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06.27.2013

Tasting the Stars of Trento: A Vertical Tasting of Cantine Ferrari

At the turn of the 20th century, people everywhere set their dreams adrift in the currents of a new era, hoping or feverishly working for a future that matched their visions. One man, born in the mountains of northern Italy was beginning a quest of historic proportions.

Giulio Ferrari was in love with wine. But not just with any wine. He loved wine with bubbles.

These days, sparkling wines are commonplace, and so beloved around the world that a giulio_ferrari_1879.jpg majority of the world's wine regions produce them. But back in 1898, sparkling wine was still largely the province of, if not the trade secret, of the Champenoise.

So when an enterprising young Italian winemaker wanted to learn about making sparkling wines, there was really only one place for him to go.

Giulio Ferrari completed his winemaking degree in Italy, and then moved to Epernay, France, in the heart of the Champagne region to work and learn all he could about how the French were making their sparkling wines. In 1902 he returned to Trentino, in Italy's Alto Adige, bringing with him cuttings of what would be the very first Chardonnay grown in the country, and the passion to make sparkling wine that could rival Champagne.

From his early plantings, and gradually expanding vineyards, Ferrari made small quantities of meticulously crafted sparkling wines for nearly 50 years. Known with great affection for his stubborn dedication to quality and attention to detail, his wines were sold to a group of customers that signed up months, even years in advance to purchase their allotment of wines. In the course of those five decades, Ferrari's production grew from a few hundred bottles to only 9000. Bottles, not cases.

Aging, and without any heirs to carry on his work, Ferrari sold his winery and the brand to one of his best customers, a gentleman named Bruno Lunelli.

"My grandfather went into debt heavily to take over the winery," says Matteo Lunelli, who represents the third generation of the Lunelli family that continues to shepherd the dream of Giulio Ferrari. "But he was a customer and he loved the wine."

Giulio Ferrari remained at the winery until he died, but he almost certainly passed knowing that he had left the winery in good hands. The Lunelli family have turned Ferrari into a small empire, while at the same time firmly establishing themselves as one of the foremost producers of sparkling wine in the world.

In my experience, only a few producers of sparkling wine in the world can truly rival the complexity and quality of Champagne, and Ferrari is one of them.

ferrari_cantina.jpg

Now producing nearly five million bottles of wine a year, Cantina Ferrari is responsible for roughly 25% of the sparkling wine produced in Italy, a level of production that certainly matches the house against any of the big names in Champagne for significance. The winery claims to have more than 20 million bottles of wine aging underground.

Of course, Giulio Ferrari clearly didn't care about volume, he cared about quality. To scale production is one feat, but to do it while maintaining quality is quite another. Remarkably, the Lunelli family has managed to do both. While I'm not one to put much stock in awards as guarantees of quality, the fact that Ferrari has won Gambero Rosso's coveted Tre Bicchieri award for 13 vintages in the past couple of decades definitely means something.

Indeed, Ferrari is widely recognized as one of the top sparkling wine producers in Italy. perle_nero.jpgTheir portfolio of wines is quite broad, but still leans towards the Chardonnay based wines their founder strove so hard to bring to fruition.

Ferrari recently made interesting headlines in the world of wine. As a large producer, they work closely with many growers in their region. After a significant number of studies, the winery has decided not to purchase any grapes growing below 300 meters in altitude. Whereas even ten years ago, the winery could get excellent fruit from those lower elevations, now such fruit ripens too far and too fast for the quality of grapes that Ferrari requires in its wines.

With an eye towards quality, Ferrari continues to maintain complete control over the production process, from vine to bottle. Leaving only the daily maintenance of the plants to the farmers.

Winemaking at Ferrari adheres to the strict traditions of what has become known as the methode champenoise. Using a culture of yeast produced in the Ferrari winery, after an initial fermentation, the wines undergo their second sparkling fermentation in individual bottles in the winery's vast cellar.

Ferrari produces an entry-level brut sparking wine and rosé that are readily available and quite high quality for the price. These two wines, along with four slightly smaller production wines that bear the name "Maximum" make up the bulk of the production.

The higher end wines of the portfolio include the Perlé, which is a vintage-dated 100% Chardonnay wine first produced in 1971; a Perlé Rose, which is a mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; and the Perlé Nero, a 100% Pinot Noir wine that debuted in 2002.

The two top wines of the portfolio are the Riserva Lunelli and Giulio Ferrari vintage cuvees, which are both 100% Chardonnay from the family's Maso Pianizza vineyard. Both receive extremely long aging on their lees before disgorgement and bottling.

The first vintage of the Riserva Lunelli was 1972, and it was released in 1980.

"My uncle decided he wanted to make a special wine from one of his favorite vineyards, so in 1972, he started socking away bottles of the wine deep in the cellar where no one could find them," says Matteo Lunelli. "Six years later, he went to his brothers and asked them if they thought it was a good idea. When they said yes, he admitted that he had already started."

Matteo Lunelli made these remarks at a tasting conducted as part of this year's VinItaly exhibition in Verona, where I had the chance to taste through a number of the company's wines from the past 20 years. He was joined by his brother Marcello Lunelli

"My uncle Geno is here," continued Marcello. "There is a saying you know, that usually the first generation builds it, the second generates it, and the third closes it down. My uncle is here to make sure that we have all learned our lessons well."

If the wines are any indication, not only have the Lunelli's learned their lessons well, but that old saying holds no truth in Trento. Giulio Ferrari would be pleased.

2006 Ferrari "Perlé," Trento, Italy
Palest yellow-gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon zest, and a hint of freshly baked biscuit. In the mouth a velvety mousse supports bright lemon zest, cold cream, and crisp apple flavors. There's a wonderful zingy acidity and stony minerality in addition to the bright lemon and pink grapefruit. Nice finish. 100% Chardonnay. Score: around 9. Cost: $37 click to buy.

2000 Ferrari "Perlé," Trento, Italy
Light gold in the glass with extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of buttered sourdough toast and sea air. In the mouth a delicate and subdued mousse delivers wonderfully saline flavors of lemon and butter cracker mixed with a stony minerality. Fantastic acidity makes the wine quite juicy and delicious with a nice balance between citrus flavors and that toasty, yeasty quality that can emerge from sparkling Chardonnay over time. Delicious and elegant. 100% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2006 Ferrari "Perlé" Rosé, Trento, Italy
Pale salmon-pink in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of rosehips and hibiscus. In the mouth a somewhat course mousse offers flavors of pink grapefruit, orange peel, and wet stones. Notes of apple skin linger in the tart, acid and mineral-driven finish. 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $ click to buy.

1997 Ferrari "Perlé" Rosé, Trento, Italy
Light orange in the glass with extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and wet leaves, with hints of burnt orange peel. In the mouth the wine is beautifully soft and velvety, with a light mousse and earthy orange peel, crabapple and hint of berry flavors. Wonderful mineral notes linger in the finish along with a sour cherry quality. Quite pretty and balanced, with a patina that is distinctive. 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay. Score: around 9.

2006 Ferrari "Perlé Nero" Pinot Noir, Trento, Italy
Light yellow-gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of apples and pears. In the mouth, the wine offers citrus peel and apple skin flavors that have extremely juicy acidity borne giulio_ferrari.jpg on a somewhat coarse mousse. The wine has a tanginess to it that is quite juicy and the beginnings of secondary nutty characters that are beginning to emerge on the finish. A nice salinity pervades the wine and makes it quite mouthwatering. 100% Pinot Noir. Score: around 9. Cost: $95

2004 Ferrari "Perlé Nero" Pinot Noir, Trento, Italy
Light gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells strongly of wet chalkboard and nuts and a hint of citrus tanginess. In the mouth, a voluminous but delicate mousse offers nutty and tangy flavors that don't entirely hang together amidst the very mineral, wet chalkboard qualities which continue through the wine. 100% Pinot Noir. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $95

2005 Ferrari "Riserva Lunelli" Chardonnay, Trento, Italy
Light yellow-gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wonderfully sappy, resinous dried lemon peel and wet stones with just a touch of browned butter. In the mouth the mousse is quite faint and soft, while quite distinct Chardonnay character comes through, with a dried lemon peel, pink grapefruit, and pine sap and saline quality linger with a deep minerality in the long finish. While this wine's effervescence seems to be fading somewhat, the flavors are refined and gorgeously bright. Mouthwatering. 100% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $110. click to buy.

2004 Ferrari "Riserva Lunelli" Chardonnay, Trento, Italy
Light yellow-gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon zest with hints of wet chalkboard. In the mouth the mousse is fine and delicate, and delivers tight and quite young (compared to the much more evolved 2005) flavors of lemon peel, hints of sourdough toast, and wet stones. Juicy and delicious with a citrus pith and stony note lingering in the finish, and only the lightest touch of salinity. 100% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $110 click to buy.

2000 Ferrari "Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore" Chardonnay, Trento, Italy
Light yellow-gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of buttered sourdough toast, browned butter, and lemon curd. In the mouth a faint and delicate mousse doesn't have much presence or volume at this point, but the flavors are quite gorgeous nonetheless. Toasty flavors of lemon curd, brown butter and a tide pool salinity linger through the finish along with a gorgeous lemon flower brightness. Balanced and quite pretty, with a well integrated oak influence. Disgorged in 2010. 100% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125 click to buy.

1997 Ferrari "Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore" Chardonnay, Trento, Italy
Pale yellow-gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and green apples drizzled with balsamic vinegar. In the mouth faint effervescence offers appley, and somewhat younger fruit flavors that have a sappy pear and citrus quality. Appearing somewhat younger than its 2000 sibling, this wine has a nice salinity that keeps it quite mouthwatering. Its acidity is somewhat more subdued. 100% Chardonnay. Score: around 9. Cost: $120 click to buy.

1993 Ferrari "Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore" Chardonnay, Trento, Italy
Yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of roasted nuts, candied lemon peel and pine sap. In the mouth, the wine has a light effervescence with a nutty, dried lemon peel and wet leaf flavor. Wonderfully bright acidity and a resinous quality pervade the very long finish. A touch of salinity helps the wine be quite mouthwatering. Did not go through malolactic fermentation and therefore lacks some of the butteriness that the surrounding vintages possess. Disgorged in 2010. 100% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

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