Soave’s Free Spirit

A distinct Italian white, winemaker and estate in their own class
Jun 9, 2014

Cantina Filippi sits at the highest part of northeastern Italy's Soave appellation in a Renaissance-era palazzo transformed into a sort of Bohemian lair.

"Most Soave gives me a headache," says poetically named Filippo Filippi, 44, who has made 11 vintages of small-production Soave Classico crus here on a 1,300-foot hilltop in Castelcerino.

Filippi has all the elements I love to write about: an iconoclastic winemaker, distinctive wines, varied terroirs and a long history in a beautiful setting. Even better, it's hiding in plain sight in Soave—one of Italy's largest vineyard areas, dominated for more than a century by large cooperatives and high output.

The 21st century has seen the growth of a small scene of quality Soave producers, and Filippi, a bear of a man with long, silver hair and beard, represents the eccentrically colorful wing.

The gravel entry behind Filippi winery's iron gates is scattered with antique wine presses and abandoned barrels, rusting farm tools, uprooted old vines displayed like art, and assorted clutter that opens onto views over the hilly Val Tramigna.

This estate—laced with volcanic rock, chalk and clay soils—was cultivated by a line of Tuscan counts (Filippi cousins) for about 700 years until it was bought by Filippi's maternal grandmother's family in the 1940s. The family replanted vineyards of Soave's principal grape, Garganega, along with Trebbiano di Soave for blending, and began producing Soave Classico, the designation of Soave's original hilly growing area. Then, after the sudden death of Filippi's great uncle, commercial winemaking stopped and the grapes were sold to the local cooperative.

Filippi's father, a local lawyer, encouraged his son to study agriculture and to become a contadino (farmer).

"It was an obligation," says Filippi, "This was the most beautiful estate in Soave and it disturbed me to see it in such a state."

Filippi farmed organically, and rather than replacing the oft-maligned pergola training system for Garganega, he embraced it—insisting that the overhead vine canopies could be used to limit output and increase quality. Inspired by Soave Classico quality pioneers like Leonildo Pieropan and the Gini family, Filippi began bottling his own wine in 2003.

Today he tends about 40 acres of low-yielding vineyards, nestled on terraces between old-growth forests, and produces up to 5,000 cases.

While most producers balance fruity, fleshy Garganega with higher-acid grapes, Filippi uses it at 100 percent for three crus: his entry-level Castelcirino Soave Classico (2011 vintage: 88 points, $15), Monteseroni Soave Colli Scaglieri (made only in vintages when the rich distinctiveness of the vineyard shines through), and his signature expressive Vigne della Brà Soave Colli Scaglieri. All are fermented with native yeasts in stainless steel tanks, where they stay on the lees up to 20 months.

"Garganega is perfect to express the minerality we have here," he says. "Soave should express a bit of fruit and flowers and salinity. Acidity is not important. What's more important is the salinity and minerality."

Filippi also vinifies Trebbiano di Soave in an IGT Veronese white, uses attic-dried Garganega to produce a sweet barrel-aged Recioto di Soave and Passito, and is prone to making micro-cuvées based on his whims and palate. One of those whims is Chardonnay, which he planted more than 20 years ago and with which he has been experimenting making an ancestral method sparkling wine.

Soave will never be the world's most stunning white, but the good stuff is easy to drink and pair with just about anything. Just don't look for the Soave name on the front of Filippi's bottles—he relegates it to the back label.

"I identify with Soave Classico as a production zone," he explains. "But I don't identify my wines with the rules for making wine or a style."


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