Both airen (grown in Spain) and rkatsiteli (grown in Russia) are white grapes, from high-yielding vines that sensibly love good soil and a lush, friendly summer climate. That spells trouble already, at least in terms of quality. Strangely, fine-wine grapes, perhaps none too bright in the plant world, do best under slightly stressful conditions, including iffy weather and poor, rocky soil. A high yield on flat, rich land under sunny skies means many many grapes of little flavor, and therefore a bland wine -- a wine that will wash down many an ordinary meal, a wine serving its purpose as the inexpensive and safe alternative to water that ordinary people in vine-growing regions have needed and enjoyed since prehistory.
Those characteristics, drinkability and miles of it -- think of all those thirsty people -- are shared by other humble grapes, among them trebbiano and French colombard. These are also white varieties. (Are there high-yielding, lush-climate reds that still turn out bland? That would seem what is loftily called nowadays "counterintuitive.") French colombard for example, thriving in all its mediocre glory in hot, sunny California, goes into our big old American jug wines. Trebbiano, planted all over Italy in such profusion as to compel Oz Clarke to call it that nation's "least avoidable" grape, goes into Soave.
Here we begin playing name games, or traipsing down memory lane, or both. Let's hope we don't get too confused. Soave is one of those wines that somehow stands up and shouts "1970s!" You can almost hear a transistor radio playing "Mama told me not to come" while you celebrate the first day of summer vacation and eat a popsicle, circa fourth grade. I have vague recollections of the grown-ups then mentioning Soave, but I can't remember whether it was as a de rigueur party purchase ("get something decent"), or as something definitely to be shunned ("just don't get Soave"). What it actually is, to my surprise, is a place.
Soave is a legally defined wine-producing region in Italy, a denominazione di origine controllata or DOC, centered on the town of Soave near Verona. Therefore, the trebbiano grape is to Soave as pinot noir is to (red) Burgundy or sauvignon blanc is to (white) Bordeaux. It's the grape name that the locals have never bothered putting on the label, because they knew it was there, and anyway the stuff is a blend of other things. Forty years ago, when Frank Schoonmaker was writing his Encyclopedia of Wine, trebbiano was one of the main varieties in Soave, "an excellent dry white wine, among Italy's best." The other main variety in the bottle was the somewhat higher quality garganega.
Then, it seems, Soave took off, and not necessarily in a good way. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible notes that it was in the 1970s that Soave became a "commercial, bland, cheap jug wine" made largely not just from truckloads of trebbiano but from truckloads of a poorer-quality type of trebbiano -- yes, there is more than one -- called trebbiano Toscano. The wine also became Italy's "best known exported white wine," especially as produced by a company in Verona called Bolla. So automatic is the word association "Soave Bolla" that many consumers, according to Ron and Sharon Herbst's Wine Lover's Companion, think Bolla owns a brand called Soave, or vice versa. I did.
And for a long time, our dull white friend trebbiano was even a required element in Chianti, that piquant Italian red which always reminds me of raspberries, olives, and horses. In a good way. It was required to be sloshed in with Chianti's sangiovese because, for decades, Chianti's growers already had a jungle of trebbiano vines on their properties. Grapevines are to Italy what the green lawn is to America, in short, everywhere, Karen MacNeil says. And the growers were "disinclined to uproot" the humble, easy, high-yielding stuff merely because it didn't add much to Chianti's quality. So Italian wine law bowed to business practice and said okay, keep it there -- it's "required." Oz Clarke tells this story and adds the happy news that progressive wine producers in Italy have more recently not only stopped adding trebbiano to their Chianti blends, but have gotten this law off the books anyway. (We might be excused for adopting here a puzzled frown. Are these Italians, so charming, never satisfied?)
Now humble, high-yielding trebbiano is also retreating even from Soave. In Frank Schoonmaker's day, it partnered with garganega. By the time you were listening to "Mama told me not to come," it overwhelmed garganega, and made that cheap, juggy liquid. Now, Soave must be at least 70% garganega, with the remaining 30% comprised of "other varieties," like chardonnay, pinot blanc -- and trebbiano (the Wine Lover's Companion). I put it all down to the market, and to lots of thirsty people all over the world learning more about wine and being able to afford wines more flavorful and more difficult to produce than the old, blessedly abundant water-substitutes of the past.
The name game continues. Trebbiano is also known as ugni blanc (white ugni, I suppose) in France, where it is the most important white grape in terms, once again, of yield and use. Yes, there is an ugni noir (black ugni), also called aramon -- and eureka! it's a high-yield, bland red! Interestingly, the French also call this last grape the pisse-vin, which might literally translate to "wine-spout," but also surely carries the colloquial connotations we think it does.
All so exciting. Anyway, because ugni blanc, our white trebbiano tastes plain and very acidic, it is the wine distilled into brandy, including the very fine Cognac and Armagnac. I think it does the soul good to see it reach such heights of class in this way. (No wonder Europeans name wine after places. We don't want an elegant snifter filled with pisse-vin, do we.) Some enterprising Russian grower will surely think of a similar fairy-tale treatment for rkatsiteli, very soon.