)

2011 Inama Soave Classico Vigneto du Lot - Italy, Veneto, Soave Classico
A bit more honey and richness than the 2013, but this is still bright with scents of chalk, white tea and minerals. Bold and rich palate but so bright and refreshing as well. Green melon and key lime fruit blends with honey, almond, chamomile tea, a slight touch of vanilla and lingering minerality. A bold, waxy presence but the wine is precise and crisp throughout. Interesting to taste this wine at this point, but it's still going strong. (91 points)

2013 Inama Soave Classico Vigneto du Lot - Italy, Veneto, Soave Classico
More floral and lifted than the 2011, I get a lot of citrus zest mixed with chalk and all sorts of flowers. Bright on the palate with a lovely salinity, but the creaminess is very nice. Honeycomb, melon, apricot, subtle floral and tea notes. Persistently bright and zesty. Like the 2011, this wine sees 30% new French, but the oak influences seems less overt in this wine. Still very young. (91 points)

2011 Inama Bradisismo Veneto IGT - Italy, Veneto, Veneto IGT
Dark and saucy aromas, lots of plum and currant, but I love these pepper and bold smoke notes as well. Full-bodied with gutsy tannins but a lovely velvety texture as well. The dark red and black fruit is loaded with graphite, pepper, cedar, loam and spices. I'd love to age this for five or seven years, but it's beautiful to drink young.  This is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Carmenere. Aged 15 months in French oak barriques. 14.5% alcohol. (90 points)

2012 Inama Carmenere Più - Italy, Veneto, Veneto IGT
Smells of spicy pepper, clove, tobacco and eucalyptus on top of red plums. Smooth but structured tannins, tart acidity, spicy black cherry fruit on the palate. I love the spice and herbal complexities of this wine (clove, anise, eucalyptus, pepper, bay leaf). This entry-level red is a screamer at $20. This is such a versatile and downright fun wine that I'd love to see on some by-the-glass lists. 70% Carmenere and 30% Merlot aged 12 months in old French oak. (88 points)

2012 Inama Carménère Oratorio di San Lorenzo Veneto IGT - Italy, Veneto, Colli Berici D.O.C. Carmenere Riserva
These aromas are really kicking: black pepper, tobacco, eucalyptus, thyme, cocoa, they just keep going. On the palate this wine has bright acidity, solid tannic backbone and a gorgeous texture and mouthfeel. The black cherry and currant fruit is juicy, jammy and tart at the same time, and the spicy complexity is really impressive, leaving my mind searching for words to attempt to describe the different spice and herbal elements. 100% Carmenere aged 18 months in half new French oak and then a year in bottle before release. This is an absurdly good wine that will cellar wonderfully. A real treat to taste. (94 points)

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