Last week I wrote about a popular white wine grape that I don’t usually like. This week I’d like to explore the opposite: a white wine I cherish that is often ignored or disparaged. If the run-of-the-mill sauvignon blancs I mentioned last week are “overdogs,” here is an underdog counterpart: Soave.

Soave is the most important DOC in the Veneto, in Italy’s northeast. To those who love Valpolicella, ripasso and amarone, my claim might be controversial. I’ll stick by it, though, since I often emerge from engagement with those reds either soured or battered, whereas with a good Soave I’m refreshed and more tuned in. In spring, anyway, there’s no doubt: Soave represents the promise and vitality of a new, warmer season.

A few myths are worth dispelling, since mention of this wine recalls for many people rough, anemic whites of the 1970s. That’s not what we ought to talk about when we talk about Soave. Blue Nun is not riesling, white zinfandel is not rosé, Chablis poured from screw-top jugs is not Chablis, and that bottle of Soave served with the asiago-breaded clams at your favorite childhood Italian restaurant was not Soave.

First, the name. Although the finer Soave wines, especially when aged, exhibit a velvety, calm (or “suave”) demeanor, the derivation of the region’s name is geopolitical rather than etymological. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribe that invaded and settled this part of what is now Italy were called Svevia, or later Suavia.

SHAMEFUL PAST

The name sure does sound smooth, though, right? No doubt that helped bulk producers in the 1970s (most famously, Bolla) attain such success marketing an insipid, tinny and tarted-up white wine that called itself Soave. Although that version of the wine employed some garganega, the native grape of the region responsible for Soave’s distinctive qualities, most mass-produced Soave, then as now, relied too heavily on trebbiano di Soave (also known as verdicchio) as well as chardonnay and pinot blanc.

Or it relied (and sadly, relies) excessively on garganega improperly farmed. For here is the problem with garganega: it’s too healthy and productive a grape. Left untended, garganega vines in Soave’s fertile volcanic soil hang heavy with fruit, which disperse their flavors too broadly. Only cutthroat pruning (which raises costs by sacrificing grapes) guides garganega vines to focus their bounty of flavor on a sufficiently limited number of grapes.

Still to this day, nearly 80 percent of Soave’s vineyards are harvested by co-ops with no skin in the game: They sell product straight to any winery that will take it, and consequently don’t care much whether the grapes reflect any particular quality.

Soave was eventually eclipsed in the cheap-and-plentiful race by pinot grigio, another infamously fruitful wine grape. Leaving behind the disappointing expressions of both these grapes has gotten easier in recent years, though, as an increasing number of producers are committed to finding the unique spirit of the land and fruit they cultivate.

The relatively recent DOC classifications for different levels of Soave are intended to protect the important from the impostors. As more and more producers sought to milk the Soave cash cow, the zone spread.

The response, an effort to distinguish the original, better vineyards from the newer pretenders, was the establishment of the Soave Classico DOC, where yields are restricted to 98 hectoliters per hectare, as compared to Soave DOC’s high 105 hl/ha. There is also a DOCG, Soave Superiore, farther north with less fertile hillside vineyards, where yields are restricted even further, to 70 hl/ha. (Thankfully, the good producers keep yields significantly lower even than the official maximums.)

A WINE OF INFINITE CHARM

What, then, are true Soave’s distinctive qualities? Delicacy, and nearly infinite charm. What thrills me about good Soave, though, is the way the charm conducts such pleasant marriage with complexity.

Just when you think you “get” one of the wines, after the initial burst of white flowers, golden apples, dried apricot and lemon spritz, the wine moves on to something else. The fruit lingers, while the acidity and intense mineral bite come to the fore.

Soave is a master class in lemons. You can sense everything from lemon squares to preserved lemon, lemon zest to lemon oil. It’s a reminder that a lemon is a fruit, though a fruit whose flesh, pith, pits, juice and rind all conspire to create a shockingly wide range of flavors. A good wine is almost always a balance of fruit and acidity, and here in Soave is that essence of the fruit that contains and harmonizes both.

The lemon aspects are Soave’s second level. Its third comes in mineral tones that remind me of sunny hay, salted almonds and a bracing steeliness.

It is at this point that one can see how well good Soave will age. The stark, gently bitter mineral cut present in these unoaked wines offers a clear sign that a Soave with three to six years in the bottle will develop magnificently.

There are oak-aged Soaves, too, with ambitions of grandeur and the potential to age even longer. I’ve drunk only a couple of these, perhaps too soon to allow the oak influences to integrate with the rest of the wine, and they are enjoyably rich but somewhat top-heavy, rather too sultry.

FOUR TO TRY

The Soaves for me are the clean, classy ones. The tradition-minded Pieropan Soave 2011 ($16) blends 10 percent trebbiano di Soave into the garganega. It’s a benchmark: silky texture, with wildflower character, nut-flecked background and sturdy bones.

It is for all intents and purposes a Soave Classico since it is from the original Soave area, but in forsaking cork for a Stelvin screw-top enclosure, Pieropan lost the right to officially name it Classico. Such are the vagaries of the DOC system.

A tremendous value, and especially worthwhile given the time this vintage has had to settle, it matches beautifully with spring vegetables (peas, asparagus) and eggs.

Inama’s Vin Soave Classico 2013 ($15) is a tighter, more bracing and mineral expression than Pieropan’s, but it still bears the inimitable charisma and exactitude of the category. Something of a flinty aspect in the wine suggests olives to me, perhaps pounded into a tapenade and spread on a firm, roasted white fish.

Two other wines are worth mentioning, though they are slightly more modern in comportment: slick, more pinpoint, more reliant on vibrant stonefruit flavors. The Suavia Soave 2013 ($15 ) is especially so. The Tamellini Soave 2013 ($15) is the softest I’ve tasted of the Soaves that taste like Soave, and it is perhaps the easiest to like, too, sacrificing some length in the finish for a more inviting entry.

So, there we have it: four wines, each around $15, with balance, surprising complexity, low alcohol, winning character, and even a very real capacity to gain interest over time.

Let’s work together, then, to bring Soave out of the second-class status it endures in the minds of most wine lovers, and restore it to a rightful position near the top of Italian whites.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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