Leonildo "Nino" Pieropan of northeastern Italy’s Pieropan winery in the Soave appellation died April 13. He was 71. According to colleagues, he died after suffering from an illness in recent months.
“[Soave loses] an undisputed leader and flag-bearer,” said Graziano Prà, owner and winemaker of his family’s Prà winery, located just outside of the town of Soave. “[Pieropan was] a man who has dedicated his life to his family and his work, contributing decisively to raising the reputation of our appellation.”
In 1967, Pieropan assumed leadership of his family’s historic winery, founded in 1890. During his career, quality white wine production in Soave was challenged. The Soave DOC was established in 1968, and the appellation's boundaries included not only the historic production area of higher elevation, hillside vineyards, but also sites on the low-lying adjacent plains, many of them considered inferior for grapes. For the next two decades, countless area producers opted for high yields, leading to the production of insipid versions of Soave. All these factors tarnished the overall image of Soave's wines.
Meanwhile, Pieropan strove for low yields and physiologically mature fruit, eschewing the trend to grow large quantities and harvest quickly. He adhered to the traditional Soave blend of the local Garganega grape and smaller amounts of Trebbiano di Soave, not incorporating other grapes that were permitted but less suitable.
But he also looked for opportunities to innovate without losing the spirit of Soave. In 1971, under his direction, the winery produced the first single-vineyard bottling of Soave, sourcing from the Calvarino vineyard. It was a bold step at a time when Italian white wine in general, let alone cru bottlings, received little critical regard.
In 1978, after purchasing the small, steep La Rocca vineyard located behind the Castello di Soave, Pieropan felt the character of the vineyard’s fruit would allow him to do more; he fermented 100 percent late-harvested Garganega grapes in large casks and wood barrels to produce the first oak-fermented and oak-aged Soave. And in 2008, Pieropan decided to forgo the right to label his entry-level Soave as "Classico" in order to bottle with a Stelvin screwcap. (The Soave appellation later appended its regulations to include these wines).
"Leonildo has been a pioneer of Soave vignerons," Roberto Anselmi, of the nearby Anselmi winery, told Wine Spectator. "Without Leonildo, the reputation and image of Soave wouldn’t be what it is today."
Pieropan was always welcoming and gracious to visitors, even though he was always busy doing something in the winery. The 2016 harvest was Pieropan's 50th, and the beginning of his semi-retirement, with sons Dario and Andrea, who had already been working with their father for nearly 20 years, stepping forward to run the winery.
"His honest and sincere character, his kindness and cordiality, combined with precision and determination, made Leonildo a role model to follow," said Sandro Gini of Gini wines.
Leonildo is survived by his wife, Teresita, sons Dario and Andrea, and several grandchildren.