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Garganega grapes drying outdoors
Garganega grapes drying outdoors

Garganega hanging up to dry in November.

You might not have heard of Garganega, but it is one of Italy’s oldest and best white grape varieties. It is a native of the Veneto in Italy’s northeast, and is the main grape found in many of the white wine DOCs and DOCGs from the area, the most famous being Soave DOC. There is even a strong relationship with the grape in the south; in Sicily it is known as Grecanico Dorato – but the grape is certainly not Greek in origin.

The grape is made in dry, sparkling, and sweet versions, including some of the world’s greatest sweet wines made from healthy, dried grapes. When made well and without the influence of oak barrels, the wines can be steely, hauntingly floral and deliciously mineral, with aromas of ripe peach, apricot, green apple and pear. Excellent acidity coupled with a smooth mouthfeel make it a pleasure to drink, and the wines can age for years – improving, some say, much like the Loire’s Chenin Blanc. High praise, indeed.

So why don’t more people know its name, or how good it can be? There are several reasons for this. The first and the largest part of the problem is that a wine that contains Garganega – even if that wine is made 100% with it – is not generally permitted  to put the name of the grape on the front label. This is due to the rules of the appellation system itself, which is based on France’s system. One exception to this are wines made in the Colli Berici, where the wines must have a minimum of 85% Garganega if the grape name is on the label.

The second reason relates to one of Garganega’s attributes: the vines can produce a large quantity of grapes. This means that large volumes of wine are possible from a smaller number of plants. The common perception is that large volumes of production from fewer vines dilutes the resulting wine, making it bland and uninteresting. In fact, the problem with such high yields results from the grapes not ripening fully, but the result is much the same. One of the main culprits of this practice was, unfortunately, the Soave DOC itself. Almost all of the wine from Soave is exported, with well over half going to the UK and Germany alone. Quality was not the priority for a long time, quantity and price were. These days are now over, with the wines being improved and a cru system being implemented – but the damage has been done and it will take time to repair. Fortunately for wine consumers, quality wines from Soave can be extraordinary – and they are a bargain.

But there is another difficult problem as well: except for Recioto di Gambellara, no wine made with Garganega MUST be made from 100% from the variety. Most are blended with lesser varieties, and this leads to wine of lower quality. Quality-conscious producers, however, almost always use 100% Garganega for their wines.

A few quality Italian appellations to look for:

Gambellara DOC, Colli Berici DOC, Soave DOC, Soave Superiore DOCG, Recioto di Gambellara DOCG, Recioto di Soave DOCG r.

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