Think of a Ferrari and you think of a gorgeous sports car, right? A sleek, sexy icon of pleasure that personifies quality and luxury. So when I was first poured a glass of sparkling wine called Ferrari, I made the obvious assumption: the producers wanted to cash in on the automobile’s aura of allure.
“Ferrari is a very common last name in Italy,” says charming winemaker Marcello Lunelli (aren’t Italians always charming?) whose family has owned the famous, award-winning brand for more than 50 years. “It is like Smith or Jones in America.”
Marcello goes on to explain the exciting story of his family, which begins in romance novel fashion with the birth of Ferrari’s founder, Giulio Ferrari, in Trentino, Italy in 1902. Ferrari was the first to successfully plant Chardonnay grapes and make sparkling wine in the “Metodo Classico” style, winning his first international award in 1906. In his will, the childless Ferrari left his wine estate to his neighbor and friend, Marcello’s grandfather, who, with his sons, took the winery to even more exalted levels.
Yet ironically, this sparkling wine shares much in common with the sports car, especially given its “luxury” status in the world’s sparkling wine world. If you are new to sparklers, one of the key components of quality is the method by which the wine undergoes its secondary fermentation.
Quality sparklers, such as those found in the Champagne AOC and also Italy’s Trenta DOC (home of Ferrari), are fermented in the bottle in which they are sold. This is called the “Methode Champagne” or “Traditional Method” in France, and the “Metodo Classico” in Italy.
Another component is the careful selection of the grapes grown on the best terroir (customarily a delimitated region with rules and regulations with regard to viticulture and vinification) with only the most perfect, ripe grapes selected. The third component is the ability of the wine to age.
Long popular in Italy, Ferrari sparkling wines are now making their way to America, and on a recent roadshow I was one of a select number of journalists invited to taste the wines in a seminar led by Marcello, and with cuisine prepared at the very elegant, very historic Barbetta restaurant.
During the informal seminar, Marcello said his top wine, the Riserva del Fondatore, spends more time on the lees (dead yeast cells, which give the wines their character, flavor, and body) than the DOC rules call for in order to give the wine more richness and complexity.
Barbetta is indeed an elegant restaurant with a stellar chef. During the reception, its gracious owner, Laura Maioglo, explained that her father has owned it since 1906. The cuisine was inspired by Piedmont, home of Ms. Maigolo’s ancestors.
Two Ferrari sparkling wines were served as sparkling aperitifs with canapés such as Prosciutto and melon, smoked salmon, and miniature Parmigiano nests filled with fonduta. We sipped our sparkling aperitif choice of Ferrari Brut, made of 100% chardonnay grapes, or Ferrari rosé, (60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay).
The Brut was straw yellow in color with an aroma of golden apples and palate of ripe fruit and bread crust. The rosé, salmon pink in color, had an aroma of strawberries, hawthorn, and red currants which was subtly matched on the palate.
During lunch — the usual Italian feast of a salad (Rollatine of Pimontese Robiola in Grilled zucchini), two pastas (Gnocchetti ai formaggi Piemontesi followed by Risotto al rosé Ferrari) and a choice of entrees (I enjoyed Pacific Swordfish over a ragu of Lentils and warm balsamic vinaigrette) — we heard interesting and colorful tidbits of Marcello’s life. Luncheon wines included Ferrari Trento DOC Perlé and the privileged opportunity to experience a vertical tasting of the winery’s flagship wine, Riserva del Fondatore.
About Riserva del Fondatore
Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore (“Founder’s Reserve”) is a “cru,” a Blanc de Blancs made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Just as founder Giulio Ferrari discovered when he planted chardonnay on the Maso Pianizza vineyard with its unique terroir, the resulting wine is an expression of a specific time (vintage) and place (the vineyard).
There is a story to this Founder’s Reserve, as well. Marcello’s uncle Mauro, who studied wine in France, was convinced that a great Metodo Classico wine can age just as well as a red wine. In 1972 he hid several bottles of a Ferrari wine from his father and brother and nurtured them on a daily basis.
Eight years later, he revealed the aged sparkling wine, had his uncle and brother taste it, and received an enthusiastic response. To date, Riserva del Fondatore has received many accolades from a myriad of prestigious publications and foundations, and top scores from publications such as Wine Spectator.
Tasting notes on Riserva del Fondatore
1999 Vintage – Lemon gold in color, fine bubbles (always a good sign of a superior sparkling wine), and faint brioche on the nose. The palate is dry, with hints of acacia and Hawthorne.
According to the winery, 1999 had more rainfall than average for the zone in the last ten years. The summer was marked by heavy rains, yet when harvest began there was warm sunshine with dry and windy weather and marked differences between day and night temperatures (perfect for retaining acidity in the wine).
1994 Vintage – Lemon gold in color, rich and complex, yeasty with aroma of buttery brioche on the nose and palate, lively with bubbles.
According to the winery, the weather in 1994 was characterized by average temperatures and snow during the winter. The harvest was early under favorable conditions at the start, and luckily the perfectly ripe grapes were harvested before the atypical rains at the end of September.
1992 Vintage – Lemon gold in color, somewhat shy on the nose, lively acidity on the palate with flavors of buttered toast.
According to the winery, 1992 was characterized by challenging weather, including dramatic heat, rains, and attacks of downy and powdery mildew. Saving grace was the marked differences between day and night temperatures that are idea for ripening grapes grown in high hillside vineyards.
1989 Vintage – Lemon gold in color, fine bubbles, buttery brioche on the nose and palate.
According to the winery, very good growing season with little drama, yet the last part of august was characterized by low minimum night-time temperatures thus favoring the accumulation of sugars and the development of aromatic substances on the grapes. Picking began the first week in September, giving the winery excellent base wines with finesse and high acidity levels.
1986 Vintage – Lemon gold in color, a sherry nose (some suggested a whisky nose) and wet leaves. Quite rich and complex.
According to the winery, abundant rain showers in April and a very hot May contributed to the vines’ vegetative cycle starting early. From May to July there was little rain, which brought upon attacks of coulure. As seems to be the trend in this winery, great weather right before and during harvest saved the vintage and marked it as one of the most long-lived.
1993 Vintage – A bit darker than the others, richer and definitely more complexity and texture on the palate. Rich in flavor, texture, and a unique character.
According to the winery, the growing season was relatively unremarkable save for unusually high night time temperatures which is not particularly good for keeping acid in the grapes. But at the beginning of the harvest the weather conditions changed and the night time temperatures dropped, resulting in a chardonnay perfumed with good body and high fixed acidity.
All in all, a wonderful opportunity to taste delicious, even historic, wines with such a personalized history. After hearing so much about the life and passions of founder Giulio Ferrari during lunch, and his persistence to make top quality sparkling wine in the Trenta DOC of Trentino, Italy, I began to feel as if I was tasting a bit of Mr. Ferrari’s spirit with every sip.