As I drove up the steep northern Italian vineyard hills to meet three sisters of the Tessari family, I had one burning question about their Suavia estate: How do they do it?
In Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2022, Suavia was the sole winery from the Veneto, Italy’s largest wine-producing region by volume. That was Suavia’s third time appearing on the list and the second for its base Soave Classico, the 2020 vintage of which earned 90 points with a price tag of $18, making it the best bargain from Italy on the 2022 list.
The sisters’ impressive 22-year track record includes 37 wines scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings, and I wanted to find out their secret.
When I arrived in the hamlet of Fittà, where the sisters grew up and now work, I was struck by the secluded stillness of the place, where the population hovers just above 100.
There’s no bar from which to get a morning espresso and a newspaper. There’s no store of any kind, for that matter, just great views. To the south are Soave Castle and the vast Po Plain stretching to the horizon, and to the north are the snow-capped foothills of the Dolomite Alps.
Here, next to a modest family house built by their great-grandfather in the 19th century, is the modern Suavia winery constructed by the sisters’ parents, Giovanni and Rosetta. The three siblings have now grown the property into a leading white wine estate.
After a day with the Tessaris, I concluded that their success is not due to any secret, just great old vineyards accompanied by smarts, study and some very good long-term decisions.
Their approach to making wine is about as straightforward as it gets. Working with great volcanic terroirs in Fittà, they cultivate their vineyards organically, growing Soave’s two main local varieties: Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave. From these grapes they produce single-variety whites, fermented and matured in stainless steel tanks before bottling.
“We don’t do blends,” explains Meri, the elder of the three. “For us, it’s important to know the variety in [its] purity, in volcanic soil.”
In 2001, Meri and Valentina, then in their early 20s, took over Suavia, which their parents had launched in 1982. (The two previous Tessari generations had sold their grapes or wines to big producers, including the Cantina di Soave cooperative.) The oldest sister, Arianna, had left Soave to join her husband in founding Masari, a winery to the northeast in the Valle d’Agno. The youngest sister, Alessandra, wouldn’t join the operation for another decade.
Being young and fresh out of university, where Meri had studied Italian literature and Valentina enology, the sisters asked fundamental questions. Why were Soave wines typically blended from highly productive Garganega with later-ripening, acidic Trebbiano di Soave? Could their Trebbiano di Soave stand on its own?
“We asked if it was necessary to blend the two, not just because our grandparents did it,” says Meri, climbing into a muddy pickup truck before we head out to the vineyards. “No one had ever done a scientific study and we wanted to go deeper.”
The sisters recruited the University of Milan and leading vineyard scientist Attilio Scienza, who told them that before World War II, Trebbiano di Soave was the primary component of local wines. Then came the tractors that mechanized viticulture on the Soave plain.
“[Trebbiano di Soave] was once considered more noble, but it was abandoned as less productive,” Meri says.
Trebbiano di Soave has been shown to be genetically identical to the Marche region’s Verdicchio variety, but it’s gotten a bad rap in Soave. The grape has mistakenly been confused with other varieties that share only the Trebbiano name, and appellation regulations restrict it to no more than 30 percent of a Soave-designated blend.
Scienza’s research team identified seven quality Trebbiano di Soave biotypes from Suavia’s old vinestock, which they used to propagate and replant a warm, south-facing vineyard called Massifitti.
With the 2008 vintage, they launched their single-vineyard Trebbiano Veronese Massifitti, fermented with indigenous yeasts. It’s a bright, complex and delicately scented wine that, over time, reveals tertiary aromas, including a Riesling-like petrol note. (The 2018 Massifitti scored 91 points and costs $30.)
Over the years, the sisters have more than tripled their vineyards, from about 20 acres to more than 66—all within the boundaries of Fittà. They did this by doubling down on their commitment to high-quality hillside terroirs. As many of their neighbors decided to step away from farming or abandoned Fittà for the easier-to-cultivate valley floor, 1,000 feet below, the sisters bought up those old vineyards.
Another critical decision came after the devastating heat wave of 2003. In the years that followed, they drilled two wells—as deep as 1,000 feet—to hit water pooling in clay beneath the volcanic rock and sand. That proved to be another move that benefitted the long game. Installing irrigation gave them an advantage in increasingly hot summers, keeping heat stress from crippling their vines.
“When it’s your life and your future, you make that investment,” Meri says.
She stops the truck along a wind-whipped, northwest-facing vineyard slope known as Monte Carbonare. Twenty acres of pergola-trained Garganega vines, averaging 70 years in age, hug the hillside of black basalt soil. Starting with a fraction of this site—their coldest vineyard—the sisters bought up its entirety over time. It supplies fruit for the winery’s single-vineyard Soave Classico from the Carbonare UGA (an officially designated sub-zone), a bottling first made by the sisters’ parents. (The 2019 Monte Carbonare scored 90 points and costs $30.)
“For us, this place is fascinating,” Meri says. “The quality of the fruit has something different, something more than our other places.”
Back at the winery, the sisters and I taste several vintages of Monte Carbonara going back 30 years. All are distinguished by a characteristic mix of mint and herbal notes.
Today, Suavia produces about 16,000 cases a year. In addition to the dry Soaves, the sisters also make a Recioto di Soave called Acinatium, from traditionally dried grapes, and a late-harvest Garganega called Le Rive; the latter comes from a single vineyard plot and is their only wine aged in wood casks. For domestic distribution, they also produce a zero-dosage, metodo classico sparkler from Trebbiano di Soave called Opera Semplice.
In recent years, as they have moved all their bottlings to screw caps, they’ve launched another project showing the diversity of their volcanic terroirs. This September, starting with the 2020 vintage, they’re planning their first release of three small-production, single-vineyard Garganegas from three UGAs—Castellaro, Tremenalto and Fittà—that have typically gone into their Soave Classico.
“Every single micro-zone has its particular characteristics,” says Valentina, who is the winemaker but shares winemaking decisions with her sisters. The project, she adds, “gives meaning to why we are here, working all these years in these hills.”