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Soave’s White Wizard

After 50 vintages, an Italian legend prepares the next generation
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Leonildo Pieropan flanked by his sons Andrea (left) and Dario (right)

Posted: Oct 24, 2016 10:00am ET

Leonildo Pieropan is finishing his 50th harvest, hoping to fade into the background as his two sons take over the family’s famous Soave estate.

Sort of.

“He lives upstairs from the winery—so he can not not be involved,” quips eldest son, Andrea, 39, the family agronomist who looks after the vineyards, while brother Dario, 37, runs the cellar.

Both sons, like their father, are also enologists: “Three in one small winery is probably too much,” says Andrea with a laugh.

Nevertheless, the 69-year-old Leonildo—the third-generation winemaker who brought Pieropan, once a local bulk-wine producer, to the world’s great wine lists—still shows up for work to watch and assist when needed.

“For me, this has never been work. It’s a pleasure,” Pieropan says, stopping by the winery after a day of harvesting. “And you can’t retire from a pleasure.”

Pieropan speaks softly, exuding the quiet confidence of a man, now considered a visionary, who succeeded by following his own instincts. Decades ago, he went against the popular tide of mass-produced Soave, chasing wines of mineral-driven elegance and becoming an inspiration to a generation of Soave producers.

Pieropan took over the family winery in 1967, right before the Soave DOC was created in northeastern Italy's Veneto region. At that time, the Soave zone was expanded from the stony volcanic hillsides of the traditional Soave Classico area to the flat alluvial plain where the local Garganega vines produce an abundance of grapes with little character.

From the start, Pieropan sought lower yields in his vineyards, picked fully ripe fruit and fermented with native yeasts in cement tanks. Steering clear of the trend to blend in Chardonnay, Pieropan’s blends followed the classic Soave recipe of 70 percent Garganega (known for its fruit and spice notes) with 30 percent tart Trebbiano di Soave. But he looked for ways to make his wines more interesting.

In 1971, with encouragement from Italian wine critic Luigi Veronelli, he took a nearly-unheard-of step in the world of Italian whites, making a single-vineyard bottling from his family’s Calvarino vineyard, which produced a complex mineral-driven wine.

Seven vintages later, Pieropan followed up with another daring move. He had bought a small vineyard, along with land he planted, on the La Rocca hillside, which has some of the area’s only limestone soils.

Pieropan noticed that everything about the grapes and the resulting wine from La Rocca was richer, from color to flavors. He released another single-vineyard bottling, using 100 percent Garganega grapes harvested late, when they had begun to develop the botrytis mold that concentrates sugars in grapes.

With the conviction that “the terroir chooses the materials you use,” Pieropan took another radical step for Soave, fermenting the La Rocca wine in wood barrels and large casks, where it aged on its lees for more than a year.

“The Italians could not accept the idea of a white wine that stayed a year in wood,” Pieropan recalls of the wine’s frosty initial reception. However, enough European and American wine lovers accepted La Rocca (2013, 90 points, $40) to make it an international hit.

Though Pieropan farms organically and takes a low-tech approach to winemaking, he has embraced modern innovations. He presses his grapes and bottles wines under inert gas to prevent oxidation, and he introduced screw caps on his basic Soave Classico bottling before appellation rules permitted the closure.

A decade ago, Pieropan experimented with fermenting his wines in stainless-steel tanks, but rejected them because he found steel’s conductive properties produced “nervous” results. “Wine is like us; it needs to rest,” he says, “and steel doesn’t rest.”

In the late 1990s, after Dario worked a stint in Chianti and returned home inspired by Tuscan reds, Pieropan decided to expand to the neighboring Valpolicella appellation.

“I said, ‘We have great terroir for red wine, two steps from here,’” he says. Adding to their 100 acres on Soave Classico’s slopes, the family bought more than 35 acres of higher-elevation Valpolicella vineyards, along with an abandoned 15th-century villa that they are restoring.

These days, the foundation is being dug for a new environmentally-friendly winery in Soave that the family plans to complete by 2018. There, Pieropan will consolidate its nearly 42,000-case annual production, which includes three Soave dry whites, a sweet Soave Recioto, a Valpolicella Superiore, an Amarone Della Valpolicella and a rosé sparkler.

One day, perhaps, Leonildo Pieropan will stop showing up for work. For now, he says he is “like a consultant—transmitting my experience to my sons.” His sons are glad to have him as a reference.

“My father,” reflects Andrea, looking over the family vineyards above the town of Soave, “has been the best book of my life.”

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